Improving winter resilience

Source: PSE - April/ May 16

Philip Burgess, director general at the Salt Association, explains how local highways authorities have improved their operational efficiency to cope with big winter chills and moved away from a just-in-time supply system.

Almost £250m worth of damage was caused to key infrastructure like roads, bridges and drainage systems by this winter’s flooding, according to a recent survey by the LGA. So, as a small consolation, it is good news that the wet weather wasn’t accompanied by the severe winter snow that hit the country in 2009-10 and 2010-11, which left salt stocks in short supply. 

In fact, following those two winters of poor weather, the government commissioned a review – led by David Quarmby – which made several recommendations for local highways authorities and the salt industry to improve their resilience. For instance, back in 2010, the transport secretary instructed Highways Agency, now Highways England, to build up an emergency salt reserve to ensure national resilience. 

However, for the winter season just gone, the DfT  said in guidance to local highways authorities that it had retained an emergency salt stockpile of approximately 286,000 tonnes with a further 102,000 tonnes being held by Highways England. 

Change from a just-in-time system 

Although the country didn’t face a big chill this winter, instead it was the big storms, Philip Burgess, director general at the Salt Association, said that local highways authorities have been advised through these reports to move away from a “just-in-time supply system” to being more prepared, and that they have responded. 

“They should also have the stocks that they believe to be strategically necessary in place by November of any winter,” he said. 

The recent guidance stated that a new resilience benchmark of 12 days/48 runs, as recommended by Quarmby, should be adopted for pre-season stockholding for English local highway authorities. 

“That is the recommended resilience benchmark which highways authorities are now expected to build-in,” said Burgess. “That is something the salt industry provided adequate supply in order to meet that. This has been the case since the 2009-10 and 2010-11 winters.”

Innovation and monitoring 

Over the winter period, the LGA stated that councils had stockpiled 1.2 million tonnes of salt to prepare for adverse weather. Its annual Winter Readiness Survey also revealed that about half of local authorities were at the limit of storage capacity. 

Cllr Peter Box, the LGA’s environment spokesman, added that councils were using state-of-the-art technology including GPS location trackers, salt spreading monitors and thermal mapping to ensure roads were safe. 

“There is also an electronic database set-up to track salt levels across the country,” said Burgess. “We encourage all highways authorities to make use of this. 

The object is to manage existing stocks to ensure we have country-wide resilience in place. The electronic monitoring database is an innovation which gives greater confidence.” 

Mutual aid 

He added that mutual aid has been encouraged between local authorities. Both the Quarmby Review and the recent government guidance talk about neighbouring local authorities working together and achieving a position of mutual aid whereby they can tap into each other’s salt supplies – as and when they have to. 

“In the intervening years we haven’t had particularly cold winters, certainly not last winter, so the degree to which that mutual aid has been tested remains to be seen,” noted Burgess. 

“But I believe it has helped with the operational efficiencies. It hasn’t been severely tested since the last very cold winters. However, there is a much higher degree of confidence in terms of us a salt industry to supply strategic need, but also amongst the highways authorities to have better foresight and have a winter resilience plan in place by November each year.” 

Better communication and further learning 

There has also been the establishment of the Winter Road Salt Network Group – which brings together officials from the DfT, the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales, Highways England, TfL, the LGA, the Met Office, the Cabinet Office and the DCLG Resilience and Emergencies Division – to facilitate better communication in the event of a very extreme winter. 

Burgess added that the National Winter Service Research Group, which the salt industry is engaged in alongside highways authorities, is currently looking at the variations between spreading levels in local authorities. 

“There is some ongoing research to understand what the optimum spreading levels ought to be,” he said. “During the cold winters there were high levels of variation between highways authorities as to what their spreading rates and levels were. So, a greater understanding of the spreading levels would help all involved.” 

Several years on from Quarmby’s Review, Burgess said that the recommendations have been “taken very seriously” by local highways agencies and the salt industry, and that the country should be in a much stronger operational state should heavy snow hit this winter.

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