How to

3 November 2016

Winter Roads and Footpaths: Management by Councils… and Vigilantes

During winter, it goes without saying that roads and footpaths become hazardous when snow, ice, frost or sleet emerges. Heavy snowfall can forge new obstacles overnight; compacted snow and ice give rise to slippery surfaces under shoes and car tyres; low visibility in sleet or fog makes driving much more difficult; and freeze-thaw creates potholes when freezing water expands in cracks in the road. In order to counteract these perils, councils generally step in, providing vital services to keep local populations safe. This article considers what these are, how they work and what happens when local residents take things into their own hands.

Under Section 41 of the Highways Act of 1980, the UK Government has an obligation to maintain Britain’s roads. If they don’t, they could be liable for injury, damage or deaths which occur as a result. The predominant ways in which councils manage snow and ice on the roads are gritting and snow clearance. The ‘grit’ used on the roads is actually rock salt. Like table salt, it lowers the freezing point of water, meaning frozen water begins to melt. This is intended to prevent snow turning into ice. Unlike table salt, rock salt isn’t edible (at least, not in the form that it’s thrown onto the road). It comes from three mines across the UK and is more readily-available than table salt; meaning it’s by far the cheaper option. Rock salt helps car tyres to grip the road, due to its natural graininess creating a rougher surface. 

Timing is imperative in the application of the salt: it’s generally spread onto the roads four times throughout the day – once around 3pm (before the rush hour), then again at 9pm, 1am and 5am, depending on the specific needs of that day. As John Greenfield, highways manager of Harrow Council explains, "If you go too early, you waste it, because it lands on a dry road and is blown away by the displaced air as vehicles drive past. Ideally it goes down on a damp surface and starts to stick.” It’s a similar story with pedestrianised areas, which are treated with rock salt by hand before shops open and after they close.

When grit doesn’t work, snow can build up and completely obstruct roads. In these cases, it’s time for snow ploughs to be mobilised. The UK government has learned a lot from Sweden in terms of road maintenance (where there’s constant snow on the ground for at least five months of the year), although the UK’s proportional investment remains, naturally, substantially lower. While there are 3,000 gritting lorries in the UK, there are only 450 snow ploughs, many of which are available for temporary use by private entities. Indeed, the government and local councils pour a lot of resources into publicly-available webpages and media outreach during winter time, in order to keep the public informed of what’s being done to keep the snow under control.

Nevertheless, the government simply can’t keep all roads clear all the time. So, to fill the gaps left by government schemes, the public at times takes matters into their own hands. Volunteer snow wardens step forward to help keep side-roads clear; grit bins allow people to spread rock salt over their pavements and roads (although sometimes residents have to pay for their own grit) and so-called ‘pothole vigilantes’ occasionally take the maintenance of public roads and pathways on themselves.

Whist these are the most common ways in which councils and members of the public keep roads and footpaths maintained, their reach is ultimately finite. Therefore, in adverse winter weather, it’s always advisable to take a blanket and shovel with you in the car, wrap up warm, wear appropriate footwear, and generally avoid going out unless it’s necessary. And, it goes without saying: don’t ski behind your car.

James Stannard

James has a Bachelor’s degree in History and wrote his dissertation on beef and protest. His heroes list ranges from Adele to Noam Chomsky: inspirations he’ll be invoking next year when he begins a Master’s degree in London.