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No business like snow business- the economic cost of snow

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Winter is here and, depending on your standpoint, we’ve either been blessed or cursed with a bit of snowfall – the cold spread across the country, paralysing roads, shutting down schools and businesses and filling news broadcasts for what felt like weeks on end. With all the hyperbole about the snow comes the hassle of dealing with it – but how much does that cost? And how much economic damage can the snow cause in the first place?

The snow really hit on December 10th, and we had resting snow and ice for a few days afterwards. By the end of December 11th, it was being estimated that the snow had already cost the country £1 billion in lost economic output. Figures showed that around one in three workers were unable to get into work all around the country, and that resulted in a considerable amount of work just not being done.

Given the cost of dealing with the snow, it would be reasonable to ask why the UK isn’t better prepared for the weather – why is there always chaos whenever a bit of snowfall occurs?

With snow, we also find that the month before Christmas sees a huge upturn in consumer traffic. Households normally spend around £2000 a month, which increases by £500 in December (there are noticeable increases in food, alcohol and book purchases). We’ve got about 27 million households in the UK, so the sums suggest a spend of £68 million this month. Then, there are other individual costs to consider. From additional winter clothes to bonus transport costs (Uber tried to charge an NHS worker £149 for a ten-mile trip), the snow can really help the money add up.

Given the cost of dealing with the snow, it would be reasonable to ask why the UK isn’t better prepared for the weather – why is there always chaos whenever a bit of snowfall occurs?

…investing in the infrastructure and equipment necessary to cope with the snow would be extremely expensive, and we just do not get enough snow to warrant the expenditure…

The simple fact of the matter is that this situation is the most cost-effective approach. The Met Office and government have done a cost-benefit analysis of the investment needed to avoid the annual chaos that a day of snow costs compared with the investment needed to avoid it, in order to work out the appropriate level of investment to mitigate occasional issues. It finds that investing in the infrastructure and equipment necessary to cope with the snow would be extremely expensive, and we just do not get enough snow to warrant the expenditure (they conclude that the money being spent on winter resilience in transport is ‘broadly right to minimise delays’).

In many European countries, there is heavy investment in things like heated airport runways, high-tech snowploughs and switching vehicles over to winter tyres each year. Some of these things aren’t too useful over here – winter tyres used in countries like Sweden are optimised for much colder conditions, made from softer rubber to maintain grip well below freezing. Such a tyre would wear very quickly in the UK, because they just aren’t that cold in comparison.

Factor in grit, heating, and the people needed to run this equipment, and the cost only goes up – a lost billion looks tiny in comparison…

Gatwick Airport ordered six new snowploughs this year at a cost of roughly £1.3 million each – it currently has 29 in its fleet, and plans to increase that to 96 by the end of the winter season.That amounts to a cost of around £125 million to look after an area the size of Gatwick – if we extrapolate that out to the size of the UK, you’re looking at £378.9 trillion on snowploughs alone. Factor in grit, heating, and the people needed to run this equipment, and the cost only goes up – a lost billion looks tiny in comparison.

Frequently, issues stem from the fact that people in the UK just aren’t used to dealing with the cold conditions. Our climate is typically very mild, and so we aren’t particularly well-practiced in driving or walking in slippery conditions – no amount of spending is going to remedy that.

A cold snap can cause lots of trouble, despite people abroad scoffing at our seeming capitulation in the face of snow. However, perhaps it’s time to adopt the old British attitude of ‘keep calm and carry on’ and, if we worry about how much the snow costs our country, one look at how much it would cost to properly deal with the problem will ease our minds considerably.

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