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Winter Weather

Volume 519: debated on Thursday 2 December 2010

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Transport to update the House on the Government’s response to the severe winter weather.

Last year, the country experienced the most prolonged period of cold weather for 30 years. Weather conditions meant that the cost to the economy and the disruption to the public was significant and unacceptable. The Government took urgent action during the summer so that the country would be in a more resilient position this winter. We have studied the recommendations in David Quarmby’s review of last winter’s transport disruption, which was established by my predecessor and which I published in October.

We have taken action to address the points raised in the review. Salt stocks are at a much higher level than at this time last year and a national strategic salt reserve now exists for the first time to support local authorities whose individual stocks run out. Some 250,000 tonnes of salt have been ordered for that reserve, which will be managed by the Highways Agency, and more than 100,000 tonnes are already in place. In addition, the Highways Agency has 225,000 tonnes of operational stock for use on its own strategic road network and at the end of November local authorities had approximately 1 million tonnes of salt stock. The Highways Agency has ordered a further 60,000 tonnes and Scotland has separately stockpiled 30,000 tonnes.

Recommendations were also made in the Quarmby report about the measures that local highway authorities needed to take to keep our road network moving in the event of snow and ice this winter. In the past few days, there has been unusually heavy and persistent snow, in much greater quantities than were experienced earlier this year, down much of the eastern side of the country. The great majority of the strategic transport network has been kept open this week, but road and rail services in the areas worst affected by snow have been seriously disrupted. Highways authorities are working to keep roads open, but delays have been caused by broken-down vehicles and minor accidents. It is clear that abandoned and broken-down vehicles preventing access for gritters and in some cases preventing access to highway depots were major factors in yesterday’s situation.

Most airports in England are keeping services running, but Gatwick has been directly affected by the worst of the snow conditions in England and remains closed today. One hundred thousand tonnes of snow have been cleared at Gatwick during the past 24 hours, and 80 full-time equivalent personnel and 47 snow-clearing machines are in operation at the airport. Many eastern rail services and Southern rail and Eurostar services have also suffered disruption and delay. Network Rail and train operators are working together to deliver as many services as possible. Night-time ghost trains have been run wherever possible, but build-up of ice on third rails across the Southeastern and Southern networks has led to loss of power and trains being stranded, causing severe delays and cancellations.

We are not alone; our northern European neighbours, and even Switzerland, are similarly affected—Geneva airport was closed for 36 hours. The Government fully recognise the frustration of the travelling public, and we are doing everything we can to keep Britain moving. Given that much of the country is being hit by severe weather unusually early this year, I have asked David Quarmby to conduct an urgent audit of highways authorities’ and transport operators’ performance in implementing the recommendations in his report, and to consider any further steps that might need to be taken.

I want to make it clear that I am asking David Quarmby to address the question not of whether we expect disruption when we have weather of such severity, but of whether there is anything that could or should have been done that has not been done. I expect to receive his report before the House rises for Christmas, and I will make a statement on his immediate findings at that time.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his response, but does not the fact that he has responded rather than the Minister for the Cabinet Office, who is in his place, show that the Government have no co-ordinated response to the problems created by the severe weather conditions? Will the Secretary of State tell the House who, if anyone, in Government is co-ordinating ministerial colleagues? As he said, the severe winter weather is creating huge problems: 1,500 schools are closed today, disrupting children’s education and preventing parents from getting to work; local authorities are reporting concerns about deliveries of grit; and ambulance services and hospitals are reporting cancellations of services. It is clear, therefore, that the problems are not confined to transport, but affect vulnerable people and the running of vital public services.

People were trapped in their cars, on trains and at isolated stations for many hours during the night, and many others are cut off in their homes, raising concerns about food deliveries and fuel supplies. Will the Secretary of State therefore tell us not just what he is doing, but what the Secretary of State for Education is doing on the schools situation, what the Secretary of State for Health is doing to keep hospitals running, and what the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is doing to ensure that local authorities have what they need? Finally, can the Transport Secretary tell us whether there are any plans to convene Cobra today to help co-ordinate the Government’s response to the severe winter weather? That certainly needs to happen.

The list of problems that the hon. Lady read out are overwhelmingly related to the difficulties in the transport system. There is a long-established principle that the Department with lead responsibility for the problem co-ordinates across Government, and the Department for Transport has taken the lead in responding to this situation so far.

The hon. Lady said that local authorities are having difficulty obtaining supplies of grit, but my Department has not been contacted by any local authority with such difficulties. We have more than 100,000 tonnes of grit available in the Highways Agency’s strategic stockpile ready to be made available to local authorities if they request it. The hon. Lady asked whether Cobra was planning to meet. The situation is being kept under continuous review, and if it is appropriate to convene a meeting of Cobra later today, that meeting will be convened.

