Has anyone got a sense of déjà-vu about the current grit shortages and widespread disruption to the road network? The reason for that, is that this is exactly where we were in February last year. So how can we have got to this position all over again?
Some would like to point the finger of blame squarely at councils, but the fact is that after February 2009 a report was produced for the Government setting out how better contingency plans could be put in place. That report hit Whitehall desks at the beginning of August, but the real problem is that's precisely where it stayed for five months.
The recommendations in that report were not translated into guidance, and even then only partial guidance, until December 15th – just as forecasters were warning of heavy snow and only 48 hours before the first snowfall.
That delay lost our country a vital window of opportunity over the summer to get maximum contingency plans in place, and will have been a significant factor in leaving us with the current chaos that we have with our road networks.
One of the recommendations was the up-rating of grit reserves to cover six days of snowfall, but given this was formally issued as guidance only two days before the snow arrived, common sense tells you that is barely enough time to give councils to stockpile those sort of reserves. It is also worth noting that it showed even current government thinking to be outdated since at the point that six days of grit reserves were ordered, ten days of extreme weather were forecast.
So Labour Ministers have a lot of explaining to do as to why they sat on this report for so long when vital preparations could have been underway. They also need to explain why the guidance they gave to the Highways Agency differed to the guidance they gave local authorities and what plans they have to change the guidance since December 15th, particularly as the current cold spell is forecast to extend beyond six days.
The problems we are encountering are not confined to just the quantity of grit available, there are also pressing concerns about the transportation of the grit from the mines in Cheshire to the various councils. In this respect it is important we know when and what changes were made to the flexibility of drivers’ operating hours.
There have also been reports of gridlock around the Cheshire mines and this has impeded distribution of the grit, so that clearly takes us back to the fundamental question as to whether that last minute gridlock could have been avoided had the findings of the report been implemented earlier.
Given that the current weather is foremost in people’s minds, you might have thought Ministers would voluntarily have made a statement in Parliament, but instead they have remained silent. That’s why I applied to the Speaker for an Urgent Question demanding a statement. It was granted yesterday morning and MPs were given half an hour to put questions to the Minister. Despite that opportunity, the Government didn’t consider the issue pressing enough to offer a Secretary of State to confront concerns.
Whatever the reason for Ministers sitting on this report for five months, it’s clear evidence that Labour has taken its eye off the ball. We can’t go on like this; Government Ministers are too preoccupied with the internal difficulties of their own Party to give our country the leadership and decisiveness that is so badly needed to get us through not just the challenges presented by the current weather, but the challenges of trying to pull our country out of this prolonged recession.
One thing is certain, the longer this disruption to our road network continues, the more questions Ministers will have to answer.