Friday, 8 January 2010

The cold snap - so far not too bad

It's Day 3 of the "cold snap" and not too early to report on how the authorities are handling it. And it seems they are doing quite well, at least as far as this blogger in the home counties is concerned: mail received every day; buses running normally; trains running with only a few cancellations and delays; major roads gritted and passable, and grit supplies holding up at the moment.

The private sector has failed to match public sector performance. The London airports have been closed at times and many flights cancelled when they were open. Eurostar - the undersea train service to France - has had massive delays.

The main public sector problems seem to be: lack of grit on the minor roads, which most drivers have to use at the start and end of their journeys, and lack of grid on the footpaths.

There's an easy solution to the grit on the footpath problem. This blogger while trudging through six inches of snow on Wednesday morning met a street cleaner pushing his dust-cart and enquired of him how he planned to pick up litter when he couldn't even see it. His answer was rather non-committal. What should have happened is that on reporting to work this street cleaner should have been issued with a gritter rather than his dust-cart and been told to grit rather than clean. There would be a marginal equipment cost, but the cleaner's wages are already paid.

The major block on this plan is that street cleaning, like so much of the public sector's responsibilities, has been out-sourced: there is a contract to pick up litter, not to put down grit, and as the workforce no-longer works for the local authority directly it cannot be re-deployed to handle exceptional circumstances. The whole contract would have to be re-negotiated. In many cases out-sourcing is a simple abdication of responsibility - the public sector takes our money (under threat of imprisonment if you don't pay up) and passes some of it on to a private sector organisation which does the actual work, whilst retaining enough to make a fine living themselves.

The core functions of any public organisation should not be handed over to the private sector. This includes keep the roads and footpaths open and passable and such things as hospital hygiene - note we barely had any MRSA or C. Diff. before the hospital cleaners were shunted off into the private sector.

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