On a single day at the beginning of February an estimated 6.5 million people – a fifth of the UK workforce – were unable to get to work and more than 3000 schools were closed. The London underground stood still, bus and train services were delayed and cancelled. The cause of this pandemonium? The worst blizzards in nearly two decades.
Liberal Democrat spokesman Norman Baker said: “the lack of preparedness is astounding and damaging for the economy”, following estimates that each day of snow cost the UK £1.2 billion. He was not alone in voicing his concerns about the country’s inability to cope, as transport Secretary Geoff Hoon also criticised the speed at which the Highways Agency responded to the extreme weather conditions. The question many have been asking is: should Britain be better prepared for extreme weather conditions?
In the grand scheme of things, Nottingham City Council got lucky. We missed out on the national grit shortage because Nottingham City Council had put an order in for grit due before December. The deliveries arrived late – just in time for the snow to start falling. To give the council credit, they did install storage barns for this exact purpose a few years ago. The question many Britons will be asking is why other councils haven’t been so prescient.
A county close to my own heart, Staffordshire, has only been able to grit A and B roads because otherwise it’ll have nothing left. Hertfordshire is looking abroad for a grit supplier because it can’t find any domestically. Worcestershire is on the verge of running out of grit too, as are many other county councils. At least one fatality has already been attributed to this rationing of grit: a policewoman skidding on ice on the M8. We may have enough money in the public purse to secure our bank manager’s job, but evidently we haven’t stumped up the cash to keep the roads safe during winter.
We’re in a time of economic strife anyway, who knows what impact this might have on business? We’ve had people not turning up to work, trucks unable to transport goods, buses not running at all in London. They say the best lessons are learnt the hard way – hopefully the government will learn from this one.
Let’s be clear: the snowfall of recent weeks – the heaviest Britain has seen for 18 years – has caused massive disruption to transport, schools and jobs, with widespread worker absenteeism costing the economy over £1 billion a day. A populace already beleaguered by the ongoing recession could certainly do without such inconveniences.
However, better provisions for conditions such as this are unlikely to rank especially high on the nation’s current list of priorities. The aforementioned financial crisis has thrown up a series of long-term problems that are far more pressing than the insignificant short-term damage to the economy caused by a few days of snow-bound disruption. Focusing on costly adaptations to infrastructure on the expectation of annual periods of such heavy snow would be folly, especially in the context of increasingly mild winters in recent years.
In terms of preparing for troublesome weather, flooding rather than snowfall is much more of a problem in modern Britain. Annual inundation in certain areas of the country is becoming much more the norm rather than the exception, and local schemes such as the proposed flood barriers at Broxtowe along the River Trent are far more relevant to most people’s welfare than making sure that the underground keeps going when we do get some proper snow.
In an ideal world, Britain would be better prepared for snowfall like that which we have seen. However, in a nation historically unused to such severe weather, it is unlikely that we will be any better prepared in the immediate future and nor, to all intents and purposes, do we desperately need to be.