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Salt Reserves

Volume 503: debated on Thursday 7 January 2010

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the country’s salt reserves and any implications this may have on local government’s ability to maintain the road network.

During this period of exceptionally prolonged severe weather, staff across the transport industries and national and local highways authorities are working extremely hard to minimise the disruption caused. The Highways Agency has its fleet of 500 salt spreaders and snow ploughs out in force and has been successful in keeping the vast majority of the major road network running, helping to prevent the formation of ice and build-up of snow.

Following the severe weather in February 2009, the UKRLG—the UK Roads Liaison Group—recommended good practice of having at least six days of heavy salting capacity in the winter period, alongside a package of wider recommendations to improve resilience. The UKRLG noted that the Highways Agency was already holding a minimum of six days’ continuous heavy salting capacity in winter periods. The Highways Agency entered this winter period with 13 days’ capacity, and we regard this as the right response following last year’s events.

For the local road network, it is the responsibility of local authorities to decide how to respond to the UKRLG recommendations. We have kept in close contact with local authorities across the country to check how they are dealing with their own local road networks. Local authorities have told us that they increased their salt stocks at the start of the winter season compared with last year. The Local Government Association estimates that the equivalent of about 600,000 miles of road have been gritted by council gritting teams in the past 14 days, using about 38,500 tonnes of salt.

The Department for Transport and devolved Administrations have been regularly monitoring salt supplies and stock levels across the country with the help of their agencies, local authorities and the companies that supply salt. Alongside this, mutual aid arrangements between local authorities and the Highways Agency can help to relieve areas that are experiencing particularly tight stocks of salt. The Government and the devolved Administrations have also decided that owing to the exceptional weather affecting the country, they should work in partnership to advise salt suppliers on priorities for deliveries. The LGA will assist with that process. A group started the national prioritisation work this week. That will help to ensure that stocks of salt are supplied to where they are most needed.

We will continue to do everything possible to keep disruption to a minimum during this period of exceptionally prolonged severe weather.

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr. Speaker. It is so topical that I think people would quite rightly have expected the Government to have made a statement on the subject by now, but we are grateful for this opportunity.

Councils reviewed their own contingency plans in the light of their very bad experience of the snow as recently as February last year, and sent the report I have here, “Weathering the Storm”, to the Minister’s Department in August. Why, then, did it take until 15 December for Ministers to respond to that vital report? Does the Minister accept that with only 48 hours to go before the first predicted heavy snowfall in the south-east, councils’ ability to implement the recommendations in full was compromised?

Does the Minister consider that the advice that he received to increase the stockholding capacity of six days’ worth of salt supplies is adequate, given the prospect of at least another week of sub-zero temperatures, or will he revise the guidance to take account of the figure that he gave in his first response, which was more like 13 days’ worth? If so, how soon will he change that guidance and when can councils expect to receive it? Does he accept that if the report’s recommendations had been accepted earlier than 15 December, it might have been possible to avoid the gridlock of lorries around the salt mine in Cheshire that are trying to collect salt on behalf of councils? As the Minister will know, in February of last year one of the learning experiences came from the difficulty to do with the flexibility of drivers’ hours. At what point did the Government act on the recommendation to provide for flexibility in drivers’ hours?

Finally, do the Government intend to revise any of the guidance they have given to councils? If so, when can councils expect to receive this and will a copy of the revised guidance be placed in the Library of the House of Commons so that Members from all parties, whose constituents are experiencing considerable difficulty, might be able to see those changes?

I am sure that all Members would like to pay tribute to the work being done by their councils to try to keep essential roads open. They are working around the clock to keep Britain moving.

I pay tribute to all those who are ensuring that this country does not grind to a halt, whether they work for councils, for airports, for the rail sector or for the emergency services. They are doing a tremendous job to keep our country moving.

The hon. Lady has asked a number of questions, which I shall try to answer in turn. If there is anything that I do not deal with, I am sure it will be taken up by other colleagues. I can also write to her or speak to her afterwards if I do not take up all her points in my short response.

