Ramsay Jones: We shovelled, salted and cleared. It was our civic duty. Nobody told us to, it was the obvious thing to do

Ramsay Jones

Winter’s icy grip had its fingers wrapped tightly round much of Scotland last week.

Cue acres of media coverage, with TV reporters up to their armpits in snowdrifts, amber weather alerts, school closures and the usual travel misery on routes such as the M74. In other words, January as usual.

Just as predictable was the response of the public, press and politicians.

We, the people, love it. Mostly.

The press warn of chaos. Arctic blasts and Snowmageddon.

Politicians rush to show they are on top of things if in government; or that the response is slow and inadequate if in opposition. After all, one SNP transport minister was forced out a few years ago…

And the annual joke of “How does the snowplough driver get to work?” gets trotted out. And we titter at “yellow snow” warnings.

Let’s be honest – we love climatic extremes. It lets us wallow in the one subject of conversation about which we all have an opinion.

The weather is, pardon the pun, an ice-breaker in every casual encounter at work, in the street or while waiting for our skinny latte in our favourite coffee shop.

We can share pictures on social media of frozen ponds, snowy gardens and puppies wallowing in the white stuff.

We can all recall that childhood wonder and glee when the first flakes fell. Those hours spent in woolly hats and gloves building snowmen, making snow angels and having snowball fights.

I still remember the sheer joy of morning break and lunchtime at school, and the playground with its gentle slopes ideal for making slides.

And the good sense of the school jannies who only cleared paths between the buildings, leaving plenty of space for us to polish the ice until we had our very own Cresta Run.

Presumably none of that is allowed any more. Elfin safety, no doubt. Cotton wool has replaced soggy wool.

Nowadays our playgrounds are gritted. Or closed to the kids. Which is a shame. Sure, there may be fewer skint knees and sore bums, but less fun and fewer children learning the limits of their abilities.

Meanwhile our pavements go largely grit and salt-free. Which is bad. There are more people taking unwanted slips and slides and more elderly and infirm being forced to stay at home.

And the blame for this does not just lie with our councils. We have to shoulder our share too.

Back in the day, when I was a lad, pavements got cleared. Not by an army of council workers but by us, the people. We all took responsibility for the wee bit of pavement outside our own house.

Whether the width of a front door or the length of our front garden, we shovelled, salted and cleared the ice and snow. It was our civic duty. Nobody told us to do it, it was just the obvious thing to do.

But that has all changed. Maybe it’s because we live in a country where we have become more dependent on the state. We pay our local taxes, so let the council clear our paths.

Or perhaps it’s because we live in a more litigious world. Some businesses now refuse to salt the pavement because what if somebody still slips and sues for the job not being done properly?

Most likely, however, is we just can’t be bothered. We’d rather moan than spend 65p on a tub of salt.

I checked the pavements where I live. 80 front doors. 250 homes. It’s a nice area. Full of families, relatively affluent. People you might expect to be civic-minded live here. People who will be the first to complain at the state of things. But clearly people who are just as self-centred as those who live on all the other streets around the city. Only three bits of pavement had been treated with salt or grit. Just three.

And yes, since you ask, mine is one of them.

Which is quite a contrast from the halcyon days of my youth.

We didn’t only clear the pavements outside our homes, we cleared the paths to our front doors. By we, I mean all of us except those incapable.

Which was a money spinner for us youngsters. Armed with a bag of salt and the garden spade, we marched round the neighbours offering to do theirs too. For a small consideration.

I wasn’t that much of an angel. I recall that half a crown each was enough to make us feel like millionaires.

The market works

Last week saw the collapse of one of the UK’s biggest private construction firms, Carillion.

The company was in charge of a host of public service contracts – building roads such as the AWPR as well as schools and hospitals nationwide. Its demise was a hammer blow to the thousands who worked for it. Those employed in public sector contracts should fare OK – their work has to continue. But those in its purely private arm and those suppliers reliant on its business are in a more perilous state.

The affair has renewed the debate about whether any private business should carry out public sector work. Those on the left are using it as a rallying call that everything paid for by governments should be wholly in the control of governments.

Everyone paid by government. Everyone working for government. Nationalisation in the raw.

Which is a nonsense.

Only in a communist state would every bricklayer, lorry driver, plasterer, electrician and labourer be directly employed by Central Command.

The truth is, the market works. Yes, there have to be safeguards. Yes, it means profits can go to shareholders. But yes, it means companies can fail. And shareholders suffer.

But competition drives prices down, encourages innovation and delivers better and more efficient services for us – the taxpayer. Will there be lessons to be learned from the car crash that is Carillion?

I sincerely hope so. There always are. But to argue this is the end of the market and unbridled socialism is the answer is wrong. Dangerously so.