Keeping the highways of the country free of snow and ice has dominated the news agenda in recent days and APSE has stepped into the breach in order to help its member authorities.
We first became aware of the fact that salt and grit supplies were starting to run out a few days before it became front page news when we attempted to set up a salt brokerage amongst our member authorities. Almost immediately we were inundated with authorities requesting supplies with no one offering any spare! We began to hear stories of authorities who were down to their last day or two of supplies and how suppliers were telling them they couldn't release any stock as it was committed to Highways Agency contracts and this was their largest customer. When we checked with the Highways Agency they were holding reserves of 6 days supply!
It was at this stage that I decided to contact Local Government Minister John Healey and explain that despite the fact that the National and Regional Resilience Committee had been activated this wasn't necessarily filtering down locally and having the impact necessary to free up resources. To John's credit he responded quickly and the Highways Agency downgraded their reserve levels from 6 days to 5 and then ultimately 4. Supply then appeared to get to the correct areas and a potential disaster was averted.
I also contacted Cleveland Potash one of the largest suppliers and through their Marketing Manager Dave McLuckie, who is also a Councillor on Redcar and Cleveland Council and Chair of the local Police authority, got a sympathetic response with regard to diverting some of their supplies to the most needy authorities.
However Local Government's reputation took a bit of a battering once again and I found myself on BBC West Midland morning radio having to defend the response of local authorities Highways teams. The West Midlands, Yorkshire, Wales and swathes of the South of England had taken a hammering and the press were not in the mood to be sympathetic. However they would be the first to criticise us as being bureaucratic and inefficient if we kept grit and salt mountains with the expensive equipment required to spread it mothballed, waiting for weather conditions that were after all a once in 20 year phenomenon.
Lessons will be learned and perhaps the biggest one is getting suppliers to build in more flexibility in the supply chain. I am sure communication channels will also be better between Government, both central and local, Highways Agency and suppliers, now they have been tested to this extent.
APSE is hosting 'The Great Salt Debate' between member authorities and supplier representatives at our annual Highways seminar in Newcastle on 12 and 13 March.