I confess that any initial pleasure in the snow is now wearing off. And as I have already discovered today, last night's slight thaw and then freeze signals more problems for local people trying to get to school, work and the shops. My car made some interesting manoeuvres when exiting our side road, but it is people trying to walk on the pavements who are particularly at risk.
I think we need a fundamental review of the relative priorities of pavements and footways versus roadways in ice and snow clearing. This winter’s snow should not be seen as an aberration. Increasing climate extremes will be part and parcel of overall climate change. Just as the ‘once in five hundred years’ west country floods of a couple of years ago were repeated this year, we cannot assume it will be another thirty years before the next big winter freeze. The Liberal Democrat opposition on Herts County Council has done a great job in highlighting the lack of overall preparation by Herts Highways. But we now need a wider discussion on whether we have the priorities right between roads and pavements.
Elderly people in particular have been prisoners in their own homes because they dare not set foot outside their front doors for fear of slipping over and breaking something. All of us have take our lives in our hands when we walk down the street – and in a hilly town like St Albans, ‘down’ is often the right word with sloping pavements making icy conditions yet more treacherous. Yet the county council’s policy statement on ‘Winter Maintenance’ leaves footways as an afterthought – less than one hundred words tucked at the end of a 1500 word document. This ignores the fact that journeys start at people’s front gates. It is clearly not plausible for the council to clear every footway itself. But I would like to see a summit meeting called by the county council (which has overall responsibility) to bring together local councils, local voluntary groups and other interested residents to explore mechanisms for community self help.
I can see a role for street wardens looking after street salt bins to which they could have a key if theft is a problem – either as volunteers or on a small retainer. The uniformed groups could play a part in their areas – again earning a modest contribution to their funds, when they come out to clear footways. And each and everyone of us could start from the presumption that we are responsible for the piece of pavement outside our home, provided that the county council provides the means. In the meantime I applaud all the community minded people who have used their own initiative to help older neighbours by salting and gritting front paths. Also Oakwood School for getting a team of parents to clear the nearby pavements and make them safe. None of this is rocket science. It’s not about letting the county council off. But it is how other countries manage much worse conditions by everyone working together. Not only would this release older and less able-bodied people from being imprisoned in their homes, it could be a brilliant mechanism for building community spirit.