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Transport: Severe Weather

Volume 715: debated on Tuesday 15 December 2009


My right honourable friend the Minister of State for Transport (Sadiq Khan) has made the following Ministerial Statement.

In February Britain experienced its worst winter for 18 years. It is important that we learn the transport lessons from that experience, so that the country is better prepared for similar severe events in future. To this end, the then Secretary of State, the right honourable Geoff Hoon MP, commissioned the UK Roads Liaison Group (UKRLG) to conduct a review of the difficulties experienced in the operation of winter maintenance service at that time.

The UKRLG published its report on 4 August (available from the Libraries of the House or from, and I am grateful for the thorough way in which it reviews events. The report makes 19 recommendations, and I am pleased to announce today that the Government have accepted them all, which together should improve our preparedness to face up to the challenges presented by severe winter weather in the future.

Most of the recommendations are addressed to local highway authorities and salt suppliers. It is, of course, for each authority to consider these and decide for themselves how best to take them forward. I commend them to authorities’ attention.

The report addresses four recommendations specifically to the Department for Transport and the Highways Agency.

First, it recommends that the Highways Agency should hold a reserve of salt above that which it needs to meet its service standards, in order to reduce overall demand for salt at critical times. In addition to supporting the UKRLG review, the agency has carried out its own internal exercise to identify those areas of its business which may be improved, to further strengthen its winter service resilience. A number of improvements have been identified and implemented, including a review of the salt stock levels that will be held across the strategic road network in England. The agency has previously implemented a risk-based approach to set its salt stock levels each year. By identifying and considering the impact of issues which may affect salt supplies and associated stock levels, a suitable salt stock profile for each of the agency’s operational areas is derived for the winter season ahead. The increased risk of a salt shortage similar to that experienced last season has been considered when setting the salt stock profiles for this winter season, in order to increase the agency’s salt stock resilience.

UKRLG further recommend that the department should publish an information leaflet for highway authority elected members and senior managers on preparation for severe winter conditions. We have produced such a leaflet and have arranged for this to be distributed today.

The report proposes that the department should make preparations to enable rapid introduction of derogation against drivers’ hours regulations for specific categories of vehicles and drivers if necessary in times of severe adverse weather conditions. We agree with the recommendation that it is important to implement such derogations quickly, when the need has been identified. We believe that the department’s response in February was as swift as was possible; but we will review our processes to ensure that we remain ready to deal with applications for derogation as quickly as possible.

UKRLG considered the operation of the centrally co-ordinated Salt Cell that was set up in February. The report concludes that the possibility of a future government-run Salt Cell should only be considered as a matter of last resort, but that the Government should develop a contingency plan for any future Salt Cell, to be used in extremis. I again accept the recommendation. My department is working with a number of stakeholders, both within and without Government, to develop robust protocols against such an eventuality.

Co-operation and co-ordination between highways authorities and suppliers will be a key component in better management of winter service in the future, however severe the weather. The Highways Agency had already identified the need to develop a closer relationship with its salt supply chain partners. A strategic Salt Liaison Group (SLG) has been established to discuss issues affecting salt usage and supply for the strategic network. Local highway authorities may wish to reflect on how similar arrangements might benefit them. As part of its own review of lessons learnt, the agency also highlighted the need for improved communications to give earlier warning of any developing salt supply issues. Again, local authorities may wish to consider how they can implement a more precautionary, focused dialogue with salt suppliers in the same way.

There is already good communication between the Highways Agency and local authorities, and the agency shares a number of depots with local authorities. As well as the cost efficiencies associated with depot sharing, it can provide access to the network at operationally important locations that may not otherwise be available. The Highways Agency recognises the importance of depot sharing in providing a cost-effective solution to planning and maintaining an effective winter service. However, depots are often not suitable for sharing on account of their location, their size or other operational constraints. Each proposal therefore needs to be considered on its individual merits, to ensure that service delivery for both authorities will not be compromised.

While no system can be completely resilient in extreme circumstances, adopting the UKRLG’s recommendations should help the nation to be better prepared should weather conditions similar to this past winter’s be encountered in future.