Road users grit their teeth as salt supplies dwindle

Reserves running low and gas demand at record levels as Arctic conditions set to last into next week
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The Independent Online

Stocks of salt needed to keep Britain's roads open have run perilously low, the National Grid said it was struggling to cope with the record demand for gas, and factories in the North-west of England and the East Midlands will today have their fuel supplies temporarily suspended, as forecasters warned there was no sign of a let-up in the Arctic temperatures.

The power cuts will raise ominous reminders of rationing during the three-day-week energy shortages of the early 1970s. The Cabinet will today discuss the big freeze amid charges that government preparations for the prolonged wintry spell had been slow and inadequate.

Local councils, which are responsible for all roads apart from motorways and major routes, were being forced to ration their salt because of the unprecedented demand. The result was that salt was being spread more thinly and many minor roads were left ungritted. A series of accidents yesterday added to the traffic chaos across the country.

The Government recommended last month that councils hold six days' supply of salt, but with the cold snap into its third week in some parts of the country, many authorities warned that they had used up almost all their reserves. Ministers announced an emergency list was being set up to get salt to the areas suffering worst from snowdrifts.

UK salt mines warned they were operating at near "hand-to-mouth" levels and disclosed they had exhausted surface supplies. Police were called in to deal with a large backlog of heavy goods vehicles at British Salt in Middlewich, Cheshire, as it struggled to cope with demand.

The National Grid yesterday issued its second gas alert in three days as demand leapt to record levels. The warning came after problems developed with a pipeline pumping in gas from Norway.

In an effort to safeguard gas supplies for domestic households, the National Grid will switch off energy supplies to 27 factories today that have signed up to "interruptible contracts". A spokeswoman said 12 businesses in the East Midlands and 15 in the North-west would be affected. Other power cuts look inevitable if, as forecasters predict, the wintry spell continues.

"Constraint issues in those regions mean we are contacting some factories due to the very high, peak demand," the spokeswoman said. "Only those on interruptible contracts, which give them savings on the costs of their gas supplies, are being contacted. This will not affect other domestic or business users."

On another day of Siberian temperatures across the UK:

* The Oxfordshire village of Benson was the coldest place in the country, at -17.7C, only C warmer than the South Pole.

* British Airways axed flights at Gatwick and Heathrow and easyJet cancelled 70 flights at Gatwick.

* Nearly all train companies, including Eurostar, reported suspensions and delays to services.

* Hundreds of schools were shut in North Wales, Hampshire, Cheshire, Gloucestershire and Merseyside.

* The body of Philip Hughes, 45, from Slough, Berkshire, was recovered from beneath the ice in a frozen lake at the World Darts Championship in Frimley Green, Surrey.

* A Scottish farmer was taken to hospital after his barn collapsed under the weight of the snow.

Gordon Brown, who yesterday cancelled a tour of the South-west of England because of the wintry conditions, discussed the crisis with major salt suppliers, local government leaders, the head of the Highways Agency and the chief executive of the NHS.

Susan Hall, the deputy leader of Harrow Council, in London, described its wait for an order of 1,000 tonnes of grit, as "pretty outrageous". She said: "We'll do what we can but if salt suppliers don't honour their obligations, it doesn't leave us much room for manoeuvre."

The Tories seized on a five-month delay by ministers to implement 19 recommendations on improving salt supplies drawn up by an advisory body in the wake of last February's snow storms. Caroline Spelman, its Local Government spokeswoman, said: "It is a clear sign of how distracted the Government has become that we are once again looking at insufficient salt reserves and countrywide disruption of the vital road network." Ministers retorted that most of the recommendations were aimed at local councils, the majority of which are Tory-controlled. The Government said it was doing all it could to keep major roads open.

The Local Government Association said the Met Office "originally predicted that there was only a one-in-seven chance of a cold winter in 2009-10".

It insisted: "Councils learnt the lessons from the bad weather last February and started planning as far back as the summer to ensure they had sufficient supplies of salt in stock."

Thousands of students set to take A-level and AS-level exams next week face uncertainty. Most have chosen to take their exams again in a bid to boost their results from last summer. Exam boards last night said those affected could either sit the exam again in the summer or apply for special consideration because of the adverse weather conditions.

Rock salt: The nitty-gritty

* Rock salt (chemical formula NaCl) is the common term for the mineral halite and is used to grit icy surfaces.

* Formed by the evaporation of salty water, halite is mined from deposits which form underground.

* Halite occurs when large bodies of water evaporate, forming salt beds that can be hundreds of metres thick.

* Unlike table salt, rock salt forms in large, chunky crystals that take far longer to dissolve.

* Almost half of the UK's rock salt comes from mines in Cheshire. Rock salt was embedded in the region more than 200 million years ago. Seawater moved inland from the sea, forming a chain of shallow salt marshes.

* Cheshire is thought to be one of only three places where rock salt is mined in the UK. The others are the Boulby Mine, in North Yorkshire, and Kilroot, near Carrickfergus in Northern Ireland.