[Part of the Here’s What You Could Have Won series, where I take issues from the news and make whimsical fag-packet calculations of things that the £205 billion due to be spent on replacing the Trident programme of nuclear submarines could buy, in preparation for the tour of my show Nuketown]
I write this in the middle of Storm Emma, a rare Siberian weather pattern that has crept its way west like Kutuzov’s armies fresh on the heels of Napoleon. I am snug indoors with the dog, but outside the world is collapsing. Non-essential travel is discouraged. Chatham ski slope has closed due to too much snow. A great yellow penis of frosty doom drags itself over the land, and all the English doth lose their shit. At times like this a uniquely English clash of weather and local politics emerges over the subject of gritting. In Sheffield, the ongoing furore over the private contractor Amey’s destruction of thousands of ancient trees continues to bubble over, with the council apparently prioritising gritting access roads for tree-cutters over important traffic routes. One things for sure – there’s never enough grit and never enough people to spread it. It’s a spicy microcosm of the debate around prioritisation of public resources that I’m getting sticky with in Nuketown.
Grit (which is actually rock salt), helps snow and ice melt faster and helps car tyres grip the roads. It is mined domestically and distributed by local authorities, who are compelled to grit their roads under the 1980 Highways Act. The UK puts 2 million tonnes of it out every year. So if we spent the £205 billion purely on materials, how much would we get?. The BBC recently found out the cost of rock salt per tonne in different parts of the UK, with the priciest being Torbay at £38 per tonne. Setting the cost at that of the fancy, fancy riviera salt of my southern neighbours, we get 5,394,736,842 tonnes. Stacked into cubic metre bags one on top of each other, this would stretch to the moon and back 54 times. Spread evenly, it would slather the entire island of Britain 173 metres deep. True Grit.
But Jack, you howl from the avalanche-hole you are trapped in: what use is all this grit with no-one to do the gritting? Right you are, these sturdy guardians of our fine minerals must be taken into account. This article put pre-austerity spending on gritting across the UK at £150m per year. I’m not sure if this figure has since been cut, but let’s give it a one-third increase either way and bulk it up to £200m. Ignoring inflation (because that’s no fun), and assuming a steady and unlimited supply of grit from our nation’s mines, as well as ruling out savings from automation by increasingly powerful and hilariously named machines, the new Royal Chartered Institute of Gritters could keep churning grip-dust onto our lanes and byways from now until the year 3043. But then what would we complain about?