The hon. Lady is right to refer to the report made by the UKRLG in July. It was open to local authorities to follow the report’s recommendations in July, rather than to wait for us to endorse it in December. She will be aware that many local authorities lived through the bad weather last February and March. I was surprised that she suggested that central Government should prescribe to local government and tell it what to do. Some might say that one of the reasons she is pointing the finger at central Government is that many of these local authorities are Conservative-run. Many constituents will want to ask questions about how their councils have performed in this difficult time.

The six days’ worth of supply is a recommendation of good practice. Some might decide to hold salt to cover much longer periods. We have examples of some local authorities that have salt for up to 69 days, so they have clearly not merely followed the good practice but decided that they should stock more. Indeed, we have stocked 13 days’ worth with the Highways Agency. I am not sure whether the hon. Lady is suggesting that I, as someone with no expertise, should give advice on this issue, or that we should rely on experts to give advice. The UKRLG is made up of experts and they advised that the best practice was to stockpile six days’ worth of salt.

The hon. Lady also talked about what local authorities and the Government should have been doing. We are responsible for ensuring that the Highways Agency has motorways and trunk roads cleared and running smoothly—and, in broad terms, it has been doing that. It is for local authorities to ensure that local roads run smoothly. I have spoken to the LGA this week, and the Prime Minister spoke to it this morning. We are doing all we can to keep the country moving.

I thank the Minister for his detailed answer, and I pay tribute to the hard work that has been undertaken by many employees of local councils and other bodies to try to keep our transport networks running effectively.

Does the Minister think it sensible for us to rely on just one mine in Cheshire for 90 per cent. of our salt supplies, and will he consider whether we need to diversify further to ensure that we have guaranteed supplies for future events? Was it not unwise, last February, to recommend that councils hold only six days’ supply, given the current indication that there will be 10 days of extreme weather conditions, and will he consider revising that advice?

Is not one consequence of the current shortage of grit in many parts of the country that many side roads are not being treated in many areas? That leaves many elderly and vulnerable people effectively trapped in their homes, and is of great concern to them. Is not another consequence that pavements are not gritted at all in some areas? As far as I can tell, not a single pavement has been gritted by my Conservative council in East Sussex—not even those around doctors’ surgeries, bus stops, supermarkets or anything else. A consequence of that, now and in December, has been that people have had to negotiate sheets of ice to purchase basic commodities and to do their normal work.

Finally, will the Minister make an assessment of the cost to business and the health service of the failure of some councils to keep essential transport systems working? I am conscious that in my local primary care trust area, and in the acute trust in Brighton, which has done very well, about 1,500 people have been through the system with injuries such as broken wrists that might not have occurred had pavements been properly gritted. As a public policy point, we ought to assess the cost to the health service of the failure of some councils to use grit properly.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his sensible points and the questions that he has raised. Let me deal with each of them, starting with salt supplies. As he is aware, there are two main salt suppliers in this country, and the supply is governed by where salt can be mined or excavated. I am not sure whether he is suggesting that I should nationalise the industry or start procuring or producing salt. I can tell him that the Prime Minister has spoken to the chief executives of both those companies this morning to impress on them the importance of trying to excavate as much salt as possible and to get it out from the factories. The Highways Agency has procured salt from Spain and from companies in the USA, and some local authorities have been innovative in procuring it. There is a problem with salt storage. Some local authorities have problems with salt barns and with the amount of salt they can store for a long period of time, and so are governed by lack of storage space rather than not being sufficiently geared up to get as much salt as they can.

On the hon. Gentleman’s points about what has happened in his local communities, I must tell him that it is for local authorities and locally elected councils, which know their communities best, to decide where salt and grit should be laid down. The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) suggested that perhaps we in Whitehall should have a map and decide which roads should be gritted. If there are problems in some areas, it is important that councillors make sure that the right parts of their communities are gritted. Clearly, there is a problem with the amount of grit available in relation to the extreme weather that we are having, and so priority assessments will need to be made. Those areas of the community that are a priority will need to be gritted.

