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Chaos in the snow: who’s to blame?

Friday 06 February 2009

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who can remember when winter was winter but never missed a day at school, casts a doleful eye over the excuses given by various professionals as to why a few inches of snow brought Britain to a halt

FOR almost twenty years, I lived 650 feet up in the Lancashire Pennines and commuted daily into the centre of Manchester. It was a busy office staffed by people who lived mostly on the dead flat plain of Cheshire whilst only a few hardy souls like me dared brave the call of the hills.

Back in the 1970s, we still have some proper winters (and summers too, for that matter) and guess who got into work after a heavy snowfall. Yes, you’re right: we Lanky hillbillies. The Cheshire set stayed at home, calling in with the pitiful cry that they had “drifts” two inches deep.

A snowy Yorkshire Dales
Dales can cope!

Now the Cheshire suburbs are as near as you get in the North of England to the Home Counties and these memories came rushing back this week as London and the Southeast reeled under a proper snowstorm. And the whole region came to a jarring halt.

We had a few inches here in the Dales but there was no comparison to the winters of yore. My family has a picture of my sister, then twelve, standing next to some telephone lines. These in summer stood twelve feet above ground. But my sister was standing on a snowdrift and could have touched the wires.

That was 1947, the worst winter for snow of the 20th Century. The coldest was 1963, where my wife and I lived in a small flat near the frozen River Ouse in central York and our breaths froze on our blankets (pre duvet, this)and we had to break a sheet of ice off the bed covers before getting up in the morning.

Compared with conditions like this, the present spell of “arctic” weather is but the gentle puff of a cool breeze. Yet it paralysed our capital city: the buses, which ran throughout the Blitz, didn’t bother coming out of their garages; trains timetables were thrown into havoc and thousands of would-be passengers were stranded (again!) at airports because planes couldn’t take off or land.

It was once again apparent that in the 21st Century, the once proud United Kingdom is totally unprepared to face any kind of hostile “weather event” (to use the meteorologists jargon) whether it be snow, flooding or gales. And by Wednesday, the blame game had started in earnest amongst the so-called “professionals” who are supposed to plan a positive response to these things.

Government ministers and MPs said, mainly, that is had nowt to do with them: they couldn’t control the weather. They were not responsible for the 8,000 schools that were closed even on Tuesday, when virtually no snow fell. That’s the teachers’ fault.

The head teachers blamed the lawyers, saying they had to close schools because if some child was injured on school premises – or even on the way to school – they could be sued.

Local government leaders, who are responsible for clearing snow drifts and gritting the roads in bad weather, blamed the Government for slashing their budgets, which has hit shire counties like North Yorkshire particularly hard. There are now forecasts that the whole country will run out of salt and road grit this weekend if the bad weather continues.

it seems to me that it is always the suburbanites of the Cheshire plain or the Home Counties who give up at the first flake of snow

Many other organisations blamed ‘elf ‘n safety bureaucrats for instilling a terror of any form of risk taking on official bodies. This theory gained some substance when health and safety officials closed the public parks in Camden, London, because school-free children might injure themselves playing in the snow!

Where will this lunacy end? In that dreadful winter of 1947, when an estimated 50,000 sheep died in Dales snow drifts and scores of hill farmers were marooned for weeks on end, I never missed a day off school, as far as I recall. I admit that my primary school was only a few hundred yards from home but dozens of Dales folk have told me long stories of walking miles to school, there and back, through snow as deep as themselves.

And who of all the above is really at fault? Personally, I tend to think all of them share part of the blame, with the Government, as usual, carrying most of the can for failing to have in place any national emergency plans. But most of all, I put it down to the character of the people involved.

Quite frankly, I don’t blame thousands of teacher eagerly taking a couple of days off when faced in front by mob of badly behaved, obese and foul-mouthed children and behind by a swollen army of education bureaucrats more interested in the minutiae of political correctness than in providing a sound basic education.

And I can’t blame anyone from fancying a day out playing in the snow as a spell of light relief to all the gloom and doom spread by bent bankers and pathetic politicians. But it seems to me that it is always the suburbanites of the Cheshire plain or the Home Counties who give up at the first flake of snow. Up here in the Yorkshire Dales, we get on with it – whatever the weather.

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