Page last updated at 10:32 GMT, Saturday, 14 February 2009

Snowy toll for council budgets

By Caroline Mallan
BBC London

Snowy road
Winter boots was the only transport available to many on 2 February

After the big storm came the big melt and the daunting task of tallying up the cost to Londoners of the harshest snowstorm in 18 years - and deciding what lessons can be learned should more of the white stuff fall.

Across London, council staff are assessing their winter maintenance plans and adding up bills that range from staff overtime, to the cost of bringing in extra salt to the possibility of major road repairs owing to the extreme cold.

Harrow Council in north London went through a quarter of its annual supply of salt, or 250 tonnes, to grit 70 miles (112km) worth of main road in just 12 hours as the heavy snow fell on 2 February.

Several icy nights since have further depleted the council's salt reserves, which have reached a sparse 150 tonnes - an amount that a spokesman said is the equivalent of a petrol gauge hitting the red line in a car.

Road damage

The council has since ordered an emergency 30 tonnes to replenish its supplies.

But, the spokesman said, the real costs will be measured in road maintenance.

grit lorry
Salt supplies ran dangerously low in some London boroughs
"Surfaces have cracked in the sub zero temperatures, and we estimate a bill of more than 500,000 across the borough in road damage."

Val Shawcross, chair of the London Assembly's Transport Committee, summoned representatives from the boroughs, Transport for London and other organisations including the ambulance service, to examine how the city responded.

With accumulation of between four to eight inches (10-20cm), the snowfall was the most significant in almost two decades and fell quickly, at times covering roads that had been gritted in preparation.

On Monday 2 February, morning commuters woke up to transport chaos, suspended bus services and icy roads.

Tree risk

Ms Shawcross said while trying to improve the response, it is key to remember that massive investments in snow removal equipment is unlikely to be tax money well spent.

"Discussions about more slow ploughs were somewhat irrelevant since we were told that 1991 is the last time they would have been used," she said.

Extensive gritting of roads also comes with risks that go beyond damaging surfaces and vehicles.

People were overreacting to the economic impact - London took a day off and a lot of people enjoyed a nice day off
Val Shawcross, London Assembly

"Salt also damages tree roots and there are lots of lovely treed streets in London, so you have to try and not grit the roads beyond a reasonable level."

Of the handful of London's 33 councils that have come up with early estimates of direct costs, some fared better than others.

In Westminster, a capped winter roads contract with Veolia Environmental Services cost 82,000 regardless of how much work is required. The council is, however, responsible for additional salt - which has so far cost an extra 29,000.

In neighbouring Camden, their fixed 118,000 annual contract with Veolia includes the price of salt, meaning that they were not hit with any extra bills for the immediate clear up.

Veolia also grits the roads for Brent, Kingston and Lambeth, which included more than 3,000 main and residential streets.

Snow removal
In addition to roads, salt can also damage trees

In Islington, early estimates of extra grit costs were 7,500, plus 2,000 for staff time.

In Kensington and Chelsea, a spokeswoman said that staff were reassigned to help with gritting efforts.

She said the council spent approximately 11,000 for grit, out-of-hours staffing and vehicles.

Coordination

As for the less tangible cost to the economy of shutting down the British capital for the day, Ms Shawcross said she thinks many of the estimates are overblown.

"People were overreacting to the economic impact - London took a day off and a lot of people enjoyed a nice day off."

She said for many, the decision to stay put was a sensible one that did not unduly burden a strained transport system.

The challenge going forward, she said, is to have better plans in place to ensure that essential workers, including health care workers, are able to get to their workplace.

To that end, the coordination centre overseen by the London Assembly will be opened at an earlier point when storms threaten in future to ensure that road gritting is clearly prioritised.



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