Last Friday it started snowing in the English Midlands. Its snowed most of Friday and into Saturday but by mid-afternoon Saturday the white stuff had stopped falling, so I nipped out with the shovel and some grit and cleared our drive, the public pavement along the front of the house, a path to the front door of the little old lady next door and our neighbour's path and drive (as he works in the theatre and was just leaving when I started snow clearing, so I assumed it would an icy death trap by the time he got home as temperatures fell).
Now I've been away from here since Sunday (when it was snowing again), so I sort of assumed that when I came back, the rest of the folk in the road would have cleared their drives and paths. A couple had but for the most part the snow had just been trampled down and turned to a sheet of ice. As I went out I saw one of the other elderly ladies who lives just down the road struggling along the compacted, icy snow with her walking stick.
When I got back, I got the shovel back out and cleared all the public path from our house up the road to her house.. four or so houses worth of path clearing. Took me about 30 minutes and she came out to say thanks. No thanks were needed - this is what being in a community should be about: everyone mucking in, doing their bit and helping each other out.
If the other able bodied folk around us had just spent 20 minutes doing the bit of path outside their houses, this would all have been cleared at the start of the week. As it was, they've driven their cars over the path in and out of their drives, seemingly oblivious to the state of the pavements.
Now some people would say, "but its the council's job to clear the paths". Well I've got news for them: the council aren't clearing the paths out here. They've got their work cut out keeping the main roads and town centres clear - they don't even regularly grit the road surface on side streets like ours. I also suspect that many of these same people will be the one's who complain about the cost of council services and the amount they pay in council tax. If they want a temporary army employed at short notice to clear side streets and pavements then they'd have to be prepared to pay for it. I'd guess that a 20 minute work out shovelling the just the bit of pavement in front of their house themselves would work out a bit cheaper.
Other people claim that if they clear the public path in front of their house then they'd be liable if someone fell or that the law doesn't let them clear public spaces. The latter is nonsense: there is no law preventing you from clearing snow and ice from public spaces. It is also very unlikely that you would face any legal liability for clearing public paths if someone fell, as long as you were careful doing it and use common sense to ensure that you do not make the pavement more dangerous than before (so for example don't pour hot water on snow to melt it - eventually it will freeze and turn into black ice). Its also worth remembering that the pedestrians using areas affected by snow and ice also have responsibility to be careful themselves - you're helping them but they also have to watch out themselves.
So what's this rant got to do with Big Society and Transition Towns? Well, Big Society was supposed to be about people in local communities stepping up and taking responsibility for parts of their locality. Doing the some of the things that the armchair experts rant about, that Government and councils can no longer afford in the recession.
Clearing ice and snow would seem to fit nicely into the Big Society ideal, and if our road (and many like it) are anything to go by, the Big Society needs a kick up the pants. Its not like icy pavements are some esoteric concept that people find difficult to grasp, or can't see how volunteering a bit of their time could help the issue. Its a simple thing that is easy to deal with and makes lives easier and safer in your community. It can even save society as a whole real money - cleared pavements make it easier for people to get to work or school, and will reduce NHS costs by reducing injuries from slipping over.
Transition Towns are part of the Big Society (whether they like it or not!) and are working to build community spirit and improve local resilience. A simple task like clearing pavement ice isn't as "sexy" as planning out a community garden or getting some solar panels installed, yet it seems to be a good metric of how community minded a locality is. If a community can't do something that obvious voluntarily without anyone standing over them, then they aren't likely to step up for the more onerous tasks that we'll need do work on together in a future of ernergy constraints and climate change. Think of it as a social barometer: community cleared paths demonstrate a social responsibility that we'll increasingly need in the 21st century.
So out of the comfy armchairs folks and get those paths cleared!