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Winter Resilience

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 26th October 2011.

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Photo of Margaret McCulloch Margaret McCulloch Labour

Follow that if you can, eh, Margaret?

The events of last winter and the dreadful conditions that we experienced have been etched in the memory of everyone here. Every year we have come to expect a great deal from the winter maintenance patrols and emergency services who work in difficult times and yet always go that extra mile to help those who find it hardest to cope in bad weather. Their contribution should be celebrated today.

I am grateful to the Scottish Government for recognising the importance of holding a debate on winter resilience now and for setting out its plans for the coming months. Our transport system and national infrastructure are vital, and we must do all that we can to keep Scotland moving through the rain, hail, sleet and snow—some of the most adverse weather conditions. When the elements overwhelm us and travel is no longer safe, we must do all that we can to protect the public.

Last winter, as we have heard, the road network came to a grinding halt. Major arteries seized up, motorways came to a standstill and congestion that lasted all through the night spread across central Scotland into the towns and along A roads, preventing whole swathes of the network from being cleared and properly treated. We know that that cannot be allowed to happen again. We do not want to see a repeat of the cost of that disruption to the economy and the distress that it caused families and communities.

The past two or three winters have shown us that, however sophisticated and developed it might be, our infrastructure is fragile in adverse conditions. Government contractors cannot always predict the elements, and they can never control them, but they have a duty to be prepared and to put robust contingencies in place.

If this winter is anything like last winter, it could test that preparedness and those contingencies to the limit. From Met Office reports, we know that snowfall and prolonged periods of low temperatures, such as we experienced last year, are within the normal range of natural climate variability. I also note that the Met Office is examining research into whether bad winters are clustered. If they are, after two or three years of severe weather, we could be facing another long, cold winter.

South Lanarkshire Council in my area is taking steps to ensure that it is as prepared as possible for the coming months. It is issuing advice on road use in winter conditions, has invested in three new Scandinavian gritters and has increased its salt supplies to well over 30,000 tonnes, which is 9,000 tonnes more than last year.

In learning about plans that local authorities are putting in place, some questions have arisen that I want to put to the Scottish Government. Has it made arrangements with COSLA that will guarantee a consistent supply of de-icing material and salt stock throughout the long winter months? In the past, some councils have been forced to purchase extra supplies in season, when costs are at their highest. Given that the United Kingdom uses more salt than it actually produces, councils almost always have to import from abroad. That is an expensive business, although I learned recently that when councils agree good deals with suppliers in advance, they can import salt more cheaply than the Government can. Nevertheless, I would like to know how the Scottish Government is co-ordinating the planning and procurement of those supplies to ensure that there is a more comprehensive plan in place to treat Scotland’s roads this year.