The hon. Gentleman’s final point is important. The cost to us of bad weather, not only in financial terms, to business, but in human terms, with operations being cancelled and school hours being lost by children, is immense. However, the weather is, on all objective assessments, the worst that we have had for almost 30 years, and so a sense of perspective is required.

Is it not the case that a small number of politicians are sitting in their warm offices e-mailing press releases to create despondency, when many tens of thousands of public sector workers are out there keeping the country moving? Should we not be praising those workers, rather than moaning?

I thank my hon. Friend who, as ever, makes a really important point. The number of public servants out there shovelling away at grit to make sure that our pavements are clear and our roads gritted is immense. He will be pleased to know that the Prime Minister got in touch with the Highways Agency this morning to put on record his personal thanks for the hard work done by its staff in making sure that our country does not grind to a halt.

The UK’s largest rock salt mine is at Winsford in my constituency. The Minister has notably failed to praise the work force there—

He did not. The work force at the Winsford rock salt mine are working 24/7 to produce 30,000 tonnes per week, but it is also most important to bear in mind the forbearance of the people of Winsford. The restrictions on HGV movements have quite rightly been relaxed, but people there are finding that their town is hemmed in by queues of lorries waiting to be resupplied. Does the Minister agree that it is important to recognise the need to get stockpiles right in the autumn, in advance of winter? At the moment, we rely on the salt unit to produce the salt in an emergency.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, and there is not much in what he said that I disagree with. Not only do I pay tribute to the hard work done by the people at the Winsford rock salt mine, but the Prime Minister personally rang the chief executive to ask him to pass on his thanks for the great work they are doing. I should also like to thank the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, who are having to put up with lorries going through their communities literally 24 hours a day. He will be aware that there are conditions attached to lorries going through the town during working hours, but local residents have indulged the trucks. There are very good reasons for people to work around the clock, and many will have seen the photographs and images of the queue of lorries leaving the factory. Although it looks chaotic, staff are doing a very important job in ensuring that the right parts of the country are receiving much-needed grit.

While I urge my right hon. Friend to look at the whole issue of distribution and access to salt supplies, may I add that there is a real issue with the nitty-gritty—if I dare say that—of all this? Local people cannot understand why their pavements are not being gritted. I urge him to see whether there is some way to make information available so that local people know what standard of service they can expect from their local council.

One of the things that I was keen to do when speaking to the LGA, the Prime Minister and some of my officials this morning was to make sure that local authorities use best practice and provide a sufficient standard of care for local residents. There are health and safety issues here, as we clearly do not want more people falling over and getting hurt than would be the case without this adverse weather.

I am reluctant to prescribe what local authorities should do, as clearly this is a matter of horses for courses. We need to make sure that the parts of communities most in need of having their pavements or roads cleared are having that done. I am happy to carry on working with the LGA and others to see whether lessons can be learned.

Will the Minister acknowledge the huge efforts being made at British Salt at Middlewich in my constituency, which produces salt from brine? Will he ensure that the LGA has better plans in future for getting roads in partially rural constituencies cleared more effectively than has been the case this time?

I appreciate that roads are essential lifelines in rural parts of the country, and I can understand why local authorities would want to ensure that they are cleared more swiftly in future. The hon. Lady is right to remind me that there is a company in Middlewich in her constituency that is doing a huge amount of work to provide salt and grit and to make sure that supplies reach the rest of the country. She also spoke about the need for the LGA to have better plans in future, but we have to be careful what we wish for. On the one hand, local communities elect councillors and local authorities do a very important job but, on the other, pressure is brought to bear on me, as a Minister in Whitehall, to tell local authorities what to do. I suspect that some of that could be because some of the local authorities doing a bad job are Tory councils.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that many people whinge at this time of year? As he said, this is the worst weather for 30 years, but the fact is that many local authorities are doing a very good job. The authority in Huddersfield and Kirklees is doing a very good job, even though we have had real problems with obtaining more supplies of salt and grit. Is it not the truth that the men and women who have been keeping our roads clear have the essential qualities of grit, determination and courage—something that some politicians could learn from?

