UK snow summit warns of more bad winters to come

UK local authorities must ring-fence their winter road maintenance budgets, keep more salt in stock, and provide better information on emergency school closures, according to speakers at the recent UK Snow Summit.

Speakers at the meeting, hosted by Essex County Council and held near London Stansted airport, said that local authority salt stocks have been reduced significantly over the past 15 years as a result of milder winters and pressure on governmental budgets. Some suggested that nearly a quarter less salt is now held near to the point of use.

Yet as Matthew Lugg, chair of government advisory group the UK Roads Board, pointed out, there is ample salt in the UK and abroad - indeed, the UK appears to be a net exporter of salt. There should be “no shortage of supply, with sufficient notice” he said, adding that the problem was meeting short-term spikes in demand.

The UK’s Salt Association (formerly the Salt Manufacturers Association) agreed, noting that although road salt is produced continuously but consumed seasonally, it is not so much a production issue as a logistical one. The group said it is impractical to resupply all parts of the UK simultaneously when inadequate local stocks run out - especially when the roads are icy.

Delegates said that the country can no longer assume that weather conditions of this severity will only occur once every 30 years, and must be prepared to manage without resupply for longer. Lugg said that his group had already updated its Code of Practice for highway maintenance management to suggest that “at least six days resilience for salt and other resources, including equipment, drivers and fuel, would represent sensible good practice.”

Chris Harrison of the National Association of Head Teachers added that once bad weather occurs, it is vital to get news of the disruption out to those affected, including parents, teachers and pupils. He said that as well as using Snowday - a national emergency closure website for schools, colleges and nurseries - authorities could look to texting services and local radio, and also consider putting programmes of work online.

The summit also featured speakers for whom snow was a yearly occurrence rather than an occasional surprise. “In Switzerland, everyone works together to clear their roads from the ground up,” said Martin Rosti, of ABM Spiez in Bern, Switzerland. “Everyone takes responsibility, rather than waiting for people to clear their roads for them.”

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