Slip sliding away

Image credit: John Brightley

Slip sliding away2

Governance | Robert Ashton | 30 Jan 2013

Did you huddle securely indoors with your family during the snow last week or did you attack the slippery surroundings with gusto? Robert Ashton reflects on a very British obstacle.

Now that the snow has gone and the usual winter weather of wind and rain returned, cast your mind back to what the pavement was like outside your house last week. I want to make an important point before your memories of the snow and ice literally slip and slide away.

My favourite lunchtime snack when travelling is a warm cheese scone and a cappuccino. I know it's not as healthy as a chicken salad, or as filling as a ham roll, but it's what I like. This is not really relevant other than being my motivation to seek out this comforting snack when driving home from a meeting in deepest rural Suffolk.

I'd turned off the Botesdale bypass in search of the tea rooms I guessed I'd find along the former main road. Botesdale is not really on the tourist trail, but the now by-passed High Street is rather attractive. A gentle hill, clearly loved half-timbered cottages, a few shops and that tea room. It's the kind of place many Americans imagine we all live in, I suspect.

But as the tinkling of the bell over the door died down, I realised that despite being lunchtime I was the only customer. I asked why, to be told, "Did you just walk along the pavement? It's a skating rink and putting people off."

She was, of course, quite right. I'd climbed out of my car and very nearly slipped underneath it. The footpath was very icy and on a slope, great fun if you're a kid, but pretty daunting for the average tea room punter.

Now this is a nice, comfortable mostly middle class community. The road is lined with nice houses, many of which have no front garden to speak of, so you step out of your front door onto that slippery pavement.

Here once more I thought is clear evidence of the scale of the problem facing anyone trying to engage local people in community affairs. In some countries, everyone clears the pavement outside their house or business. In the UK everyone complains that the Council is not clearing the pavement outside their door. It's a small point, but symptomatic of the deep, malignant apathy that has developed over the years.

Here, as in perhaps many other communities, there was an opportunity missed. Once a few people clear the ice in front of their houses others usually follow. It does not, as some fear, leave you open to litigation if a passer-by breaks a leg. More importantly, it makes falling over less likely and that tea room more likely to be busy.

It is useful to reflect when we spend so much time worrying about how to involve people in big community projects, that it is always good to start with some small ones. Community involvement is a habit and like any habit, best started with something easy to do.

In fact to steal a line from Paul Simon, it could be said with community engagement in the snow that "the nearer your destination, the more you’re slip sliding away".


John Hudson
1 Feb 2013

The assertion that clearing the snow outside your house "does not, as some fear, leave you open to litigation if a passer-by breaks a leg" is almost certainly incorrect. Whether the claimant would win in Court is a very differnt question. But why would a householder talke the risk and expense of being sued when aggresive personal injury claims are now the order of the day. Why does Robert Ashton think so many schools closed during the recent snowfalls were it not for the fear of litigation?

We have had assertions from ministers that such claims are unwarranted. What we actually need is a change in legislation to make it clear that such injury claims are unlawful. Until this happens I will not be clearing the snow outside my house!

Emma-Lynn Houghton
Client Services Assistant
NTT Fundraising
31 Jan 2013

Robert, I couldn't agree more with what you have written.

I used to live in a very small community where when faced with conditions such as these, we would offer to buy each other's shopping or push each others cars out of the snow and walk Grandma's dog when they can't - even if it's not your grandma!

And sadly, that does sound more like a dream than a reality now.

Personally, I think more people should be aiming to do one Random Act of Kindness each day. That way, your tea room will still enjoy the thrill of a lunch time rush.

Charity is not just making a financial contribution - it's about making the world a better place.


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Robert Ashton

Robert Ashton is a social entrepreneur, campaigner and author.

Robert is a vice patron of Norfolk Community Foundation and chairs Human Library UK CIC.

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