Why was the A5 in the midlands partly closed? Will the Secretary of State please write to me about that? Does he recognise that the A5 is a national highway? This is not a county matter.

Most of the strategic road network across the country has been kept open, and most of it is open today. Some strategic roads have been closed, particularly on higher ground, either because of exceptionally heavy and drifting snow or because they have been blocked by accidents or abandoned vehicles. Individual decisions will have been made by the Highways Agency or, in some cases, by the police. I will write to my hon. Friend and tell him precisely the reason for the A5 closure.

I am afraid that the Secretary of State is demonstrating a remarkable—indeed, breathtaking—degree of complacency. Unfortunately, he is not filling the House with any confidence that he is dealing with his responsibilities adequately. He may recall that, on the publication of the interim report on winter resilience in July, he said:

“For two winters in a row, severe weather has caused significant disruption for transport in this country. The cost to the economy and the disruption to the public has been significant, and there has been a level of dissatisfaction and confusion about the response by Government at both local and national level. This is unacceptable and must be resolved before the next winter season.”—[Official Report, 26 July 2010; Vol. 514, c. 72WS.]

Is he really arguing that it has now been resolved?

Earlier today, during Transport questions, the Secretary of State said not only that the final and interim reports on winter resilience had been studied and not only that action had been taken—which he has just said again—but that the reports’ recommendations had been implemented. He appeared to row back from that statement in his response to the urgent question. Will he make clear in what way the 17 recommendations in the interim report and the 11 further recommendations in the final report have been implemented? Has the salt cell been activated, and, if not, can he tell us why not? Have the 250,000 tonnes of salt actually been stockpiled? The Secretary of State said that the salt had been ordered, and then said that there were 100,000 tonnes in the stockpile. The report which he told us earlier had been implemented called for a stockpile of 250,000 tonnes. Can he make the position a bit clearer?

This winter weather was forecast well in advance. It is not as if it suddenly came on us. The Met Office gave us plenty of warning. Does the Secretary of State believe that a grit audit is an adequate response from the Government to the current suffering of motorists forced to sleep freezing in their cars, of train passengers dropped off at stations with no way of being rescued, and of half the population who struggled to get to work and had to turn up late yesterday? Does he believe that the complacent attitude that he has demonstrated today is anywhere near good enough from people who purport to be the Government of this nation?

Order. I know that the Secretary of State always attempts to respond very comprehensively, but may I appeal to him to do so briefly as well? These are principally Back-Bench occasions; many Members wish to contribute, and brevity is the order of the day.

I shall attempt to be brief, Mr Speaker, but the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) asked me a good many questions.

I can assure the hon. Lady that there is no complacency whatsoever. I recognise the absolute frustration and, indeed, anger of many people who have been stranded and had their journeys and their lives disrupted over the past 48 hours. Let me repeat, however, that the question is not whether a foot of snow and double-digit negative temperatures create disruption. They will create disruption; they will always create disruption. The question is whether we should or could have done anything differently, and that is what I have asked David Quarmby to consider. As soon as we have the answers to all the very sensible questions asked by the hon. Lady, I will report back to the House.

When it comes to trains and buses, passengers find the weather frustrating, but even more frustrating is often the complete lack of information while they are standing on a cold platform or waiting at a draughty bus stop. What can the Secretary of State do to make sure that senior executives in those largely private companies ensure that information gets to the customers as speedily as possible?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. A major part of the problem that we experienced yesterday was lack of information flow. Some train operators have already supplied BlackBerrys to on-train crews so that they can be given real-time updates to advise passengers of what is going on. We must take that process further. The least we ought to be able to do for passengers if they find their journeys disrupted is to give them accurate information about what is going on.

The Secretary of State called for a review, but what is he doing to ensure that he can get up-to-date information enabling him to act with urgency? What is the role of regional Government offices in working with local authorities to give him a full and up-to-date picture of what is going on?

To be clear, I have asked David Quarmby to audit the implementation of the measures that he recommended in his report. Those were not simply about grit. There are recommendations covering a range of areas and modes of transport. We are getting information—not quite in real time, but by 9 o’clock this morning we had a full situation report on rail services and the condition of the strategic road network across the country. The information about what is happening on individual local authorities’ roads is a little more patchy. That issue needs looking at, because the condition of local authority roads can have a knock-on effect on the condition of the strategic road network.

Does the Secretary of State agree that in a country with a generally temperate climate, such things will happen from time to time, that it would be disproportionate to spend too much money preventing them, and that even this Government cannot control the weather?

