Road salt row as big freeze tightens grip

AS thousands of frustrated travellers face misery in the freezing weather, a pressure group claims councils have ordered less road salt to treat icy roads this year than last year.

A TaxPayers' Alliance report claims that councils have ordered 1.48 million tonnes in 2010-11 compared with just under 1.51 million tonnes in 2009-10.

It added that 75 of the 205 UK councils surveyed had not received all of this year's road salt order.

The alliance also looked at the cost of purchasing emergency supplies of road salt in 2009-10 which came to 10.5m.

The amount spent varied considerably, with Newcastle council spending 331,400 on emergency road salt but neighbouring Sunderland not spending anything. Similarly, Bradford spent 286,000 while Leeds spent 13,400.

The alliance said the council that spent the most on emergency road salt in 2009-10 was North Yorkshire, with 533,652.

TaxPayers' Alliance policy analyst Chris Daniel said: "Many councils were clearly unprepared for the latest icy spell, because they had ordered less salt than they did last year.

"It is unacceptable for councils to write off their failings by claiming that extreme winters in Britain are too rare an event for it to be worth preparing. This winter is the third in a row where severe weather has swept across the UK, so councils and highways agencies have no excuses for not having everything in place.

"While some seem to have learnt from last year and ordered extra supplies for the current winter period, others have not."

But Coun Peter Box, chairman of the Local Government Association's economy and transport board, said the TaxPayers' Alliance research was "flawed" and "nothing more than an attempt to stir up panic".

He said the alliance had compared eight months' worth of salt orders with an entire years' worth.

Mr Box said: "The simple fact is that councils prepared even better for this winter, and started it with a third more salt stockpiled than last year. This was verified yesterday by the Government's own independent expert, David Quarmby."

A spokeswoman for Leeds City Council said: "The figures being used by the Taxpayers' Alliance are misleading and wrong. Leeds City Council has, in fact, spent around 500,000 on salt supplies for gritting."

A spokesman for North Yorkshire Highways said: "It seems that the Taxpayers' Alliance have misinterpreted the figures.

"Our salt barns were full, and the amount we held was some three times the amount recommended by the Government.

"It is unsurprising that the figure for North Yorkshire is a high one, since North Yorkshire is England's largest county, and has a highways network extending to some five thousand miles."

The alliance said the report was compiled using responses from Freedom of Information requests submitted to every county, unitary and metropolitan borough council in the UK as well as to Transport Scotland, Northern Ireland Road Service, Transport for London and the Highways Agency.

It added that the information was correct as of November 22 and was based on the total amount of road salt councils ordered in 2009-10 and 2010-11, and separately for the cost of procuring road salt on an emergency basis for the last winter period (2009-10).

The freezing weather wreaked havoc across Britain yesterday with stranded air passengers at Heathrow warned not to expect normal service to resume at once after the airport was temporarily closed.

Thousands of people endured an uncomfortable night in the airport's terminals as their travel plans suffer continued disruption due to the snowy weather.

There were also flight disruptions at Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow, as well as Gatwick, London Luton and London City airports.

The EU Commission slammed Europe's air travel disruption as unacceptable and urged airports to "get serious" about better planning for bad weather.

The volume of calls to breakdown services remained higher than usual, following their busiest day on Monday.

Firefighters were called to Blenheim Palace after staff set fire to the roof while trying to thaw pipes. More than 40 emergency responders tackled the blaze at the birthplace of wartime Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill in Woodstock, Oxfordshire. Only minor damage was caused.

Forecasters predict more snow today and freezing temperatures.

HOPES OF THAW ON BOXING DAY

Travel misery is likely to blight the UK until after Christmas, with the long-awaited thaw not expected until Boxing Day.

A man who was found unconscious in freezing temperatures on a pavement in Leeds has died. The man, who had not been identified last night, is thought to be in his 40s, and was discovered with a minor head injury in Barley Hill Road, Garforth, late on Sunday.

Police in Leeds warned motorists last night to be alert following three "frost jacking" incidents in the north west of the city.

Customer calls to Yorkshire Water are expected to be almost double what they would typically be as pipes froze across the county.

By 3pm yesterday, the company had received 6,835 calls over the previous eight hours.