Session 2010-11
Publications on the internet

Written evidence from the Local Government Association (AWC 24)

The LGA is a voluntary membership body and our 422 member authorities cover every part of England and Wales. Together they represent over 50 million people and spend around £113 billion a year on local services. They include county councils, metropolitan district councils, English unitary authorities, London boroughs and shire district councils, along with fire authorities, police authorities, national park authorities and passenger transport authorities.

Summary

· Councils kept the majority of planned networks open and services running.

· Councils made unprecedented preparations for this winter and entered the winter with significantly more salt in stock than in previous years

· Despite these preparations, councils were concerned that suppliers were not able to meet all orders for pre-season supplies and were aware that suppliers would be unable to meet restocking orders in the event of severe weather. Had December’s weather been sustained into January, serious resupply issues would have arisen.

· It is clear that the fundamental problems with the salt supply chain still exist and continue to threaten resilience to winter weather.

· When the cold weather began and salt usage began to outstrip supply, arrangements put in place to manage risk worked well because of the cooperation and involvement between all relevant partners (DfT, Highways Agency, Devolved Administrations, the Local Government Association and technical experts from local government).

· The arrangements for acquisition and distribution strategic stockpile were successful this year in so far as they insured that no area ran out of salt.

· However, if we were to experience another prolonged severe winter, it is questionable whether the systems in place would have been sufficient. We would also experience problems in ensuring the strategic stockpile reaches those areas that needed it. It became apparent this winter that haulage industry only has the capacity to deliver 40,000 tonnes of salt a week. In widespread severe wintry conditions, England alone uses approximately 325,000 tonnes of salt a week.

· The long term solution needs to address the fundamental flaws within the salt supply chain, as we and the interim Quarmby Report argued last summer.

· Councils have improved practice and taken on board recommendations from the series of reviews, new guidance and advice that has been issued in the last two years. Some of the good practice will take time to implement and will require investment which will be particularly challenging for local authorities given reductions in their budgets.

· The extreme winter weather has caused damage to local road networks, as can be seen from the increased number of potholes already being reported. Councils will have significantly less money to deal with the damage to the roads this year. Government should make additional funding available to allow councils to undertake repairs to ensure roads are safe and minimise congestion.

Councils’ preparedness

1. Following the severe winters of 2008/09 and 2009/10, councils reviewed their winter service plans to take account of the experience and a series of reviews including the LGA’s Weathering the Storm reports in 2009 and 2010; the UKRLG Lessons from Severe Weather February 2009; revised advice and technical guidance from UKRLG and ADEPT and the interim report from the Quarmby review published in July 2010.

2. Evidence provided by a survey of councils undertaken by the LGA in September 2010 found that councils had taken on board many of these recommendations in preparations for winter 2010. David Quarmby’s audit of how the country performed in December 2010 confirmed that in general, councils were in a good state of readiness for winter. Both the LGA survey and Quarmby’s audit found that:

a) Councils had ordered more stocks of salt for the start of the winter gritting season than previous years.

b) Some councils had not received in full the pre-season salt supplies they had ordered.

c) The majority of councils reviewed and updated their severe winter weather policies due to the severe weather over the preceding two years, including revising treatment networks to take into account transport links, business parks and other major installations and investing in new gritting and clearing machinery.

d) Councils had also improved communications providing information on their websites on gritting networks, weather forecasts, notice of road closures or other network difficulties, tweets about road conditions, real-time information about the deployment of gritters, and practical advice to residents on snow clearance.

e) Councils further developed their level of engagement with citizens, putting in place measures to help individuals and communities to take responsibility for gritting their own roads and pavements. This included increasing the number of grit bins, working with town and parish councils to appoint and train local snow wardens, providing snow ploughs for use on tractors to clear snow in rural areas, re-deploying councils staff unable to get to work to assist with snow clearance and visiting vulnerable people (further examples are given in annex A).

