A local government perspective

Given the temperatures we are currently experiencing and the prolonged dry weather, snow is probably the furthest thing from most people’s minds. However, for many local authorities contingency planning for the next winter weather season is happening now. It’s difficult to remember it now but last winter saw sustained bad weather early in 2018.

The ‘beast from the east’ in February was the biggest sustained nationwide snow event since 2011 and was repeated in March. Despite the conditions most authorities coped well with the snowfall and had sufficient stockpiles of grit to deploy in good time. The fact that councils were able to keep essential routes open was the result of detailed planning throughout the year and comprehensive winter weather strategies.

Every autumn the Local Government Association surveys our member authorities to understand the preparations that authorities have made for that year’s winter weather season. From our results in the 2017 survey we estimated that authorities aimed to have 1.5 million tonnes of salt in stock at October 2017. They had an estimated 1.6 million tonnes in stock at October 2016, ordered a further 500,000 tonnes and used 800,000 tonnes during winter 2016/17. Despite the ongoing squeeze on local authority budgets authorities have been able to maintain a steady level of salt stockpiles for a number of years.

Authorities are also preparing for any winter flooding as part of their plans. 89 per cent of respondents were planning to take action to reduce the risk of flooding on roads. 67 per cent were planning to use gully-sucking lorries, 59 per cent were planning to use sandbags, 41 per cent were planning additional gully and drain inspections, and 23 per cent were planning to use pumps.

Local authorities have sought efficiencies in other areas to maintain their levels of preparedness. 72 per cent of respondents to our winter weather survey in 2017 were planning to share resources with other councils or emergency services during winter 2017/18. Fifty-three per cent were planning to share salt, 28 per cent gritting machinery, 16 per cent staff, and 14 per cent gully-sucking lorries. Given that the pressures of winter weather can hit different authorities at different times and in different ways it’s vital to have agreed protocols for accessing joint resources and that processes are understood well in advance of any weather.

Despite this planning the resilience of the network is dependent on ongoing preventative maintenance and this is an area that is more difficult. We know that there is currently a £9 billion maintenance backlog on our local roads. There is also not sufficient money within the system to make progress on this issue. If we continued at our current rate the backlog on our local roads would take 14 years to clear. The LGA has long called for increased investment in the local road network with 2p from current fuel duty revenues being diverted to maintenance of the local network. This will go some way to addressing the disparity of funding between the local and strategic road network. Over the first Roads Investment Strategy period strategic roads were awarded 52 times more cash per mile for routine maintenance than local roads. If our roads backlog is not dealt with it will continue to exacerbate the effects of winter weather.

Last year’s beast from the east, whilst not yet reflected in any stats, will have had a significant impact on the maintenance programmes of authorities. Periods of cold weather like that can fast forward the process of deterioration of roads and has a double whammy effect as resources that could be used for routine maintenance have to be used for emergency patching putting us further behind.

Councils are preparing for this year’s cold weather and will continue to marshal the resources we have prudently but until we have the means to address our long standing maintenance backlog it will be an uphill struggle.

Cllr Judith Blake is Transport spokesperson for the Local Government Association and leader of Leeds City Council.

Cllr Judith Blake

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