Delivering services in the snow
The big freeze is prompting councils to prioritise services.
Take roads – the essential way most of us get about, whether by car or bus.
Most councils have what is called a ‘precautionary network’, that they commit themselves to salting, and details of which they publish (grit is only used when supplies of salt are low).
But what proportion of the local road network this covers varies hugely.
Ruural Services Network – January 2010
In Derbyshire the network covers 48% of roads, but in Cambridgeshire the figure is 28%.
Whether a road is included depends on each council’s criteria – such the road’s classification and its vehicle flows, with higher flows required to trigger inclusion in urban areas.
At a national level, motorways and trunk roads, important strategic routes, are kept open wherever possible by the national Highways Agency.
Rural areas are not neglected.
Many councils, for example, pledge to keep one road open to each larger village.
But last week’s extreme conditions meant this was simply not feasible.
Salt supplies coming your way may have been diverted to areas of greater need, under a national scheme the government set up called Salt Sell.
And in any case, salt has no affect below around -6°C.
Both of which may help explain why many rural roads remained, and may still remain, impassable.
You can comment on your council’s network and its salting policies, which are typically reviewed annually after examining the previous year’s weather and complaints from customers.
For roads outside the network, councils often provide grit/salt bins for people to treat pavements, footpaths and roads themselves – although in rural areas this can depend on financial support of parish councils.
What about other services?
Decisions on whether or not to keep services open is usually left to local managers – and last week schools, libraries, social services, waste collection, recycling centres and leisure centres were among those affected.
But although the decision usually depends on assessments of customer safety, when the weather is this severe it can be as simple as whether the relevant staff have been able to get to work.
Decisions are usually made on a day-to-day basis, although last week some schools had to close at lunchtime, as weather forecasts changed and became more acute.
In Essex, however, the county council put strong pressure on head teachers to keep their schools open wherever possible.
Keeping schools open enables parents to get to work, and so minimises the damage to local businesses and the Essex economy, said the council’s Cabinet Member for Education, Stephen Castle.
For some services lat week, therefore, it wasn’t a question of prioritisation, but which were practically possible.
During staff shortages, and in other crises, councils draw upon volunteers registered with their Emergency Planning teams for help – so volunteers’ location can influence what services are kept running.
In Worcestershire, 4×4 volunteer response units run by the Red Cross and St John’s Ambulance helped transport patients and those being discharged from hospital.
Others reportedly helping councils out were scout groups and, in Scotland, offenders working under the national Community Payback scheme.
But even volunteers cannot overcome the most extreme conditions, and last week some staff had to make blunt assessments.
The wheels on meals service for elderly people in Gloucestershire, for example, said it phoned all their clients to ensure they were safe and well, but delivered only to those it classified as higher risk: those without food, or could not prepare something themselves.
In remote areas, local residents are sometimes better placed than councils to keep services going.
In North Yorkshire, for example, the County Council has an arrangement with 120 farmers in strategic locations to keep roads open during bad weather.
The council provides the farmers with snow ploughs, and pays them £200 per annum plus £20-£30 per hour.
It’s a tried and tested system, and works very well, said one council spokesman.
“Some of the farmers have far more powerful vehicles than us,” another added
Even before the snow started, councils, in an effort to save money, had started looking to local people to help deliver services – what is called ‘co-production’.
Having seen volunteers help deliver so many of their services last week, councils may now decide they can expect more from communities in 2010 – whatever the weather.
© Robert Bullard. Not for reproduction without prior permission