Local Highway Authority Performance

13. David Quarmby’s audit report in December 2010 found that in general local highway authorities overall performed well in this period. In areas without significant snow, the normal gritting treatments were generally effective, and traffic and movement on the treated networks was largely unaffected. In areas with major snowfalls, most authorities responded quickly and well to the unusual amount and persistence of snow. 1

14. In most areas, councils were able to treat their road networks as planned. County highway authorities generally treat 20 – 45% of their total network as their priority network; many have secondary networks which are treated less intensively, which lift the total to nearer 50% of their total mileage. Most authorities ensure that treated networks include at least one access road to all rural communities. However, it is neither logistically possible, nor affordable, to treat all minor roads, so, as the cold weather persisted, many of the roads off the treated networks saw significant accumulation of compacted snow and ice.

15. One issue which was the focus of considerable attention from the media, was disruption to waste collection. Due to residential roads becoming dangerous for large vehicles, including waste collection vehicles, a number of authorities were unable to carry out usual collection service during December and over the Christmas period. Contrary to suggestions in the media that this was a universal problem, most councils resumed services as soon as the freeze subsided and were able to recover missed collections quickly. In those areas where snow and freezing conditions persisted, a number of councils made arrangements for people to take rubbish to local disposal points until it was safe to resume normal services.

16. Councils’ contingency plans for other services, including care for the elderly and vulnerable, ensured that these services continued during difficult circumstances.

Supply issues

17. The LGA survey conducted in September 2010 revealed that at least one fifth of councils had not received orders for pre-season supplies of salt. This picture was later confirmed by the DfT’s salt audit process and the Quarmby audit. The experience of the two previous winters had demonstrated that once stocks begin to reduce, the suppliers are unable to increase production to meet their customers’ orders for re-supply. To make matters worse, as a result of high usage of salt in winter 2009/10; producers entered this winter without stockpiles usually held at the mines. Councils were therefore concerned about producers’ capacity to meet re-stocking orders when the extreme weather and significant snowfall arrived unusually early in the season.

18. The LGA wrote to Phillip Hammond MP on 3rd and 24th November to raise councils concerns about supply and to recommend that the strategic stockpile be increased as a contingency to mitigate potential supply problems. Copies of these letters are supplied at annex B.

19. Within two weeks of exceptionally cold weather, the supply chain was once again failing to meet orders for re-supply from councils. As is discussed below, the national strategic stockpile was released to bolster supplies and this year was successful in ensuring that no council ran out of salt. However, the strategic stockpile does not resolve the issues caused by lack of resilience in the supply chain.

20. This season saw one, relatively short, spell of widespread weather. If the severe cold weather had continued for several weeks, as was the case last year, it is questionable whether the systems in place would have been sufficient. It is highly likely that there would have been problems in distributing the strategic stockpile to where it is needed since the haulage industry only has the capacity to deliver 40,000 tonnes of salt a week. In a "heavy usage week", England alone uses approximately 325,000 tonnes of salt2. For this reason, we need to return to the question of improving resilience in the supply chain.

21. There is also a need to ensure transparency and fairness about the way producers use the information made available to them about councils stocks and their requests for supplies from the strategic stockpile. There were examples this year of councils who appeared every week at the top of the list of those in need of supplies complied by DfT but who did not receive any deliveries from suppliers throughout the period. This begs the question of how producers were prioritising their customers if not according to need.

22. It may be that in the short term a national strategic stockpile is an appropriate contingency measure. However, the long term solution needs to address the fundamental flaws within the salt supply chain. This will require investment by the salt industry to increase their production capacity at times of high demand. It will also require diversification of the supply base and more use of overseas suppliers.

23. We therefore reiterate the findings and recommendations from the LGA’s report Weathering the Storm II Improving UK resilience to severe winter weather , published following winter 2009/10 as follows:

"The UK salt supply chain is not sufficiently resilient to respond to a sudden increase in demand. The supplier base is very small and there is a perception that the main firms concerned do not have the managerial or mechanical capacity to expand production at times of high demand. Furthermore, salt suppliers find it logistically difficult to follow delivery advice from Salt Cell and to get "just in time" deliveries to those that need them."