I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend’s comments and echo his tribute to the public servants, men and women, who have done a huge amount to ensure that our roads and pavements are cleared. Public servants and council workers in Huddersfield, Kirklees and elsewhere are doing a huge amount, and that is one reason why I am reluctant to stand here and criticise local authorities—when I know that so many are doing such a good job.

I commend the efforts of public sector workers in Hampshire and Basingstoke who, as the Minister knows, are doing the best they can to keep our roads open. He said that salt deliveries are already being prioritised so that they are sent where they are needed most. What criteria are used when those decisions are made? The lack of transparency in that process was a key criticism in the UKRLG recommendation, which the Minister said he accepted in full.

The hon. Lady has written to me because of the concerns in her constituency, and I am responding to the points she made in her letter, which highlighted a number of her worries. Several criteria are looked at: the amount of available stocks; whether there are mutual aid facilities, with different local authorities able to provide assistance; how recently deliveries were made to local authorities; and weather conditions. Importantly, we do not decide where the priorities lie; the LGA does, working with the Highways Agency, the devolved Administrations and the suppliers. What is important is that the regional resilience centres receive as much updated information as possible from local authorities, which can then determine which parts of the country receive the salt quickest.

My local authority, Durham county council, has been working around the clock to try to keep our major routes open, including all bus routes; and it has been doing so continuously since 16 December, putting down as much as 1,400 tonnes of grit each day. As a result, we have now had to put pressure on the mine in question, and I had to contact it myself to ensure that it delivers the necessary stocks to Durham. What pressure is being applied to mine owners? They are doing a really good job, but during this difficult period it would help if they opened at those weekends when it is necessary to make deliveries.

That point refers to a previous question about the stocks leaving mines, and I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that the mining companies will be working not only around the clock, but seven days a week, which is very important. She rightly refers to the fact that some councils—most of them, indeed—have been working around the clock since 16 December, and further bad weather is predicted over the next period, so we should bear that in mind. Alongside the pressure that I have brought on mining companies and my hon. Friend has brought on her local authority, the Prime Minister this morning also spoke to the two biggest salt procurers to ensure that we impress on them the need to try to excavate as much as is humanly possible.

In East Dunbartonshire a severe shortage of salt has left many roads and pavements in a treacherous condition, and earlier this week parts of Scotland ran out of salt completely. What specific requests have the Scottish Government made for assistance in securing additional salt; and what has been the result of those requests?

One reason why we are working with the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales is that the same salt producers supply both countries. We would not want Scotland and Wales to lose out as an unintended consequence of our prioritising English local authorities. That is why both countries are very much inside the loop when it comes to the Salt Cell organisation to which we have referred. We are in regular contact with our colleagues, and that includes discussions about salt importation from overseas. We will continue to keep in touch with them over the next period.

In some parts of the country, supplies such as milk and fresh food are inevitably being compromised. Will the Minister pay tribute to those voluntary sector and community groups that organise people to be on the look out for the needs of vulnerable members of the community; and will he say a word about everybody being a good neighbour at this time and looking after vulnerable neighbours in their streets?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I pay tribute not only to those people who, out of the goodness of their heart and common decency, check on their neighbours, whether they are elderly or not, and ensure that there is sufficient food for them, but to those who get the shovel from their shed, clear their front pathway and help the old person next door who may need assistance. Whether it is young children, helping old people to cross the roads and clearing their front paths, or us older citizens, I pay tribute to the resilience of the British public over the past three weeks, who have shown what is good about our society.

I thank the public sector workers who have been putting in very long hours in the Aylesbury and, indeed, Buckingham constituencies to deal with the problems caused by snow and ice locally. However, many able-bodied local residents would be willing to clear the snow and ice on the pavement in front of their properties if they were not scared of being sued by somebody who subsequently fell over. Will the Minister look at the guidance and the law on that point to try to ensure that common sense and public spiritedness are given a fair wind?

