AS winter refuses to loosen its grip on the Borders, the motoring and general public appear to be paying a high price for the near-empty salt barns of Scottish Borders Council.
And, even on strictly rationed usage, TheSouthern understands that the local authority came within three days of running out completely.
On Monday, however, the council received its first supply of salt – 250 tonnes from its regular supplier Cleveland Potash Ltd – since before Christmas.
On Tuesday, as snow and ice caused over 20 traffic accidents on the region’s roads, including the A68 and A7 arterial routes which were closed for a time, council leader David Parker announced that another 3,000 tonnes of salt, requested before Christmas from the Scottish Government’s so-called resilience stock, “is being delivered this week”.
He also revealed SBC is paying a high price for the Holyrood supplies, which are sourced from South America and delivered to Scotland by boat: an eyewatering £73 per tonne, compared to the normal charge of £23 a tonne.
Thus, the 3,000 tonnes due this week are costing £219,000 and SBC’s winter maintenance budget is already £2million overspent.
Mr Parker admitted the council had been restricting the use of salt to 300 tonnes a day and that this regime would continue “as the continuity of supply and the length of the winter cannot be guaranteed”.
“We have to actively manage our salt stocks to ensure we can continue to be able to treat main roads,” he added.
TheSouthern can reveal that the climatic pattern of thaw and freeze, allied to untreated pavements and minor roads, has coincided with a near 50 per cent increase in accident and emergency attendances at the Borders General Hospital since the new year.
NHS Borders confirmed this week that, from January 1 to 10, there are had been 699 A&E attendances: an average of 70 a day.
This compares to 482 attendances (48 per day) in the corresponding period of 2010 when prolonged heavy snow closed schools and roads.
Dr Ross Cameron, medical director of NHS Borders, said: “We expect an increased demand for our services at this time of year, due to the weather conditions and the normal increase in flu-like illness.”
Mr Parker told us: “Although minor roads, side streets and footways continue to be salted, there is no doubt some of these will be in a difficult position in terms of ice and if we had more salt available to us we would be using it.”
Conditions were certainly “difficult” on untreated roads and footways this week, with numerous minor road accidents reported across the region. The A68 was closed at Soutra, with traffic tailing back to Carfraemill, after a lorry jacknifed on Tuesday morning, while a car accident temporarily blocked the A7 on the Bow straight south of Stow.
And as more snow fell yesterday, Mr Parker defended his council from criticism.
“I want to make it clear we have done everything possible to try and obtain additional supplies [of salt], but all Scottish local authorities are faced with the problem that demand is significantly higher than supply available in the UK,” he told us.
“I notice a few letters in which your readers were asking if we had approached the Scottish Government regarding access to its national strategic salt stock. We did this the minute we knew our supplies were not going to continue.
“It has also been suggested we are trying to save money, but nothing could be further from the truth and there is no doubt we will be over budget for this winter.
“Even at £73 a tonne, I would happily buy more of it if more could be allocated to us, but at the moment, we cannot obtain more until the Scottish Government itself secures fresh stocks which will be coming from abroad between January and February.”
Mr Parker said the council was monitoring the conditions of roads and the increase in potholes across the region. He said: “There was significant damage in early 2010 and there is no doubt further damage will be caused by this winter spell, but it is far too early to assess the likely financial impact. It will be April, or earlier if the weather improves, before we have a clear view of the total state of the network and we can get the roads assessed. Meanwhile, I would ask that all drivers are extra vigilant.”