For 2 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. An independent review of the transport sector’s response to last winter was commissioned by my predecessor as Secretary of State for Transport and I have asked David Quarmby CBE, who leads it, to continue that work.
The review panel’s interim report is being published today (26 July 2010); and I am grateful to David Quarmby, Brian Smith, Chris Green, and those who have supported them, for their thoughtful and forthright analysis and recommendations. Copies of the interim report have been placed in the library of the House.
The interim report concentrates on actions that can be taken by local and national highways authorities, salt suppliers, government and others to improve resilience of the highways network for the coming winter as well as some longer term actions. There is much in this report on which all of these groups will want to act urgently to ensure that disruptions to highway networks are minimised in the event of another severe winter.
For my part, I have tasked my officials to take forward, as a matter of priority, the recommendations relating to the Department for Transport and the Highways Agency. I welcome the recommendation that the Highways Agency should build up a strategic salt supply of last resort for 2010 to 2011, given the particular re-stocking challenges for local highway authorities for this coming winter. I have instructed the Highways Agency immediately to consider how arrangements could be implemented to source a volume of imported salt to establish and manage national strategic stockpiles of up to 250,000 tonnes.
In taking action to create strategic salt reserves for the 2010 to 2011 winter season, the Highways Agency will clearly need to take account of the constraints imposed by the availability of salt from overseas and immediate storage facilities.
It is important, as the review makes clear, that local highway authorities do not treat the possibility of such a supply as absolving them from the need to make appropriate provision for their highway networks. I urge local highway authorities to take forward the recommendations that relate to them.
The experience of last winter has shown that adopting standards and methods which reduce the utilisation of salt without compromising effectiveness will both reduce vulnerability to salt supply problems and reduce the cost to the local highway authority. It is therefore vital that authorities share best practice across the sector and my department will discuss with the UK Roads Liaison Group how best we can support this aim for this winter and in the longer term.
Although highway authorities have a duty, as far as practicable, to keep their highways clear of snow and ice, it was clear from last winter that many members of the public were keen to show community spirit in clearing the footways outside their property. It was equally clear, however, that many were uncertain of their rights and liabilities if they were to act in this way.
The interim report recommends (as does a recent report by the Local Government Association) that the Department for Transport should produce a brief guide to help the public understand this area of the law. I have tasked my officials to produce this by the end of October, not in the spirit of laying down what people should or should not do, but in the spirit of empowering those who wish to act in a neighbourly way.
The review panel’s work is not at an end. As well as undertaking further analysis to support longer term actions to improve resilience in salt supply, they are also turning their attention to other transport modes. I look forward to receiving their final report, which they intend to publish in the autumn, in due course.