POLICE were carrying out tests last night on a man's body found in Darlington town centre - to find out whether he had frozen to death.

The 53-year-old was found behind Wilkinson's department store, in East Street. It was discovered by a shopper at about 10am.

It is believed the man was sleeping rough and may have died of exposure on Thursday night.

The find came as weather forecasters predicted more snow over the weekend and highways chiefs defended their response to the atrocious conditions.

Darlington police scene-of-crime officers and forensic investigators cordoned off the area where the body was found, beneath the ramp of the NCP car park.

By coincidence, the body of another man was found in exactly the same place ten years ago.

Home Office pathologist James Sunter was expected to complete a post-mortem examination last night and police investigations are continuing.

As weather forecasters predicted more snow, Bob Finch, Northern director of the homeless charity Shelter, said: "People can be very vulnerable in cold weather."

Police said scores of drivers were involved in minor shunts across the North-East and North Yorkshire as strong winds turned the snow into blizzards.

Angry motorists caught in accidents on snow and ice-covered trunk roads on Thursday evening demanded to know why gritters had not been sent to clear major routes across the North-East.

"I saw five accidents on the A19 and there was not a gritter to be seen," said salesman Jonathan Preston, 28, from Ingleby Barwick, Stockton.

"I'd like to know why I pay my council tax."

With motorists trapped for up to 18 hours, Transport Secretary Alistair Darling called on the Highways Agency, local councils, and the rail industry to explain why they were not better prepared.

The Highways Agency said it had deployed 35 gritting vehicles across the region but Arctic-type snow - which is dry and powdery - prevented the grit from taking effect.

A spokesman said: "One of the problems we were having yesterday was the way the snow came in. It was also the type of snow. A wave of snow came in and the gritters went out and starting gritting, but while they were doing that another wave of snow came.

"The snow lay on top of the grit and reduced the effectiveness.

"The wind was in the north, and that was bringing down Arctic snow, which is quite hard to plough."

On the M11 in Cambridgeshire, the gridlock, which had trapped some drivers in their cars for 18 hours, began to clear yesterday afternoon.

North-East lorry driver Andrew Hamilton, 39, from Ingleby Barwick, suffered a nightmare journey and had to sleep on the hard shoulder.

"I got stuck on the M11 at 5pm and didn't get moving until 10.30am this morning," he said. "It wasn't too bad for lorry drivers because we had food, but it was a nightmare for people in cars."

The Government said last night it intended to bring forward legislation to force councils to grit the roads and remove the ice and snow.

Police reported only minor accidents on the roads yesterday as the snow began to thaw.

But they were still warning drivers to slow down and keep their distance from other vehicles.

The North-East's two airports had no major problems yesterday, although several flights were cancelled and passengers had to be taken to other airports.

Network Rail said most train routes were unaffected.

Forecasters said the snow would continue throughout tonight, eventually turning to rain.