Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Has the ‘Big Society’ crept up on us this winter?

Many people ask what the ‘Big Society’ is all about?

I for one, think the ‘Big Society’ has its roots in the past - when we lived in a different world, a world where we had a strong sense of community, where people willingly helped each other and took responsibility, and where we didn’t have restrictive Health and Safety legislation or the ‘Compensation culture’.

If it is about people coming together to help themselves and others within their communities - what occurred before Christmas with Parish and Town Councils, volunteers, residents, farmers and businesses all working together to clear the snow and ice, and grit roads within their communities – could well be a great example of the ‘Big Society’.

We saw 112 Town and Parish Councils across the East Riding taking full advantage of the £175,000 made available by the East Riding Local Strategic Partnership and administered by the East Riding of Yorkshire Council. Not all applications were approved to the full amount requested but all town and Parish Councils that submitted a bid were awarded some of the grant. – with £113,235 being awarded to date.

Some Parish Councils were proactive before the money was made available, and had already taken the lead in organising teams of volunteers - including diggers and equipment provided by local businesses and farmers to clear the snow and ice … in these cases the funding certainly enhanced the work those Parishes were already doing - particularly in allowing them to buy in salt and grit, but most importantly it provided an incentive for other Parish Councils to become involved.

Those residents who picked up shovels to clear snow and grit footpaths and streets independent of the Parish Councils should also be recognised for the tremendous work they did.

As a Ward member I was very proud to spend time working with some of the Howdenshire Parish Councils, residents and the volunteers - I was impressed with the way so many people were able to achieve so much in a relatively short space of time. (pictured with the Holme on Spalding Moor volunteers)

Before going further - I would like to recognise the sterling job carried out by the Council’s gritting teams in keeping the strategic road network of over 800 miles clear during the recent period of heavy snow, without the commitment and expertise of our staff, from the loaders and drivers up to the managers - this would not have been possible.

But whilst the council strives to ensure a strategic network of key routes are open many roads and paths are left untreated. This is where Parish and Town Councils, local farmers and contractors, residents and volunteers were able to make a positive contribution towards helping their local communities.

If one looks back to the past, previous Authorities did things slightly differently in having farmers with snow plough attachments on the front of a tractor on standby to clear the snow from minor roads. I am not saying this is something this Council should look to do directly, but I do know that two Howdenshire Parishes have undertaken to in the future employ a local farmer to clear snow from the minor roads in the Parish as soon as practicable to do so after it falls. There is also significant interest from local businesses in getting involved in this too. Providing the tractors are insured and they are allowed to use red diesel for the task, it would seem a win-win local solution to a local problem, and perhaps something we should look to develop and promote further.

To further support residents, the council also provides salt in bins or piles at many locations throughout the East Riding (some town and parish councils also fund salt bins in addition to these). The council fill the bins at the start of each year and again when they are notified that they need refilling. However, the speed at which they can be refilled does depend on prevailing conditions with the priority being treatment of the defined roads.

I hope the East Riding of Yorkshire Council’s Environment and Transport Overview and Scrutiny Committee will be able to look at this whole issue and more guidance be developed for communities, farmers and businesses.

Whilst recognising the positive impact of the £175,000 of funding, I feel that possibly more important was what the Council did prior to this when issuing the guidance on clearing snow and ice from footpaths sent to all Ward members and Parish Councils at the very beginning of December – many will recall it was a leaflet appropriately titled ‘CLEARING SNOW’. This was produced after the Council received many queries from residents, businesses and Town and Parish councils seeking guidance on how to help with snow clearing during periods of bad weather, during the previous winter.

It was also becoming obvious to the managers and Portfolio holder Cllr Matthew Grove that we were facing a large number of residents potentially trapped in their homes by the shear volume of snow fall. It was a case of the council recognising the limitations of our own service and seeking other ways of helping our residents.

I certainly feel this positive guidance went a long way to allay the fears of people being sued and demonstrates how the Council applauds and fully supports such community spirit that we subsequently saw.

I also feel the guidance is in tune with the sea change nationally - which we are seeing under both the ‘Big Society’ and Localism agendas, and shows the Council is engaging with both.

There are countless stories of the good work done by Parish and Town Councils, volunteers and residents. No Town or Parish Councillor is paid to do anything in his or her community, never mind clear snow.

Although the task was great as we had not seen the amount of snow or the freezing temperatures for many a year, there was some criticism that some paths and roads were not cleared or the work not done quickly enough, but it was never going to be possible to remove the snow and ice from every street and footpath. By and large the comments have been positive and people have been grateful for the work having been done. Personally I found the work carried out by the communities to be very humbling.

It has also sent out a clear message that Health and Safety and the ‘Compensation Culture’ is not going to stop communities working together to help each other in times of need – and perhaps the ‘Big Society’ has crept up on us without us realising.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The following link may be useful to any farmers interested in helping with snow clearing and gritting