Leading article: The drifting economics of British winter

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The Independent Online

A bit of snow, goes the familiar refrain, and the country grinds to a halt. It is not like this in Moscow or Chicago where they have snow ploughs and proper contingency plans.

We British love a good moan, but how much economic sense would it make to invest in fleets of snow-clearing equipment? When days of serious snow hit London last year the mayor, Boris Johnson, said it did not necessarily make sense to make a major investment in snow-ploughs if they were only used once every two decades. Although the capital is still relatively snow-lite, this is not true of most of the country, and with this year's early snow, the mayor's notion of "once every two decades" is starting to look a little unrealistic.

With global warming we can expect "freak" weather to become more normal. But when does the cost-benefit analysis show that a major shift in thinking is required? The main argument is always that snow hits the overall economy. If 10 per cent of the nation's 30 million workforce is snowed in, that costs Britain £600m a day. Not only is direct output lost but they don't buy coffee, sandwiches and newspapers on their way to work.

But that is true only up to a point. Money not spent today doesn't disappear like snow when the thaw comes. Some of the work we can't do today we simply do tomorrow. And what we can't buy today often gets bought later in the month. Likewise, though there are fixed costs in snow-clearing – more ploughs, gritters and salt – some of the extra cost, in wages for example, returns to the economy in taxes and spending. And very cold weather boosts the profits of power companies.

Moreover, increasing numbers of people can work remotely. Nor are the costs constant. Employers' organisations will testify that the first day of snow is always the worst. After that people find ways to get back into work, though there can be longer-term problems with childcare when schools stay shut. Having said that, councils that have sought to cut public spending by reducing their stocks of salt and grit – relying on just-in-time deliveries for replenishment – are indulging in a fool's economising. That is where the rethinking needs to be done.