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Tories blast 'utter failure' on grit reserves

The Conservatives accused the Government of "utter failure" after councils were told to use less salt to make supplies last during the freezing weather.

Transport Secretary Lord Adonis said local authorities had agreed to try to cut their use of salt by a quarter, with the Highways Agency also deciding not to grit the motorway hard shoulders.

Shadow local government secretary Caroline Spelman said: "This is an admission of utter failure. The lessons of last February's extreme weather have not been learnt."

She added: "The Government has failed to build up a strategic Highways Agency reserve and Labour ministers have sat on their hands instead of putting measures in place to safeguard grit supplies.

"Families will continue to suffer from the Government's incompetence.

"The consequence of Labour's grit crisis is that many roads will not be gritted and it will be dangerous and difficult to drive.

"The Government appears to be rapidly losing control of the situation. We need an urgent reassurance from them that they can keep Britain's roads open if the Arctic weather continues."

Her comments were rejected by Lord Adonis, who held a meeting yesterday with Prime Minister Gordon Brown as well as representatives of the Highways Agency, Network Rail, the Association of Train Operating Companies and the National Grid.

He said: "I've held discussions with the Local Government Association and with the Mayor of London and they agreed similarly that they will seek to reduce by 25% their consumption of salt per day to improve resilience next week whilst prioritising essential public services and roads within their areas."

Asked how they should reduce consumption, he said: "These are decisions that local authorities will have to take case by case."

With the UK's two domestic salt suppliers working at full capacity, imports are on order from the Mediterranean and the US.

However, the first imports are not due to arrive until January 21.

The Local Government Association, which represents town halls, said councils would take "prudent measures" to reduce salt usage while protecting safety and vital services.

It said measures could include:

* Restricting gritting to priority road networks, or to an even smaller "resilience network" if necessary;

* Reducing the amount of salt in treatments;

* Using grit only where possible on minor roads and where snow has already settled to break up snow and ice;

* Increasing the sharing of salt with neighbouring councils.

A spokesman said: "As a result of the recommendations by Government, councils will increasingly focus gritting on priority one routes and their strategic road network.

"Councils urge drivers to take extreme care on the roads and for information about gritting in their area, people should visit their council's website or contact the council directly."

David Sparks, chairman of the Local Government Association's regeneration and transport board, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The major roads will be gritted.

"The major communications between the country and within local authorities and regions, you will still be able to get around.

"At the moment we have done everything we can do and we are in partnership with the Government and we are dealing with this problem."

In the South Wales Valleys, Rhondda Cynon Taf Council said its levels of salt supplies were "critically low" and it had taken the decision to prioritise treatment of the highways from today.

As a result, 40 per cent fewer roads that have so far been treated on a daily basis until today will be salted from now on and resources devoted to what is described as the "critical network".

The council said this decision was due to "continued sub-zero temperatures, further severe weather warnings and a critically-low level of salt" as well as uncertainty about when new salt deliveries would be made.

From 6pm tonight the Bwlch, Rhigos and Maerdy mountain roads in the county will be closed because of the dwindling levels of salt and threat of further severe weather.

The council said closing the roads was a matter of urgent public safety.