Martyn McLaughlin: Why Scotland can't cope with winter snow

There is neither the need nor the financial justification to have a phalanx of snowploughs on standby, writes Martyn McLaughlin.

Snowplows remove snow from a downtown avenue in Montreal (Picture: AFP/Getty)

There is a fixture of the Scottish winter as predictable as grainy mobile phone footage of semi-naked men diving onto snow-covered trampolines, albeit nowhere near as amusing.

Whenever a prolonged flurry of snow coats our towns and cities, there follows a familiar refrain, bemoaning how the entire nation has come grinding to a halt. Look to Canada, the chorus beseeches. If they can cope with the snow, why can’t we? It is an increasingly common grievance which deserves to be put to bed.

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You need only refer to a three-decade-long analysis of snowfall across Scotland, dutifully compiled by the Met Office, to realise how rolling out a Canadian-style system would be a foolhardy false economy.

On average, snow or sleet falls in Scotland on 38.1 days of any given year, with the number of days when snow lies on ground standing at just 26.2. That is higher than the UK average – which the Met Office puts at 23.7 and 15.6 days respectively – but a mere dusting when compared to our cousins across the Atlantic.

In Montreal, at least a centimetre of snow lies on the ground for 104 days of the year. This season has been especially severe on La Metropole, with 180cm of snow recorded as of mid-February – enough to fill approximately 6,400 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

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There is currently a huge grey-brown mass on the outskirts of the city some ten storeys high which some tourists mistook for a mountain range; in fact, it is a giant mound of discoloured snow scooped from the streets and pavements in recent weeks.

For all that the Beast from the East has been an unwelcome presence on these shores of late – particularly for those drivers who found themselves stranded on snowbound motorways – its impact has been a whimper by comparison.

The recent weather has been remarkable because it is quite literally exceptional. Our climate is largely mild and snow is an infrequent visitor. Yes, prolonged winter storms cause widespread disruption, and of course, parts of our nation are on the same latitude as Hudson Bay, but that does not warrant an injudicious use of public money to try and emulate the Canadian approach.

The social historian and journalist, Judith Flanders, a native of Montreal, observed as much recently. Now based in London, she took to task those who claimed authorities here are stuck in the dark ages when it comes to dealing with wintry conditions. The reason Canada is different, she pointed out on Twitter, is not just down to the climate, but because it is cost effective to deal with the snow.

The Montreal experience is an instructive insight not only into how authorities can mitigate the worst nature throws at us, but the eye-watering sums involved.

The municipality has around 3,000 dedicated staff and a fleet of 2,200 vehicles to deal with the snowfall, with 140,000 tonnes of salt and abrasives across roads and pavements every winter.

Whenever there is at least two-and-a-half centimetres of lying snow, around 1,000 tractors, front-end loaders and snowploughs move the white stuff to the sides of the city streets, with 10 high-powered snowblower machines on hand to deal with heavy drifts. There is extensive disruption, with residents given several warnings to move their cars. If they don’t, they can be towed.

The enormous banks of snow are then loaded on to articulated lorries and taken to one of more than two dozen so-called disposal sites – surface dumps or giant sewer chutes – scattered around the municipality’s boundaries. Aound 12 million cubic metres, or 300,000 truckloads of the stuff, is dumped every year, with the meltwater recovered and treated in line with environmental standards.

By comparison, the operation mounted by one of Scotland’s most northerly local authorities looks like child’s play. Highland Council, responsible for the longest local road network of any council in Scotland, has at its disposal just 105 gritters, 42 pavement gritters, and a single snowblower. Over a typical winter, it spreads around 50,000 tonnes of salt.

But here is another important contrast. The winter maintenance budget for the Highlands is just £4.98m; in Montreal, the cost of the snow removal operations alone accounts for £91.4m of the municipal government’s £3.06bn annual budget.

Nearly two pence of every tax pound in the city goes towards it, dwarfing the amount spent on libraries, museums, community centres, law enforcement, and even waste disposal. Regardless of the non-existent need for such a snow removal system in Scotland, would the band of grumbling doubters be open to the idea of a major council tax hike in order to bankroll it?

Being prepared comes at a cost, but the lottery of our northern European climate means we simply don’t know how severe winter, from one year to the next, will be. Throwing tens of millions of pounds at a prospective problem only to have columns of gritters, trucks and snow ploughs lying idle for years at a time might temporarily distract the moaners from their usual topic, but it would be a reckless waste.

Perhaps we would all do well to heed John Ruskin’s sanguine assessment of the ever-changing seasons. “Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating,” he observed. “There is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.”