Recommendations

24. The government should recognise that salt supply is a strategic resilience issue, make it clear to the firms involved that that is the government’s view, and liaise with suppliers during the spring and summer to ensure that the suppliers have business continuity plans in place for the prospect of a winter of high demand.

25. Salt suppliers should improve communications with their customer base to ensure that even in times of high demand or when Salt Cell is in operation, they can provide accurate information about the size and timing of deliveries to councils. This is essential in assisting councils in making mutual aid arrangements and improving the possibility of joining up orders and deliveries to groups of councils in an area.

26. The government should secure an agreed way of working with the salt suppliers in emergency situations, which clearly defines how they will use the information provided by Salt Cell and how they will communicate with the customer. Government should reserve the right to intervene and provide logistical and communications support to the suppliers if they fail to keep to these commitments, and should hold a contingency plan for how it will do so.3

Contingency working

27. During the winters of 2008/09 and 2010/11, unusually high salt usage caused by the bad weather and problems within the supply chain, led DfT to convene the "Salt Cell" to advise salt producers on how to prioritise deliveries. In line with recommendations of the reviews following those winters, in 2010 DfT put arrangements in place to allow for monitoring of salt stocks across the UK and developed protocols on the triggering and operation of central processes for the provision of advice to producers. They also ordered a national strategic stockpile, initially 250,000 tonnes, though this was not fully in place until mid-January.

28. Though Salt Cell was not formally convened this year, key players, including the LGA, local authority practitioner representatives, Transport for London, the Highways Agency and representatives from Scotland and Wales were all involved in the Winter Resilience network convened by DfT in early December to coordinate advise and decision making on salt distribution. This facilitated a genuine partnership approach to dealing with issues and problems as they arose, and ensured that decisions were informed by local expertise and knowledge. On the whole, the arrangements worked well, however, there was a certain amount of "learning as we go" given that the group was managing the strategic stockpile and handling information provided by the salt audit for the first time. For example, the process for councils to access the strategic stockpile were changed to reflect the fact that the initial invitation to councils to bid for supplies resulted in the number of bids far out-stripping the amount of salt that could logistically be distributed. It is important that the lessons from this experience are built into plans for contingency arrangements in future years.

29. A large factor in the success of the contingency arrangements was Councils’ universal cooperation with the weekly stock audit process which was crucial to providing accurate information about salt stocks to assist salt producers in prioritising deliveries to customers and inform decisions about the release of the strategic stockpile. However, this transparency and clarity was not reciprocated by producers’ communications with their customers. Information provided by suppliers on deliveries and decision making remained patchy and sporadic. As noted above, DfT should secure an agreed way of working with suppliers in future years.

Improving winter resilience

28. The Quarmby Report included a recommendation for a resilience standard of 48 runs as a pre-season stock level for all highways authorities. The report recognised that this would take some time to put in place given limited production capacity and because it would require some local authorities to invest in more storage capacity.

29. David Quarmby also identified that as a result of last winters’ experience, many highway authorities had reduced their spread rates in response to pressures on salt supplies. Quarmby saw the use of reduced spread rates as a strategic response to the potential national shortfall of supply against demand under severe winter conditions and recommended that research be made freely available to local authorities to provide assurance that reduced spread rates would not compromise safety. This evidence was finally made available to councils on the 15th December, too late to impact on practice this year.

30. Dissemination of the latest research and revised technical advice will be important in informing preparation and practice for next winter and we would support a sector-led approach to sharing good practice and new innovative approaches to winter service.

31. However, adoption of the new practice will also require investment in modern spreading equipment and it will be very difficult for local authorities to provide this investment given that their budgets have been drastically reduced.

32. David Quarmby’s reports suggested that increased investment in winter service would generate economic and social benefits well in excess of the additional costs, however he also recognised that the "current pressures on local authorities would make it seem untenable".4

Damage to local roads

33. Current forecasts suggest that a further period of extreme winter weather is unlikely this winter, however councils will now have to deal with the impact of the harsh weather on local roads, and consequently on local authority highways maintenance budgets. December was the coldest winter for 30 years and the unprecedented low temperatures have had a seriously adverse impact on road surfaces. It is too early to accurately estimate the costs of repairing this season’s damage. However, initial reports from councils are that the number of potholes is at similar levels to last year and the extra financial burden placed on councils is likely to be very significant. To give an idea of the extent of the problem, last year, the estimated additional cost was at least £5 million for the typical shire county. In recognition of the additional burden on local authorities the previous government provided an additional £100 million to councils last year.

