Why does Britain grind to a halt as
soon as we get a few snowflakes? Answer – capitalism. Here are the facts. Road Salt, what the
gritting lorries pump out to make our roads safe, is produced for the UK by two
private mining companies, the Salt Union in Cheshire, and the Cleveland Potash
The Salt Union can produce
5,000 tonnes of Salt a day, and Cleveland Potash 3,500 tonnes. The problem is, when snow covers the whole
country (as it has been doing in January and February) we need 80,000 tonnes a
day, and that’s just to cover primary A and B roads. You do the sums - that’s why everything grinds to a halt. The Salt Union is part of the US
conglomerate, Compass Minerals, and has clearly been subsumed by the ‘Just In
Time’ production culture. Although it signed contracts to supply most local
authorities with salt when they wanted it, it clearly never occurred to them
there could be snow in more than one part of the country at the same time.
Who’d have thought!
At the height of
the winter weather in January, the Salt Union had a mechanical break down. When
asked why production had stopped at this crucial time, they sighed they were
awaiting a spare part – from South Africa. It would take two days to arrive.
No, they don’t have spare parts on site, because, well that costs money. Well, local authorities asked, while we wait
for this bloody part to arrive from South Africa, surely you have some stockpiles
to fall back on? Nope, don’t do stock piles, that costs money too. Not much
call for snow salt in the summer you see, and keeping stockpiles costs
When the part finally
arrived, and the local authorities were by now screaming for supplies, it was
tactfully suggested the Salt Union increase production to make up for the lost
two days – after all, the company are always boasting that there is 500 year’s
worth of supply salt beneath Cheshire.
No can do. They only have one shaft you see – so no matter how much you
dig out it can only be transported to the surface at a rate of 5,000 tonnes a
day. Suggestions to the Salt Union by irate highways managers that they might
like to think about sinking another shaft some time, was just met with sharp
sucking in of air through teeth. So that’s
capitalism for you. All quick profits and no long term thinking. And very short
sighted. The inability to perform quite a straightforward task of getting salt out from beneath Cheshire and onto our
roads, has enormous financial impacts throughout the country. Production is
lost as people can’t get to work. Insurance claims go through the roof. The
longer untreated snow and ice is on the roads, the more pot holes we get – this
recent snow will cost every local authority between £4 – £5 millions to repair
their roads. Then there’s the impact on the health service as people are
injured slipping over: the West Midlands and parts of London had to cancel all
elective surgery because of the pressure on A&E units.
So what would we do under socialism?
Nationalise the Salt Union for a start, and invest in a second shaft. Then we
need stockpiles built up over the summer months. Its true, salt has a shelf
life of around two months if piled up on wet ground and with no cover – which
is what most local authorities do because they can’t afford to do otherwise.
But with a waterproof base and overhead cover, it can last up to five years. So
we would expropriate some land, pinch a load of hangers off the military and
instigate the Five Year Plan to make sure we are ready to make everyone safe
during the next white out (saving millions on road maintenance and health
service provision into the bargain). Production culture would go over to ‘Just
In Case’ not ‘Just In Time’. And what
should we do with the capitalist owners of these companies? In the old Soviet
Union, they probably would have been put on trial and then sent down a salt
mine. But given their current track record, I think we should keep them as far
away from salt mines as possible.