My hon. Friend is of course right. The Highways Agency has invested more than £100 million in new equipment for dealing with snow on the strategic highway network, as well as building a large strategic reserve of salt and grit. As I said earlier, clearly the question is not whether we can eliminate disruption when we get such snowfall in the UK. There will always be disruption. The question is whether there are sensible and proportionate measures that we could and should take which will minimise that disruption.

Further to the question from the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), may I turn the Minister’s attention to the airports? The airports in the south-east are closed today, yet the public are given no information about the alternatives. The airport authorities knew a week ago that the present weather conditions would happen. Why are we in such a situation in the south-east of England?

The hon. Gentleman says that the airports in the south of England are closed, but as of a few minutes ago, when I came into the Chamber, that was not my information. My information was that Gatwick was closed, but Heathrow was operating, albeit with delays. The problem, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is that airports have to operate with a primary focus on safety, and when heavy snow is falling it is not possible to operate the runways safely. I gave the figures earlier for the amount of clearance that occurred at Gatwick yesterday. Vast amounts of snow were moved off the runways and taxiways, but the airport is still not able to operate. If there is any measure that could or should have been taken over the past few days that would have kept Gatwick airport open, that is what we need to focus on, but even Geneva airport has been closed this week.

All train services into my constituency are currently cancelled. Bearing in mind that the same routes serve the strategically important port of Immingham, through which much of the country’s coal is imported for power stations, can the Secretary of State assure me that improvements will be made to the services?

I cannot give my hon. Friend any immediate assurance that improvements will be possible on that line. I understand that the problem in that case is drifting snow, and it will take some time to clear the line and reopen it. I can tell him and the House that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has told me that he is confident that coal supplies are adequate and that we need see no interruptions to power supplies as a result of the present cold snap.

May I please have some clarification from the Secretary of State? He said earlier that 100,000 tonnes of salt are available in the strategic supply, yet the review recommended that 250,000 tonnes should be in place by the start of the winter season. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he has not fulfilled that recommendation?

That is one of the questions that the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) asked from the Front Bench. Let me give the exact figures. Local authorities have just under 1 million tonnes of stock for their own use. The Highways Agency has 225,000 tonnes of stock for its own use, and in addition it has ordered 250,000 tonnes for a strategic stockpile, of which 107,000 tonnes have been delivered. The remainder is expected to be delivered over the next six weeks. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Garston and Halewood says that we have not met the target. It was never intended that the 250,000 tonnes would be used up in the first week of winter. It is going to be perfectly satisfactory to have the 250,000 tonnes delivered progressively during the course of December and into early January. Much of the salt is imported by sea from very distant locations, and we expect to have it all on the ground by early January.

My right hon. Friend will have noted that the tube system is working relatively well today, but he will also have seen that on Monday there was strike action on what was a very cold day, which caused massive disruption. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning those who look to pile on the misery by announcing three-day tube strikes, and those like Ken Livingstone who seek to support these strikes?

Unlike the Leader of the Opposition, I do believe there is such a thing as an irresponsible strike.

When the right hon. Gentleman speaks to Mr Quarmby, will he make sure that his review looks not only at strategic routes but at the gritting of local and side roads? Last winter, many of my constituents were trapped in their homes. They were told that that was because the emphasis was on main routes. If they live on hills, for instance, they cannot get out of their homes. Local roads and side roads—and pavements as well—are just as important as some of the big strategic routes.

I wonder about the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to localism. David Quarmby will be looking at the performance of local authorities, but it is for local authorities to decide on their gritting plan, and most local authorities will not choose to grit every residential side road and every footway. That is a decision for them, and it is for local communities to hold local authorities to account for those decisions. Our job is to make sure that local authorities are doing what they are committed to do on the strategic road network.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating all those who, despite the weather, have battled into work to keep our public services open and to negate the effect that this sort of weather can have on our economy?

I will indeed. It is very tempting at 6.30 am to look out of the window and decide to turn over and forget about it, so those who have battled with the elements and the disruption on the transport system to keep our public services going should be congratulated.

How much of the Highways Agency budget has been, and will be, spent on procuring salt, grit and potash from British suppliers such as Boulby potash mine in my constituency, as opposed to overseas suppliers which the Secretary of State mentioned earlier?

The point I think the hon. Gentleman is trying to make is simply not valid. The problem last year was that domestic suppliers could not keep up with demand. Local authorities ran down their stocks, in some cases to nil, and during the summer they needed to rebuild those stocks. To have had the Highways Agency trying to build a strategic stockpile in competition with them would have been deeply unhelpful. We took the decision to import the large part of the strategic stockpile, even though that means paying very considerably higher prices, so that local authorities could restock and the strategic stockpile could be built in parallel.

