The demand for road salt has reached such heights that there are now police cordons around the salt mine yards to control the endless stream of lorry traffic, not to mention the punch-ups. Contractors are desperate to get road salt, but in many cases it is a forlorn hope – not because the market has somehow failed, but because the government is trying to control it.
It is the same pattern we have seen before. Any sign of a problem, and Downing Street butts in and says that it is stepping in. Not that it is doing a very good job of it. In their buyers' market, besieged by lorries, the salt producers tell me that they would rather like the government to tell them exactly who they should and should not serve. (And local authorities, punch drunk from public criticism, would probably rather like Gordon Brown to tell them which streets and pavements to grit and which not to – a task that should keep him busy for a while.)
What people don't realise, though, is that the government has already decided the priority customers. And the priority customer is – you guessed it, the government. Rock salt suppliers tell me that right from the start of the cold spell, they have been telling private contractors that they can only supply government users, like local councils, health authorities, and the military. So contractors I know of have been reduced to buying food-grade salt in 25kg bags to spread in their contract areas.
Not only that, the local authorities have been instructed to spread what salt they have very thinly. So the gritters are out every day (for which, of course, the government is happy to take credit), even though they are not doing much good. Council officers tell me that what you need to do is to put down plenty at the outset to prevent roads icing up, then renew it as needed.
About the only people who are content are the drivers of the gritting lorries, some of whom, I'm told, are netting £1000 a week thanks to – you guessed – public sector wage contracts. When authorities decide to do preventative gritting at the end of the day, well, that is after their scheduled hours, so it is double time. Or when they go out early it is double time (and it stays double time for as long as they are out). Then Saturdays and Sundays are double time again.