I am sure that that did not escape your notice, Mr. Speaker—that sucking up to you! I too pay tribute to the public servants of Buckingham, who are doing a great job. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a serious point, and I would be thoroughly disappointed if people were reluctant to be a good neighbour and clear their pathways for fear of being prosecuted. I have seen evidence of good neighbours in my community, in Tooting and Wandsworth, and I have heard about it from stories around the country. I hope that that continues over the next period.

Notwithstanding the short-term impact of what needs to be done, I must say that there is a longer-term impact on the fabric of the roads. They were already breaking up after the most recent bout of poor weather, and they were not helped by gritting, either. Counties such as mine, West Sussex, have faced real-terms cuts in their highways grants over recent years, so will the Minister look at the situation and at how we can help authorities to repair roads in the longer term? If we do not, the problem will get worse and worse.

The hon. Gentleman will recognise that we have increased local authority capital investment for those matters two or three times in recent years. In fact we were criticised for doing so. The important thing is that local authorities take stock of the areas where adverse weather causes problems. He is right to say that gritting and adverse weather causes more potholes in, and problems with the fabric of, our roads, but it is for local authorities to know their communities best and to decide where their priorities lie when it comes to spending their moneys.

Many grit bins that local authorities provide for residents’ use on footpaths have been vandalised, leading to avoidable falls and injuries. Will the Minister join me in condemning the people who are responsible for that mindless vandalism; and will he discuss with his colleagues whether it is possible to source vandal-proof grit bins?

I unequivocally condemn those who vandalise such salt bins. I have also heard stories about them being stolen, and that beggars belief. On the one hand we are talking about the very best of British; on the other, we see examples such as that to which the hon. Lady refers. I am happy to look into any technical areas on which we can work to make salt bins vandal-proof.

I do not wish to diminish the seriousness or scale of the task that staff have had to undertake, and salt reserves certainly need replenishing in Cornwall, but I am not sure that the Minister has answered the questions about pavements from my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley). Many people are walking on the roads and putting themselves in greater jeopardy. Have the Minister and his Department considered whether any guidance is required to ensure that accidents, which we know are happening throughout the country, are avoided?

Perhaps I can answer the hon. Gentleman’s question this way: we know that public safety demands that local authorities clear and grit certain roads; and we know that the Highways Agency is ensuring that motorways and trunk roads are gritted. However, local authorities are responsible for pavements, and it is for them to decide the priority areas in their communities. Some authorities may decide that pavements leading to and from a school or a GP’s surgery are a priority, but I am not sure that I should advise local authorities on which parts of their communities need to be gritted. I am certainly not keen on any politician in Whitehall telling me or the leader of Wandsworth borough council which parts of Wandsworth need to be gritted. Local council leaders and officers in town halls know which parts of their community deserve to be gritted. However, when there is a shortage of grit, priorities need to be established and decisions made about which areas are gritted, and some inevitably will not be.

Does the Minister accept that in the guidance given by central Government, the criteria mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) must be complied with? It is no good suggesting that local authorities alone can make these decisions if national suppliers are involved, as the chairman of the Highways Agency in Staffordshire, Mike Maryon, has made clear. We had temperatures of minus 17° in Staffordshire, Moorlands. Rural areas have been severely affected. There is no point in the Minister trying to pass the buck to local authorities if the overall number of days’ supply has been got completely wrong.

I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting we do. The salt suppliers are private companies who produce and sell salt, and local authorities decide what they need for their communities. The good practice advice given to local authorities is that there should be supplies of at least six days’ worth, and they can follow that advice or not do so. Some local authorities stockpiled many weeks’ worth of grit because they took the sensible course of action. The Highways Agency decided that there should be 13 days’ worth of grit in our stocks. If he wants us to consider the possibility of those private companies being taken over by a public company, and therefore local authorities being told how much supply they should keep, I would not recommend that. We should work with the Local Government Association, the Highways Agency, the devolved Administrations and the salt suppliers to ensure that those parts of the country that need salt the most get it the quickest.

