The cost of last winter’s cold snap

Last year, Nottingham had a sudden cold snap which left the roads and pavements frozen and icy for a number of days. It was at the same time as the rest of the country, but there was a particular problem for quite a narrow area of the East Mids that left Nottingham, Derby and Mansfield particularly badly off.

As part of learning from the process and trying to perform better next year, in March, Nottingham City Council’s Overview and Scrutiny committee had a meeting to talk to both the staff responsible for winter resilience and staff at our local hospital, the QMC, about what happened.

I meant to blog about it at the time, because the meeting was fascinating.

I have just unearthed my notes, so I will blog about it now – with the proviso that I’m just relying on notes and my own sketchy memory, so apols if I get anything wrong.

So the senior management in charge of gritting came and told us what they had done, and what the council’s winter maintenance plan is. Basically, when the weather is as bad as it was for this brief window of time, the Council’s main focus is keeping the principle routes open. These are mainly the arterial roads into the city centre that are served by Nottingham City Transport. There were periods when the weather was so bad that they were trying to grit these routes multiple times per day, including taking staff off other work – I think I remember hearing that in the days when the bin lorries couldn’t get around, refuse collectors were redeployed to help with keeping main routes open.

A lot of anger comes from residents that they never see gritters on residential streets and that pavements are not cleared. The Council never aims to do this: the costs of just doing the main roads are so much that extending the service to residential streets as well are prohibitive. It would take millions of pounds more to have more gritters, more staff, another salt depot and so on. And you would need to have this even in the years when it ended up not needed.

There were also a lot more requests for grit bins to be installed, which again the Council is probably not going to do. I always have to declare an interest at this point as one of the few places where there is a grit bin is… right outside my house. It might look I’m getting special treatment, but I’m pretty sure it was there before I lived here. And our road is one of the steepest in Nottingham, and difficult to keep passable.

It used to be the case that grit bins were delivered in September and removed in April – this year they have stopped moving them and using the money they save that way to put out a few more bins. But they can’t manage to put a bin everywhere people asked for one.

As the cold receded, the Council started to recover. When the weather was at its worse, they entirely focussed on the principle routes. As it got better, they were able to extend their effort more to some of the larger residential streets, and the principle shopping areas, including Bulwell and Sherwood district centres. I certainly remember the day the bin service restarted – the only way they could safely get a bin lorry up my street was by sending a small flat-bed up first and have workers shovelling grit out into the tyre paths before the bin lorry came.

The next part of the meeting was a presentation from a senior consultant at the Emergency Department at the Queen’s Medical Centre who was there to explain just how the weather had affected them. This was fascinating, and it’s here that I took most notes, so I can be a bit more definitive.

In the period when the weather was at its worst, there were 900 patients with broken bones. This led to 500 major surgeries to try and put right – a total of 900 hours of surgery.

On January 13th, 589 people came through the Emergency Department.

On that day, they did an x-ray every minute for twelve hours.

That day alone, there were 130 breaks that needed 90 operations to put right.

This has had a huge knock on to follow-up clinics and fracture clinics for months would be very busy as they coped with the fall-out.

The effort entirely displaced elective surgery for days, and so waiting times went up. But that was probably OK as many of the elective patients could not get to the hospital through the weather.

The cost to the hospital of treating these patients was £960,000, and they estimated the cost to other employers through sick pay would be around £3.3m.

Nottingham City Council was well aware of the problem: a large number of staff suffered falls themselves and four councillors ended up with broken bones.

Surprisingly, very few of the injured were children – the hospital expects lots of children to fall of sledges. The explanation, apparently, was that although the pavements were treacherous, the playing fields were barely covered in snow. My notes say “crappy weather for sledging.” They also say “don’t drink and sledge” – and I can’t remember what that’s about.

My contribution to the meeting was threefold. Firstly, shortly after the cold snap, I went to my brother’s stag do in Brighton, and noticed every street had grit dumped on the pavement in a pile. Could this be a solution to the grit bin problem? Not to put out more grit bins, but in times of crisis, to just dump a bit of grit where it was needed? The Council weren’t terribly impressed at this idea, but did say that maybe dropping off builder’s cloth sacks full might be a compromise they would consider.

Secondly, for years the Council has joined up with the water boards to offer discounted waterbutts. Could we maybe do something similar for Snow Shovels? Actual snow shovels are easier to use then garden spades for clearing paths, and if the Council helps make sure there is a pool of equipment out in the community, it should be easier for us to all help each other in the worst weather. This idea did not go down well at all. If you want a snow shovel, buy it yourself.

Thirdly, could we put out some really straightforward advice on whether you can be sued for clearing pavements? Apparently not – the legal advice we got back on the was really equivocal. Probably not, was the answer. The gritting team were very keen that as many people as possible cleared their own pavements and helped out clear the back streets and residential roads. But the legal team could not give a clear answer that people could do so safely from a legal perspective. This is just nuts. What kind of country do we live in where people live in fear of being sued from clearing pavements?! They are still working on this.

NB I would put a link to the meeting minutes – but Committee Online is not working right now so I will have to add it later.

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2 comments on “The cost of last winter’s cold snap

  1. Leigh says:

    Shouldn’t that be Principal routes not principle?

  2. niles says:

    Yes I think you’re right.

    But this suggests it’s a common mistake.

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