Highways departments should act now to avoid a crisis in supplies of road de-icing salts if severe weather persists into the New Year.
That warning has come from Mathew Lugg, chair of the government-sponsored UK Roads Board, as councils have grappled with unexpectedly early snow and ice this winter.
Mr Lugg said: “Stocks are OK at the moment because on the basis of last year councils got more salt in.
“The problem is that bad weather has started earlier and many councils will have been gritting 24/7 for two weeks, which could have got them through a large part of their stocks.”
He said local authorities might need to import salt through buying consortia – some is coming from as far away as Australia – because “the domestic industry cannot keep pace, it needs to be ordered now so that there are enough stocks in January and February if this weather continues. Local authorities need to be making arrangements now so they do not drift into a crisis.”
The Highways Agency has assembled an emergency reserve of 250,000 tonnes of salt but this is available to local authorities only at premium prices to discourage them from relying on it.
A Local Government Association spokesman said most councils had adequate stocks, but 20% had still not received their full orders by 1 October, which was the target date to have full supplies in place.
“We are still encountering cases where councils have not got full orders delivered,” he said.
There are only three UK salt suppliers: Salt Union, in Cheshire, Cleveland Potash, in North Yorkshire, and Irish Salt Mining and Exploration, which mainly supplies Northern Ireland.
A spokesman for the largest, Salt Union, said: “All our customers have been provided with enough salt to cope with the current winter weather.
“The majority of our customers have their complete winter pre-orders and the remainder will have their complete orders in the coming weeks. These stocks will then be supplemented and replenished throughout the winter.”
Peter Sherratt, general secretary of the Salt Association, said: “This is the third tough winter running, and what has changed is that after having by and large ignored our advice to build up salt stocks, this year local authorities have done that.
“That means what spare salt there is available is in local authority stockpiles not at the mines, which are delivering as fast as they can mine the salt.”
Welsh councils have already used up between one third and one half of their salt stocks, according to Tim Peppin, director of regeneration and sustainable development at the Welsh Local Government Association.
He said: “Normally restocking would have commenced but there is enormous pressure on suppliers.”
He said 12,000 tonnes of salt was due to arrive at Newport from Sweden soon after Christmas and the WLGA and Welsh Assembly Government would collect orders from councils for a second import order in January.
A report last month by the Association for Public Service Excellence said UK salt production capacity was sufficient “only to meet the British demand in an average winter”, with a 0.9m tonne shortfall against the benchmark of 3.3m tonnes needed, although suppliers were trying to increase output.
It said that cutting spread rates by 20% would save 0.65m tonnes of salt with little difference to its effectiveness on roads. Other options to cut salt use include include mixing it with sand.