You have to pity David Stephen, he is an innocent abroad where central government is concerned.
David is a business man, a capitalist, self-motivated, the sort of man who thinks for himself, solves problems, takes an interest in what is going on around himself, tries to help – poor lamb!
This time last year, the Government was belatedly concerned that Britain had 15 days of gas storage against 99 in France and 122 in Germany, leaving it far more exposed to disruptions such as the pipeline dispute between Russia and Ukraine.
You might well ask what this has to do with our Salt Seller, David Stephen?
Simples. British Salt, of which David is a Director, is in the business of digging out huge underground caverns in order to mine the salt. They happen to be perfect for Gas storage. Most of the salt was used in the manufacture of cars, but the demand had trickled away to nothing in the recession.
‘If only I could sell more salt’, thought our entrepreneur, ‘I could create more caverns and the government could store more Gas’. All by himself he thought that out, no focus groups, no Quango set up to look at where Britain might store more Gas, No Gas Storage Tzar to tell him what to do. Not a Minister or a civil servant in sight.
So David set out to sell more salt, as you do when you are a motivated entrepreneur. He offered 60,000 tonnes of the stuff to 30 different councils, cheap, dirt cheap, he wanted to get rid of it quick so he could dig out more caverns.
‘Roll-up, roll-up, cheap Salt, every grain must go’ bellowed David, to anyone who would listen.
Naturally he ran head long into Local Government intransigence.
‘No thank-you’ they chorused. ‘We have our regulation six days supply, we don’t want any cheap, thank-you very much, no civil servant has told us we need more than six days supply, and if they do, the tax payer will just have to pay the going rate for it’. Actually they said that silently, for not one of the 30 councils he wrote to even bothered to reply.
Which was strange because only a month beforehand, David and his Salt mine had been lambasted for selling its salt too expensively. “British Salt Limited blasted over prices for desperate snow-hit councils” screamed the headlines. Now that it was cheap, they didn’t even bother to tell David Sparks, on the transport board of the Local Government Association of his offer.
But he added: “That wouldn’t have altered anything because everybody did have six days of salt which was the consensus view of the level of salt that was adequate to meet the demands that we would face. The consensus may have been wrong but I don’t know that, I would much prefer us to systematically review it so we can come to a figure in the light of our experience that is more able to deal with the problems we face. If it is decided that we need to plan for [and] spend more money for rarer events then so be it, but it needs to be something that’s studied systematically.”
That’s the sort of thinking you get from an apparatchik who is used to being told what to do after extensive research by fifteen different consultants.
Undeterred, David got rid of his salt mound, and sold the caverns to one of those forward thinking French energy firms, EDF to store their gas in. I’ll leave you to guess where he sold the salt…..
For Britain has had to order salt from Europe to supplement exhausted stocks, but it will take at least two weeks for shipments to arrive, ministers said yesterday.
Salins, the biggest salt company in France, said that it was receiving “desperate” orders from the British Government and local authorities. A source at the company said: “They did not store enough beforehand.”
Salt shipped from abroad costs between £50 to £90 a tonne, twice the cost of British salt.
At last, we had a Salt Tzar, Lord Addonis, yeah! and a Salt Quango, the pithily named ‘Salt Cell’ and now David’s company has ‘been forced’ to work with the government to decide who he should sell his salt too…yup, those same councils who couldn’t be bothered to answer his letter.
Curiously, speaking in Parliament, Gordon Brown said that lessons learned from last February’s freezing conditions meant that salt stocks had been “built up”….
Last word on this saga should surely go to David Sharpe – remember him, the apparatchik on the transport board at the LGA. Surely he must be apologetic for not stockpiling the cheap salt they were offered now that they are re-importing it at twice the price?
“Last month, the government recommended that councils should have enough salt to last six days of cold weather. It is clear, now that the cold snap is into its third week and no councils have yet run out of salt, that they were well prepared.”
David Stephen is due to spill the whole saga on Radio 4 tonight at 8pm – should be worth listening to!
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- January 14, 2010 at 22:28