34. The additional damage this year will come at a time when councils have to scale back budgets for highways maintenance as a result of spending review decisions. Without additional funding for increased road maintenance activity required to deal with the increased numbers of potholes resulting from the exceptionally cold weather, the damage to the roads will cause significant damage to roads, present a safety risk to road users and disruption to traffic.

35. The LGA has therefore asked the Secretary of State for Transport to direct immediate emergency financial assistance to councils to allow them to deal with the damage.

Annex A

SALT: HELPING RESIDENTS TAKE RESPONSIBILITY

Councils have developed new approaches to helping individuals and communities to take responsibility for gritting their own roads and pavements.

This is driven by very lively local democratic engagement between residents, community groups, parish councils, and their local elected councillors. Councils have, at the same time, a crucial statutory responsibility to ensure transport networks are open and they try to balance that role with residents’ wishes to see pavements and smaller roads gritted, within what we know to be a stock of salt that is limited – even if we currently have more than in recent years – and must be sensible managed.

Examples of the approaches taken by councils include:

Increasing the amount of grit available to local people to clear roads

- The London Borough of Sutton offered free supplies of grit to residents.

- Dorset County Council supplied their parish councils with one-tonne bags of salt to treat local road and replenish salt bins.

- Croydon Council increased the number of salt bins around the borough to 535.

- Gloucestershire County Council installed additional council grit bins and supply salt to fill parish and town councils grit bins.

- Wirral Council installed 110 additional grit bins in across the borough.

- Cumbria County Council maintains 10,000 salt heaps or bins across 178 Parish areas.

Redeploying staff and working with their communities to ensure that grit bi

- Stroud District Council’s neighbourhood wardens visit vulnerable people to help with clearing paths around sheltered housing schemes, collecting prescriptions, proving supplies to people who can’t leave their homes.

- The London Borough of Sutton equipped street cleaners with special ‘hand gritters’ to make pavements safe.

- Dorset County Council recruited and trained local snow wardens at parish to help clear snow and manage supply of salt to grit bins.

- Gloucestershire County Council and local Parish Councils used 200 volunteer Snow Wardens to keep the councils informed of conditions in outlying villages and 150 Snow Plough Operators to help clear snow.

- In Leeds, 50 members of staff from the council’s highways and parks and countryside divisions were armed with shovels, brushes, vans and wheelbarrows full of grit, to clear footpaths and car parks.

- In Brent 200 staff were diverted to winter maintenance duties clearing pavements and refilling 320 grit bins.

- Derbyshire County Council asked residents to report empty or damaged grit bins to the council so that they can be re-filled and repaired as necessary.

Planning locations of local grit supplies for self help purposes to deal with local problem spots and to help manage re-stocking.

- Wirral Council’s grit bins are located in pedestrianised streets, around sheltered accommodation, near to steep hills and problem locations identified by local residents.

- Bury Council maintains around 300 salt bins across the borough at known trouble spots, such as sharp bends or steep inclines and where historically snow and ice have caused serious problems..

Councils also reminded residents of the legal position on clearing their own pavements, providing advice on how to do it safely and reminding them too that builders’ merchants sell rock salt that is suitable for snow clearance.


Annex B – LGA correspondence with Philip Hammond MP

Rt Hon Philip Hammond MP

Secretary of State

Department for Transport

Great Minster House

76 Marsham Street

London

SW1P 4DR

3rd November 2010

Dear Philip,

Resilience to winter weather

Following feedback from councils and conversations that have taken place between our officers, I am writing to ensure we have a shared understanding of the situation regarding supply and stocks of de-icing salt and the potential risks of shortages should we experience a sustained period of snow fall or cold weather this winter.

