Richard Willis's Blog

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Snow Chaos – The Aftermath

Now that the heavy snowfall of yesterday afternoon has stopped we can begin to analyse what happened and why the roads were so poorly prepared.

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.


December 22, 2009 - Posted by | Local


  1. I agree with what you have said. It would be all too easy to criticise the Labour-run Council for failing to grit Reading’s roads and pavements. However in these cash-strapped times Reading Borough Council has to prioritise its spending. There simply isn’t the budget to have a massive workforce gritting all Reading’s roads and pavements. That said, the Council was only given 30 minutes’ notice of the heavy snowfall so was fighting a losing battle yesterday afternoon trying to mobilise gritting lorries.

    The weather conditions have been unprecedented, officers have worked extremely hard (as you say some coming in despite being on leave) and it is silly and unhelpful of some people to criticise them.

    Last night many motorists were stranded on the Woodcote Road near where I live. The community spirit, with many residents offering motorists drinks, food and even a bed for the night was great. A local Church opened their hall to provide soup which was much appreciated by those I spoke with.

    Comment by Isobel Ballsdon | December 22, 2009 | Reply

    • Nobody was working extremely hard, or indeed at all, on St Peter’s Hill when I walked up it late last night. And when I walked back down late this morning it was still closed to traffic … and this is an A-road that is supposed to be on the council’s priority list.

      Comment by JGS | December 22, 2009 | Reply

      • JGS – I am certainly not suggesting that everything was perfect. That is what the scrutiny enquiry should investigate. However, there was so much snow and so many roads to treat today that they could no all be done at once. Certainly when I drove into Reading this afternoon all of the main roads seemed to have been treated and were open to traffic. The buses were also running again.

        Comment by Richard Willis | December 22, 2009

  2. Here in Bolton, some of the main roads are just as bad as the side roads.
    I asked a taxi driver if he’d seen any gritters out and he said he hadn’t; and he’d done an 18-hour shift, and two 12-hour shifts.

    I understand councils were caught on the hop, but this happened a couple of years ago and will happen more frequently.
    I haven’t seen gritters here at all at any point this year – surely thay had some kind of plan for the winter?

    I realise you can’t comment on Bolton’s council, but it’s nice to join the conversation 😀


    Comment by Refurbished Laptop | December 23, 2009 | Reply

  3. Richard, glad there is going to be an inquiry. the bottom line is since last week, the TV weather forecasts have been time and time again issuing severe weather warnings for the entire UK. There was a heavy snowfall last Thursday night. Plenty of time since then to put the infrastructure to ensure any further forecasted snowfall would have a minimal effect on the traffic on this town. I know for a fact residents calling the Council and asking for grit boxes for their roads only to be told it was not the responsibility of the council!! If grit boxes had been distributed, the community spirit would have ensured this town would not have suffered as it did! I mean it must be bad if my ( main) road was on the national BBC news on Monday night depicting the disastrous effect of the council’s response to the weather conditions.

    Comment by Jazz | December 23, 2009 | Reply

    • Jazz – it is issues like this that the enquiry will look into. There were general weather forecasts but the Met Office severe weather warning was not issued until 1pm on their website. I know because I was checking the site. You can see them here:

      Grit boxes are the Council’s responsibility and were recently reviewed to ensure that they were in the best locations. There were some in illogical places and none where there should be one. I dont yet know if the changes had been implemented by the time the bad weather hit.

      There is a lot for the enquiry to establish and I have already tabled quite a few questions.

      Comment by Richard Willis | December 23, 2009 | Reply

  4. Richard, many thanks for your response. An investment in grit boxes is one possible way forward with the people of this town part of the clearing process as it is in their interests too. Distributed/Put in place in advance all over town would take the pressure off the Council staff gritting/clearing the roads. Would say that is cost effective. Understand we are going to experience this kind of weather more frequently? Personally have invested in the right type of boots, a shovel and tins of soup…my thoughts are with the elderly and vulnerable people of this town who really were the most affected. Again, the community spirit played a big part and we must remember it in any future contengency plan.

    Comment by Jazz | December 23, 2009 | Reply

  5. As Jazz quite correctly states there was heavy snowfall last Thursday and the bad weather , although not forecast, would have not had such devastating consequences if the roads had been treated properly.
    With snow as heavy as that in a short period there will always be problems , but there is no excuse for the inaction after we had the first snow on Thursday!
    This 30 minute warning is a lame duck excuse that doesn’t stack up.

    Comment by howard thomas | December 24, 2009 | Reply

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