Will the Secretary of State talk to his departmental colleagues, and also to the Prime Minister, about emphasising to people the importance of checking on their neighbours? I acknowledge the work that has been done on ensuring that there is grit, and we have learned the lessons of last winter, but it is essential that we do not forget our communities locally.

My hon. Friend reminds the House of a very important message. We have talked about people struggling to get to work and wrestling with the transport network, but many people, often the elderly, are stuck in their homes and they may be getting into difficulty—they may be unable to shop, for instance. It is very important that we keep delivering the message that those who are able to get out should check on their neighbours and see if there is anything they can do to help.

The Secretary of State said in his statement that the Department for Transport was taking the lead among Departments, yet in that statement there was not one word about what he or any of his Ministers are doing about this crisis. Is not the reality that he is asleep on the job, and when is he going to get a grip?

The reality is that the problem on the ground is essentially transport-focused at this stage. Problems in other areas such as the health service are directly related to transport issues, so the Department for Transport has to take the lead. That is what we are doing. We are regularly meeting and communicating with the Highways Agency, train operators and airport operators to monitor the situation; we are doing so on an hourly basis. If it is necessary to convene a meeting of Cobra later today, we will do so.

Is it not right that we congratulate and encourage those people who are currently hard at work up and down the country clearing snow, and is it not also right that good neighbours should be encouraged to clear pavements outside their own homes?

On my hon. Friend’s last point, I remind the House that the Government published a code of practice on snow clearing on pavements. Members will remember that during the similar events of last winter earlier this year there was some suggestion that individuals were wary of clearing snow from pavements for fear that accidents caused on that stretch of pavement might lead to legal action. I hope we have dealt with that issue.

On the topic of getting a grip, has the Secretary of State heard anything from local authorities about neighbourhood gritting barns having been filled this year because of the terrible winter we had last year?

That is, of course, a matter for local authorities. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that one of the big problems with strategically placed roadside bins is that the grit local authorities put in them is often removed without authorisation by people wanting to use it on their private properties. That has been a persistent problem for local authorities.

The Secretary of State may have heard the report on the “Today” programme about the dozens of lorry drivers who have spent two nights in the Methodist hall in South Anston in my constituency. The road they are stranded on is the A57. That section of it is a major link road between the A1 and the M1 in south Yorkshire. Can the Transport Secretary urgently find out why it has been allowed to get into a state of such chaos?

I will check specifically on the situation on the A57 and write to the right hon. Gentleman later today, but I can tell him that generally across the strategic road network, where major problems have occurred the cause has been jack-knifed, broken-down or abandoned vehicles blocking the road so that gritters and snow ploughs cannot get through. In some cases, the problem has been exacerbated by lorry drivers driving in an uncleared third lane of the motorway, often leading to accidents and jack-knifings.

Many of my constituents in Walthamstow experienced severe difficulties getting into work during last winter’s snow, and I do not share the confidence in the tube system of the hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands), because I experienced problems this morning. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Mayor of London about how to keep the capital city moving?

The Highways Agency and the rail directorate within the Department for Transport are in constant contact with Transport for London. TfL has responsibility for strategic roads in London and needs to operate continuously in conjunction with the Highways Agency. My understanding is that the service on the tube network has been pretty good over the last two days. There may be isolated incidents such as that to which the hon. Lady has referred, but on the whole the service has been good.

The Secretary of State really must get a grip on this situation. For my constituents, Southeastern Trains provides the main route into London as we do not have access to the London underground. We have no trains running on the service through Eltham this morning, yet people are standing on the platforms and the station concourse because they do not know what is going on. What is the Secretary of State doing to make sure that train operating companies are giving up-to-date information to people who might mistakenly be standing on cold platforms waiting for trains that are never going to turn up?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the lack of information is inexcusable. The Office of Rail Regulation said this morning that it will have its inspectors out on the Southeastern and Southern networks, looking at the information that is being provided and making sure that operators are meeting their obligations under their franchise contracts, and if they are not they will be dealt with according to the provisions in those franchise contracts.

Abandoned cars and accidents add to the chaos. I understand that once the temperature goes below minus 7°, the tyres that we use on our cars are no longer appropriate and safe. Is the Secretary of State having discussions with car manufacturers and automobile organisations about encouraging people to change over to winter tyres, as they do on the continent?

We have looked at the issue, and in fact David Quarmby addressed it. The use of winter tyres—snow tyres or even studded tyres—and snow chains is appropriate where people drive for long periods through the winter on compacted snow; it is not appropriate in the situation, as in the UK, where snow is on the ground for relatively short periods. Winter tyres wear out very quickly on normal road surfaces and cause significant damage to those surfaces, so they would not be appropriate in the UK situation.

Order. There is heavy pressure on time, so we must now move on to business questions, in the use of which, of course, the ingenuity of colleagues is legendary.