I am sure your officials have informed you of the situation regarding current stock levels and the expected ability of salt suppliers to meet existing orders and for in season re-stocking. Our understanding is that suppliers have not been able to fully meet their customers’ orders in advance of the winter and will not be able to replenish stocks significantly once they begin to run down. This is confirmed by feedback from councils that a number of areas have not yet received orders for salt.

This means that a few days of sustained bad weather across the country, especially if it coincides with the Christmas period, when in previous years salt suppliers have ceased production, could result in significant shortfalls in salt for some areas of the country.

Given that the suppliers’ resilience level is low and they have limited reserves, it is essential that the reserve stock ordered by government is in place as soon as possible and that it is communicated to councils how they can access these reserves if required. It is also essential that we have processes in place to provide clarity about the levels of resilience of supply and transparency about any national coordination of stocks should that become necessary this winter.

LGA officers are happy to continue working with your officials to address these issues and ensure councils are fully informed of the situation as the winter progresses.

Yours,

Cllr Peter Box, Chair,
LG Group Economy and Transport Programme Board


The Rt Hon Philip Hammond MP

Secretary of State for Transport

Great Minster House

Horseferry Road

London SW1P

24 November 2010

Dear Philip

SEVERE WEATHER

I know I ought to be cheered to read in this morning’s newspapers that you take the view that councils and the Highways Agency have enough road salt to get through any episodes of severe weather this winter. But I am concerned that you may in fact be taking far too sanguine a view. In this context, I am disappointed that you have not replied to my letter of 3 November in which I set out some of the challenges we will need to face together.

It is true that local authorities have made an unprecedented effort to prepare for this winter. The level of stocks they now hold is the highest it has been for years, at about a third up on the stock with which we began last year and higher still compared to the year before that. Nearly half of the stock of gritting vehicles has been renewed. New measures have been taken, in parallel with your helpful willingness to clarify that there is no legal risk to people who clear their own pavements, to enlist the goodwill of local residents and companies in preparing to keep roads and pavements clear of snow.

Nevertheless, your department, like councils, has known all year that the domestic suppliers of salt would be incapable of meeting the needs of the country. As I understand it, some two-thirds of councils have still not received all the salt they wish to order, despite looking increasingly to overseas supply. David Quarmby’s report into The Resilience of England’s Transport Systems in Winter made it clear that "the salt supply chain as currently configured is fundamentally vulnerable and lacks resilience".

This is where your department has a national role to play that goes above and beyond anything that councils can do. As your officials are aware, the LGA view is that action needs to be taken with the current near-monopoly to increase capacity; it is a disappointment that this long-running issue has not yet been addressed. We have, however, very much welcomed your willingness to implement the Quarmby recommendation – which echoed the recommendation of the LGA’s earlier report on the events of last year – to establish a national strategic reserve of 250,000 tonnes this year. While we understand, however, the considerations that have led you to price that reserve in a way that deters local authorities from trying to access it when they do not need to, it will nevertheless be regrettable should this lead to charges that the Department is setting out to make a surplus from the problems of local motorists.

I am, finally, very pleased that your department has this year prepared early and well for the administrative machinery that may be needed to coordinate action over the winter. We welcome the planning for a possible Salt Cell that has taken place, and the plans for new arrangements to collect information quickly and effectively without the need for the old regional office machinery. But the mechanics are not all: I cannot stress too strongly the importance of encouraging cooperation, trust and solidarity between places and organisations in order to make this arrangement work. I do hope we can look forward to a continuing excellent collaboration between ourselves as the winter closes in.

Yours sincerely

Councillor Peter Box

Chair LG Group Economy and Transport Programme Board

February 2011


[1] The Resilience of England’s Transport Systems in December 2010 - An Independent Audit by David Quarmby CBE, December 2010, page 20

[2] As estimated by DfT for salt stock projection purposes.

[3] LGA, Weathering the Storm II – Improving UK resilience to severe winter weather, July 2010

[4] The Resilience of England’s Transport Systems in December 2010 - An Independent Audit by David Quarmby CBE, December 2010, page 24