Why is it understandable in the current British economy that councils are running out of grit? That was the thought that came to mind as I walking to work this morning.
For me it was an enjoyable walk as the fresh snow creaked under my boots and I had the extra excitement added by the risk of falling on my arse, as I did two days ago. Ironically, I slipped as I reached for a nearby and seemingly handy hand rail for safety. I'll give safety features a little more thought next time.
But as I watched cars attempting Torvill and Dean manoeuvres up the ungritted hill I could sense the indignation of the drivers. Bloody council - where's the grit.
But should it be "bloody council"?
The first thing that came to mind was an image from my university days in Leeds. Our landlord who lived nearby was an old Polish chap. He spoke little English and was grumpy, but whenever it snowed he would spend hours clearing the snow from paths over which he felt he had some responsibility.
Apologies for the reminiscence, but it emphasises the point. He saw this responsibility to include cutting a swathe through the snow from our house on Royal Park View up the hill to Hyde Park Road at which point the multitude of feet had mushed the snow to slush.
In our modern culture, reflected in our economy, we have grown to rely increasingly on others to do such tasks, rather than doing them ourselves. The council in the case of clearing snow, but for many things we used to do for ourselves we now rely on private sector firms. It's called a service economy.
The second point that came to mind was, given that we have handed over responsibility for such tasks to others, why is it that they seem to fail to match our expectations so regularly?
Let's take the case of too little grit and the need to ration the roads on which it will be spread.
Engineers will understand this concept - redundancy. Rather than keeping them awake at night, redundancy is what affords engineers a good night's sleep. My (coincidentally once again Polish) reinforced concrete lecturer called them "neurosis factors". They were then more commonly referred to as safety factors.
Basically the science is so unpredictable that (technically speaking) you over design everything. It's all about the level of risk you want to take and there are codes to guide your risk taking.
Ok so why a shortage of grit in our hour of need? For a council it has to balance the risk of severe weather against the cost of holding enough stock of grit and any other snow-clearing paraphernalia to deal with it.
If council officials hold too much grit and snow-clearing equipment the council tax bills go up and they get criticised. If they hold to little the roads receive too little grit to satisfy the council tax payers and the officials get it in the neck.
Weather events such as those we have seen recently seem to be becoming less likely, if you consider the direction of winter temperatures. If you look at the two graphs that take data from the Met Office it is clear that winters are getting warmer.
So the temptation for councils is to hold lower stocks of grit. This, on average, is a sensible response. Plus, in a world where every penny is scrutinised and "waste" (redundancy) is seen as a sin it is also the most obvious political response.
The trouble is that the risk of a catastrophic failure increases, for two reasons. Firstly there will not be enough grit to cope with the more extreme events such as we are enjoying, or not as the case may be.
But secondly people venturing out will be less prepared for such an event and less used to coping with it, so consequently will rely more heavily on councils to maintain normality.
Now the impact of rare events is something central to the writings of the now much lauded Nassim Taleb, Black Swan events he calls them. So I'll not claim great insight when I draw attention to the parallels with the current economic mess.
But the systematic failure of the banking system was as much about the over eagerness to profit from driving out apparent redundancy as it was about anything else. For less grit read less capital.
So perhaps if we look for a little more redundancy in systems hopefully we will find a little less in the workplace.
There is a price, we will pay more. But how many insurance policies come free?