It is undoubtedly true, as I said yesterday that Reading, as were other Councils, was caught on the hop by the heavy snow fall. It is rare that the South of England experiences snow falls of this scale and when it does they are usually in the New Year and not before Christmas. Colleagues of mine were stranded in various places and some resorted to staying in hotels or with friends as they were unable to get home. I know that many local residents had problems getting home and some experienced accidents and scares. I was horrified to read of ambulances slipping backwards down hills and people stranded in the snow. I was keeping an eye on the Met Office website and they did not issue a severe weather warning until 1pm yesterday and the snow began to fall at 1.30pm, leaving very little time for Councils to react.
What we need now is a considered investigation into the circumstances leading to yesterday’s severe weather and the Council’s reaction. I understand that several Councillors of all parties have requested this, although the Lib Dems are shouting loudly as though they are the only ones. It is very much to be regretted that while Council Officers were coming in off leave and out of hours to respond to this emergency, local Liberal Democrat politicians were (and still are) seeking to make political capital from the situation. When we are faced with a severe weather situation it is important that politicians react responsibly and do not impede those who are going about their duties.
Contrary to some of the silly statements on local blogs and twitter, serious questions are already being asked by Conservative Councillors. Yesterday evening I emailed Transport officers at RBC to request a briefing on events as soon as the immediate crisis had died down. Today I have discussed the situation with the Head of Transport at RBC to better understand the apparent lack of response and the reasons for it. I have also requested a full investigation and report by the Council’s CCEA Scrutiny Panel in discussions I have had with the Scrutiny Panel’s Chairman. As Vice-Chairman of the Environment Scrutiny Panel I have also raised this matter in the past with Council officers and will continue to do so to ensure that the Council is as prepared as it can be. What I have not done is gone onto local radio, whilst not in possession of all the facts, to stoke up local anger based on ill-informed comment and speculation.
Some people seem to think that gritting or salting is a panacea to bad weather and slippery pavements. It is not. There are several means of treating roads and pavements but laying grit while heavy snow is falling is simply not effective. When there is reasonable advanced warning roads and pavements can be pre-treated with urea or rocksalt. In this case there was very little warning from the Met Office and no advance warning at all through the weather warnings used by local Councils.
There are undoubtedly lessons to be learned from the response to yesterday’s unusually heavy snow and I and my colleagues will be at the forefront of pressing for these but we will do so responsibly. The fact remains that local Councils of all political hues were caught out yesterday.
I would like to pay tribute to the Council staff who have come in off Christmas leave or worked extended hours to deal with this situation. There is still a huge job to be done today to catch up with gritting and snow clearance after the event and I will not do anything to impede that process just to score political points.
UPDATE: If anyone doubts that Reading was not the only authority caught out recently just read this criticism from Lancashire, an area far more used to bad weather.
I love watching good impressionists and Rory Bremner is amongst the best I have ever seen. This is his political review of 2009 and it is great: