Article - Winter Roads

At the time when I was writing last week's column, I was stuck in London, unable to find a clear path to West Dorset. 

Having heard what happened to the passengers on one of the Weymouth line trains, I am profoundly grateful not to have made that particular trip - I am currently investigating what needs to be done to make sure that we don't have a repetition of this lamentable episide if and when there is a repeat of the snowstorms in a future year. 

Given the increased likelihood of extreme weather events over coming decades due to climate change, it is particularly important that our systems should be ready to cope with such events in a way that prevents the inevitable inconvenience from being magnified into unnecessary suffering. 

But I don't think we should focus only on the things that went wrong during the snowstorm. 

By and large, the more striking point is the good work that was done to get everything moving again pretty rapidly.

Our various local councils at all levels don't often get much praise for what they do. But it is right to note they each played their parts with considerable efficiency during this particular episode - as did Highways England on the trunk roads. 

We shouldn't forget the very hard work that council officers and other public servants, as well as their contractors put in on occasions like this. 

But of course, as always in West Dorset it wasn't only the official bodies that played their part. With our rural road network, it would be quite impossible for the authorities to deal with the snow and ice at anything like the required pace if their efforts weren't complemented by the farmers who come out to help clear the way on countless rural roads and lanes. 

We owe them, too, a substantial debt of gratitude. 

There is, I think, a wider lesson here too. 

The relationship between the widely distributed efforts of the farmers and the official systems of the councils provides an instructive model for many of the arrangements that I think we are going to need to put in place to make us more resilient over coming years. 

It simply isn't possible for the councils to keep a vast army of people permanently employed on the offchance that they will be required to do some vital work on particular days in a particular year; and what is true of the people is true also of the machinery - you can't keep huge piles of snow-clearance kit available to deal with thousands of rural lanes, when the machinery in question may be used for only a few days every few years. On the other hand it isn't sensible to rely simply on unpremeditated goodwill gestures at times when disaster strikes. 

So the division of responsibilities that we saw coming in to action a few days ago is an extremely sensible way of getting the best of both worlds. The authorities provide some basic infrastructure (like bins with grit in them) and identify farmers who are able and willing to do the clearance work, largely using their own machinery - and the farmers then swing into action in the thoroughly satisfactory way when the need arises. 

This is a genuine "private/public partnership"