Many of my rural villages have been badly affected by this exceptional dumping of snow. I assume, because we spend millions on the Met Office, that the Government were given several days’ advance notice of the exceptional weather conditions. Was not that the time to ensure that the grit got out to rural areas, in particular? The Minister says that there is a storage problem. Many farmers with spare capacity would be delighted to hold that exceptional storage on their farms, which would ensure that these villages could be passable.

The hon. Gentleman’s final point is a very good one. Some local authorities in rural parts of the country use farm buildings such as barns to store salt. If there are to be further prolonged periods of bad weather over the coming years, the storage of salt will be a big issue and we will need to consider whether we can set up central depots or points where it is stored and can be reached. In October, we surveyed local authorities to find out how much salt each of them had. Those that responded told us that they had at least six days’ worth of salt supply. Some of the anecdotal evidence from the experience of colleagues around the country leads me to believe that that was not necessarily the case. We are looking into how much salt some local authorities had and whether they were inaccurate when they told us in October that they had six days’ worth, because some clearly did not. The hon. Gentleman raised another good point in relation to advice from the Met Office.

I am afraid that the Minister did not answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), who raised a serious issue. Residents are frightened of being sued if they clear public pavements in front of their property, and shopkeepers are frightened of breaking their liability insurance if they do likewise. Will the Minister consider changing the law to protect residents and shopkeepers who clear pavements in front of their properties?

There is no criminal liability, as I understand it. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the possibility that somebody could sue for damages because of negligence. I am not sure if he is suggesting that I provide immunity from a civil action under the law of tort. As much as I like to empire-build, I am afraid that I do not have that power or gift at my disposal.

To bring the Minister back to the sensible things that he said about looking after elderly people, will he use his Department’s influence with social housing providers to impress on them their duty of care to elderly and infirm residents of sheltered accommodation to ensure that the common areas of such properties are kept safe? At the moment, they do not believe that they have that responsibility, but I think they do.

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. I know from my own experience that we can go and help our mum to clear her front pavement, but someone in sheltered accommodation or an older person living by themselves clearly needs some help. I will look into the situation and respond to him directly about what we can do.

There are clearly resource implications resulting from the extreme weather that we are experiencing at the moment. This has nothing to do with party politics; I am sure that whichever party controls a local authority, it will do its best to help local people and businesses. Is there any exceptional emergency fund to assist local authorities that will exceed any budget allocation that they made in respect of salt and grit? This is clearly important, as we need to keep the country running. My constituency has large rural areas, including the Peak District national park. Can any exceptional help be given to local authorities such as mine—Macclesfield and Cheshire East—so that we can keep the area running?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Bellwin funding is available, and local authorities know that the Department for Communities and Local Government can assist them in relation to that. There was a recent example of emergency funding being made available in Cumbria following the flooding. I suggest that his council leader speaks to the DCLG or the Department for Transport to see whether sufficient thresholds have been reached in his constituency to judge whether the Bellwin criteria apply.

On the first Monday of the cold snap, 25 people reported to Mayday’s accident and emergency department with fractures, compared with six at the same time in the previous year, when the weather was somewhat balmier. Will the Minister look positively at what is done by Durham primary care trust, which provides money to the local authority as a preventive measure to ensure that there is more gritting and therefore fewer people turning up at hospital injured?

I am happy to listen to good ideas. I would be keen to consider whether the Department of Health and the DFT can work better together and whether lessons can be learned from Durham that can be used in London and other parts of the country. I am happy to go away and look at the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion.

The Minister has referred to Salt Cell—the cross-departmental group of officials responsible for managing the supply chain with the salt suppliers. Is he aware that many councils across the country are concerned that this group is not coping with the situation in which we find ourselves and is not communicating properly with suppliers?

I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I can undertake to speak again to the LGA to see whether it has heard any grumblings from local authorities and try to rectify the situation. We do not want local authorities to feel that they have been harshly treated because of the way that Salt Cell operates. That group is there to help to prioritise supplies. I will reflect on his comments, and if there any issues for consideration, I will be happy to speak to him directly or report back to the House at a later date.