The weather outside is frightful

Some London politicians have the answer for dealing with a snowfall: give everyone a free shovel
The weather outside is frightful
Horst Friedrichs/Anzenberger/RED

Start digging.
That’s the message one local government is giving London residents worried about what is predicted to be an unusually snowy winter for the British capital.

Camden Council, which accounts for a large swath of north and central London including Covent Garden, Bloomsbury and Primrose Hill, has unveiled a plan to encourage residents to shovel their sidewalks by providing them with the tools to do so. More than 2,000 wooden-handled, plastic snow shovels have been purchased by the local authority to be handed out for free to residents, shopkeepers or community groups.
It’s a nice gesture, by Canadian standards anyway. And a helpful one for a nation that is better accustomed to umbrellas and wellingtons than to windshield scrapers and Sorels.

But here in Britain (where even the short-range weather forecast is notoriously unreliable), the program has sparked anger among some local residents. They think it’s the government’s job to deal with snow—a rare occurrence in the south of England, and one that invariably sets off a wave of public panic before temporarily grinding the country to a halt. (Last winter’s unusually cold and snowy winter resulted in the closure of schools, businesses and public transit and reportedly cost the country as a whole more than $100 million in road repairs.)

“I think they ought to take the money they’re spending on free spades and put it toward keeping the front-line people working for the council,” said Sherwood Assir, a staffer at the Holly Lodge Community Centre in Highgate. “What about the elderly and the weak and even young mothers who can’t get out to do it themselves? The government should be doing the gritting and plowing. That’s what we pay council tax for.” Other local residents have declared their opposition to the program in the media, calling it “a daft idea,” and “not quite dig your own grave, but a double-edged sword.”

Not surprisingly, government officials disagree. Jonny Bucknell, the Conservative councillor for Belsize, says when it comes to the white fluffy stuff, it’s time Londoners learned to fend for themselves. Last winter, Bucknell plowed and gritted in front of his home, and even helped dig out a stranded bus in his neighbourhood. “We ought to get a shovel and pail of grit and get out there and do something about it,” he said, adding the idea of shovelling one’s sidewalk fits in with Prime Minister David Cameron’s much vaunted “Big Society”—a vision that will see deep cuts to public spending and a decrease in services across the country over the next several years. Local councils, including Camden, bore the brunt of the Tory government’s first round of public-spending cuts last June, and were expected to be hit again this week with further cuts. Says Bucknell: “A lot of communities who relied on the state to do everything for them are going to have to start doing for themselves.”

But the debate over snow removal is particularly explosive, bringing together as it does two of Britain’s national obsessions: weather and class-based politics.

Sue Vincent, Labour councillor for Holborn and Covent Garden, is quick to point out that local government will continue to clear major routes and busy sidewalks. She scoffed at the notion that the shovel initiative smacks of Tory policy. “This has nothing to do with cuts—it has to do with keeping London moving in a blizzard,” she said. “Some people have said, ‘Well I can buy my own shovel.’ But this is a small contribution from the government to help people help themselves. You know, the idea of co-operative citizenship was around long before Cameron and his Etonian friends came up with the idea of the Big Society on the back of a fag packet.”

Nigel Fountain, a pensioner in Kentish Town, agrees, saying that while he doesn’t support cuts to public services, he does believe most Londoners are capable of shovelling their own snow. “On the whole I don’t think it’s even necessary to give out free shovels, but if that’s what makes people take responsibility then so be it.” He added that he doesn’t consider himself part of Cameron’s Big Society, but rather “a resident of a very small society—one that ends at my own garden gate!”

Of course, giving Londoners the means of production for snow removal (even if it’s only a theoretical one centimetre) risks taking the fun out of another time-honoured British tradition: national winter weather hysteria. “People complain about snow, but in truth everyone loves a day off,” says Bucknell. “They call in to say they’re working at home and then they go tobogganing on Primrose Hill.” And while some residents of Camden will be out dutifully clearing their sidewalks this winter, the majority of London remains spade, Sorel and parka free, and for good reason. As Fountain observes, “The British are obsessed with snow. And it’s because we don’t actually have any.”