Alistair Thompson is Conservative candidate for West Bromwich East. He also runs Media Intelligence Partners with business partner Nick Wood, the former press secretary to Conservative leaders William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith.
The Government, both national and local, failed us all during Britain’s ‘great freeze’. Yet disappointingly, and despite there being many angry people, almost no one is talking about how we prevent the UK grinding to a halt the next time we are hit by heavy snowfalls.
Admittedly there was endless news coverage about grit supplies, gas shortages, the effect on the economy and even bringing in the army to get food to isolated properties – but for all this there was no credible plan for getting the streets and pavements clear.
I suspect that the vacillation of the Government was deliberate as they knew that if they kept talking about this problem for long enough, blaming councils and denying any responsibility, then it would simply melt away.
And we must not be distracted by the false talk about grit supplies. We all know there are two major issues with pinning our future hopes on increasing the amount of grit available; firstly, supply.
There are, as I understand, just two mines that supply the UK with all our grit and these were already working at 100% capacity. The Government belatedly responded by suggesting that it would ship in grit from abroad – taking a week or two to reach our shores, and that's before you consider the logistical nightmare of getting it to the right local authority depot and spreading it on our roads.
Secondly, there was also the suggestion that local authorities should carry thirteen days' worth of grit instead of six. But I would argue against this unnecessary cost. It is not just the cost of purchasing the grit, but more importantly storing it in vast warehouses and employing an army of people to look after it. I shudder to think of the horrendous council tax bills that would appear on all our doorsteps should this occur, for one winter in twenty.
Admittedly some of the storage costs could be mitigated if local authorities had not removed the yellow grit bins, which have slowly been removed for no particular reason. I certainly do believe that many of the grit bins should be returned, but this is not the solution as the extra capacity needed is vast.
So here and now I want to float an idea, which I am confident would provide a cheap solution. Undoubtedly I will get a few negative comments; I am happy to take them on the chin and would respond simply by saying that if there is another option, let’s hear it.
Over the last two decades the claimant count in our country has remained stubbornly high with more than 1 million unemployment claimants. Currently the claimant count figure stands at a staggering 1.63 million. And these are the people who are supposedly fit and well and are currently receiving payments from us, the reliable tax payer.
This also excludes all those who are in receipt of the plethora of other benefits that are available to those who don’t work, and let me be absolutely clear that I am not talking about those people who are retired or are disabled.
So today in this country we have an army of healthy and able bodied people who could be used to help clear the roads and pavements of snow: a ready-made civil contingency force that is already paid and, we are told, willing to work. So let’s use these battalions of unemployed and able people!
Let’s find them work in their local communities, clearing the snow away, delivering hot meals, anything that helps to keep the country running.
Personally I would target this force at clearing schools, hospitals and access to the homes of those vulnerable people who are at particular risk during the cold weather, before clearing the rest of our pavements and roads.
Before this idea is dismissed, I want to make two further points. It would not really hurt those people who are in receipt of benefits, and are looking for work, to be put to use for a couple of days when the country faces a crisis. And we the taxpayer should expect a little something for the £60 billion paid out annually in job seeker's allowance and other associated benefits.
At the same time as creating such a force the next Government must also bring forward legislation that will protect those citizens who have already been clearing snow from outside their homes and those of their neighbours.
If our great Leader's new mantra of ‘responsibility’ is to mean anything then we must protect those community-minded people from the overzealous health and safety brigade pursuing claims against those who have simply tried to help their neighbours. I spent Sunday clearing the ice from my street, along with friends and neighbours. Unbelievably, we were told that we could be liable should someone slip on the pavements that we spent the day clearing. As if leaving them iced-up would reduce the risk of slipping!
By adopting both these ideas I am confident that we can keep the country working without saddling us, the taxpayer, with yet more hefty bills.