Surveyor held its 20th annual winter service conference - Cold Comfort - at Coventry’s Ricoh Arena. Minister for Local and Regional Transport Norman Baker gave a video address on the importance of keeping key transport infrastructure, like our road and motorway network, operating efficiently and safely as possible.
Hello and thank you for inviting me to give the keynote address today and my apologies for being unable to attend in person. Thankfully this isn’t due to bad weather conditions; instead, I am in Birmingham today for the Liberal Democrats’ autumn conference.
However, like all of you here, I take the issue of being prepared for winter very seriously indeed. Extreme weather conditions often mean people can’t get to work; deliveries of raw materials, food and retail goods are hampered; businesses struggle to function; schools can be forced to close and emergency services may be unable to carry out their vital duties.
So it is essential that we do everything possible to keep key transport infrastructure, like our road and motorway network, operating efficiently and safely as possible.
The first spell of winter weather arrived early last year, but thanks to the actions that were taken both by central and local government; we were in a much more resilient position than in previous years. This is in spite of winter 2010 to 2011 being the UK’s third cold winter in succession and the Met Office confirming that December 2010 was the coldest December since 1910 and that the snowfall encountered was the most widespread in any December since 1981.
And we weren’t the only ones to experience travel disruption, other European countries, even those who are more accustomed to severe winters, faced a similar plight.
But it seems clear that disruption here in the UK would have been far worse without the rapid action taken to implement the recommendations of the Quarmby Review, published following the severe winter of 2009 to 2010.
Actions that we took included having a strategic salt stockpile in place, which some local highway authorities were invited to bid for when we suggested they were running low on their own salt stocks. We also developed a salt stock portal to carefully monitor how much salt stock local highway authorities held and published advice to help local authorities make the best use of their salt supplies. For the general public, we produced a common sense guide so that shop keepers and residents who wanted to clear their paths could do so without having to worry about falling foul of health and safety law.
All of this appeared to work well, but we asked David Quarmby to follow up his earlier review with an urgent audit. This looked at the performance of highway authorities and other transport operators in England and how they coped. I was pleased to learn that the main audit concluded that across the transport sector many did admirably, keeping roads open and public transport running. But it was also clear that there were still lessons to be learnt and there is certainly no room for complacency.
So, as this winter approaches, the department will continue to hold a strategic salt stock pile to overcome the re-stocking challenges faced by local highway authorities as they exited winter 2009 to 2010. This said, I was pleased to see that the results of a recent restocking salt audit undertaken by the department revealed those challenges are not as apparent. The results suggest that authorities have been placing orders with their salt suppliers and are receiving the necessary stocks as we enter the winter season.
We will also recommence our electronic stock monitoring and my thanks go to those involved in assisting with this last year and hope that they will continue to provide the necessary updates as and when my officials request them.
But it isn’t just a question of authorities having sufficient salt stocks. Consideration must also be given to getting the most out of those stocks. A good starting place would be the spread rates research we issued in December 2010 and I understand that you will be hearing more about this from TRL.
In turn, the positive impact of local communities working together during extreme weather episodes should never be under-estimated. Last year it was heartening to see the thousands of kind spirited people, businesses and other support organisations, who swung into action to help others, particularly the most vulnerable members of our society. Whether it was parents keeping schools open by shovelling snow and ice from pathways, or people checking on their elderly neighbours to see if they were safe and warm, every day brought practical examples of the Big Society in action.
The department is currently working with the Department for Communities & Local Government, and the Local Government Group, to pull together best practice examples of snow and ice clearance. I hope to see this disseminated to all local highway authorities in England by October.
We’ve done everything we can to ensure local authorities are ready to take the lead in tackling the winter challenge and I hope that the recommendations from the various Quarmby reports have been fully taken on board to ensure that robust winter service plans are in place and on standby - and that includes liaising local communities, businesses and other stakeholders both prior to and throughout the winter period.
When winter is as cold and hard as last year’s, then how, when and where we travel will always be affected and disrupted to some degree. That is unavoidable, even in countries that regularly experience the harshest winters. What really matters is the speed of response, the effectiveness of mitigation measures and the time it takes for transport networks to recover.
These are the key components of any winter resilience strategy worth its name and, by learning the lessons of the past and proactively planning for the future; this government has put them at the heart of its strategy. So, while I take nothing for granted when it comes to the great british winter, I believe we are better prepared to deal with its transport challenges than for many a year. Apologies once again for not being able to join you today, but thank you for watching and I hope you have a productive and enjoyable day.