Snow in Theatre Street, SW11Last February I wrote a few posts about how Wandsworth had dealt with the snowfall. They seemed (surprisingly to me) well received and, as the country braces for some more cold weather I thought it might be worth repeating what happened, and what will happen again.

Wandsworth dealt with an abnormal snowfall admirably. At a time when other councils ran out of grit and salt Wandsworth’s kept going almost non-stop for five days keeping the roads clear. By the end of the first day of snowfall, for example, the borough’s main roads were clear; they were also very quiet as people stayed at home and struggled to navigate through other boroughs that weren’t as well prepared.

Once the main roads were cleared minor roads were tackled. And while all this was going on staff worked on clearing the pavements – with extra teams diverted to help in the effort.

That’s not to say what we did was universally welcomed. I think many had unreasonably high expectations – perhaps assuming we have a huge fleet of gritters and teams of men sat around all year waiting for it to snow! Wandsworth has one of the larger fleets of gritters and (as mentioned) had the stocks of grit for them to use, but clearly we balance the costs of owning and maintaining specialist equipment against the relatively small amount of use they get over a year.

The process is not an exact science and lots of factors come into play. Rain, for example, will wash away the grit and just the movement of vehicles will blow it away if it spread too early on a dry road. And the task is like the proverbial painting of the Forth Bridge if the snow continues falling.

However, as a brief outline of what we do…

Gritting is undertaken pre-emptively. Teams are on stand-by and activated if the weather forecast predicts cold temperatures or weather that might cause ice to form. The priority for roads is to get main routes cleared before tackling side-roads. This priority stays in place throughout the cold weather.

If pavements get icy a different set of priorities apply. First, a specific set of priority areas where there is a higher risk of accident and injury are gritted and cleared, for example outside care homes or medical centres. This list is reviewed regularly and additions can be made, so if you know somewhere that hasn’t been gritted that you think should be cleared let me know. These areas are regularly visited to ensure they remain clear.

Next major pedestrian routes and then the side routes will be cleared. I had a few complaints last year that only one side of the pavement would be cleared. This is deliberate, since it effectively doubles the amount of roads we can open up to pedestrians (at the cost of a slight inconvenience of possibly having to cross the road). The council will also redeploy staff onto clearance. To give an example, there is little point in having street cleaners out when litter is frozen onto the pavement – so instead they help the clearance effort.

The other issue that cropped up was whether people can clear their own area of pavement. There is certainly nothing stopping you, and assuming you tried to clear the snow and ice in good will (rather than just creating more ice) you wouldn’t be liable for any accidents.

Wandsworth has 210 miles of road and 450 miles of footpaths and pavement – and clearly cannot tackle every inch simultaneously – but I think we proved earlier this year we were up to the task of keeping the borough moving when other boroughs were not.

We can’t accurately predict what the weather will do this winter. But with each year we do learn how to deal with it better (I was in meetings talking about it for months afterwards). If the weather turns bad, don’t hesitate to get in touch if you know somewhere that you think should be cleared.

Snow in Theatre Street, SW11Perhaps it’s just that I love using the snow picture.  Perhaps it’s because I rather liked the snow.  Perhaps because it’s a bit of trumpet blowing.

Whatever it is, I’ve just been reading the council’s report on their response to the recent weather and I’m still impressed with what we achieved.

The task was enormous, as the report states “if all the footpaths in Wandsworth were to be laid end to end, they would reach Prague.”  Let the council’s Operational Services department did a stirling job in keeping the roads and pavements clear.

The gritters were out from 3pm on Sunday 1st February (before the snow started) and continued until Saturday 7th February.  At their peak the eight gritters were using salt at a rate of 500 tonnes a day and by the time they had finished all “the Principal routes had been gritted 6 times, all Borough roads 5 times, all footway priority areas 3 times and all borough road footways once.”

I cannot deny I still get exasperated at the complaints from this period. It was a one in 20 year event and we still responded remarkably well and far better than many other boroughs, one of our neighbours (a prize if you guess which) had run out of grit on the first day!

I have said this before and will say it again, congratulations to all the Operational Services staff.

Snow in Theatre Street, SW11Now life in London is getting back to normal in London after the heavy snow it’s worth worth reflecting on the events.

I’ve always been a bit cynical about the way the country will grind to a halt following a bit of snow, but I have to say that the past couple of days have changed my opinion.

I trudged to the Town Hall last night (walking there and back, along Lavender Hill, St John’s Hill and East Hill).  There were a few things that stood out.  First, was how eerily quiet it was.  There were very few vehicles on the roads, very few pedestrians and the pubs, bars and restaurants along the route were almost empty.  What really surprised me when I walked back was that even places like the Slug and Lettuce and the Falcon (which has it’s own staff accommodation) next to Clapham Junction had decided to close early.

Second, was that the main roads were absolutely clear.  Not a spot of snow on them.

There was a bit of discussion about the council’s response to the snow at the meeting I attended at the Town Hall.  The response was formidable.  We’d had eight gritters out since 3pm on Sunday and staff had been diverted from other tasks to help in the operation.  On Monday morning gritting of key pavements, such as outside schools and stations started – even though many schools were closed and trains services severely disrupted.

Perhaps most importantly was that services to vulnerable people, like meals on wheels, continued.

And all this despite staff shortages because people couldn’t make it in.  Having said that, there were some stories of real endurance – one council employee made it in from Loughborough.

Did we get absolutely everything right?  Maybe not; on Twitter I picked up on a Tweet questioning why we only had 8 gritters – well, how many should we get to cover extraordinary snowfall and then stand unused for months or even years on end, I think we have the balance about right.  There was even one guy claiming there hadn’t been any gritting at all easy to disprove and I think a bit offensive to the staff who have been working so hard over the past few days – it might be he actually lives in a neighbouring borough who ran out of grit yesterday.*

It was a heavy snowfall, there is no doubt about that, but I think the council did a great job in tackling it.  Yes, they had to prioritise, so the pavement outside your house may have to wait, but all-in-all an admirable response to some extraordinary weather.  All the people involved deserve congratulations.

* UPDATE:  I think I was a bit unfair to the Twitter commentator.  I did Tweet him and he replied that although the roads were clear, there was no evidence of grit (he’s deleted the relevant Tweets, so I can’t link to the conversation).

This does cause some confusion, the grit is actually a white salt, so it doesn’t show up too well when mixed with snow.  Having said that, satisfaction is still hard to come by, he also Tweeted “Well, they might sue me for libel, but I’ve been licking the roads of Tooting, and they’re not remotely salty.

It seems our roads are failing the taste test!