Cllr Cadogan Enright comments on the failure of top civil servants and Ministers to create a “Weather Emergency Plan”.

“The deplorable response of our Down Council and the Road Service to the fortnight’s snow was only one piece of a general failure of top civil servants and Ministers to create a “Weather Emergency Plan”. It is clear that at regional level NI senior civil servants and Ministers do not meet to coordinate a cross-agency response to bad weather.

Highly paid public sector managers in NI failed to deliver a coordinated effort in the face of severe disruption from the snow. Some lower level public servants did make an effort. For instance my local Roads service depot went out of their way to clear the route for a funeral, and our street sweepers showed great flexibility in their work while management dithered and fought with the Roads Service over potential liability.

As a public representative I found myself having to respond to pleas of help from constituents and putting pressure on the various government departments to deal with issues like hospital exits, car-parks, main shopping areas where problems were occurring. I spent a week trying to get car-parks in Down District cleared – once I had got the car-park companies to agree – they received an email from the DRD in Belfast forbidding them to grit. The state of the Irish Street Car-park left it unusable, and wiped out a fortnights trade in the run up to Christmas for Traders on Market Street and several people were ambulanced to Downe Hospital as a result.

If we look at what happened in the Republic over the same period, we can see how things can be done differently. At the first sign of severe weather Minister for Local Government and the Environment John Gormley convened a meeting of the ‘Inter-Agency emergency coordination Group’ with the Transport Minister and Minister for Defense to plan for the expected adverse conditions. Supporting this group we had the senior managers from the Meteorological Office, the railways, bus companies, National Roads Authority, the Department of Education and the Department of Health – 25 key agencies in all. This all happened before the first snow-flake fell.

Each day over the fortnight of severe weather the RoI management group met to co-ordinate and improve responses daily, finding €15M of additional funding for local authorities to help with gritting. The Attorney General was put on TV to demolish the urban myth that if you clear the road outside your house or business, you could be liable if someone falls. Here in N.I. government departments were using this legal myth to defend their inactivity.

The RoI Emergency Coordination Group had numbers that could be phoned in the police, ambulance service, roads service, transport companies, schools or any other agency came across a particular issue that needed attention. When I phoned government departments here in N.I. I was met a blank refusal to take responsibility. I got a letter from Council Management saying ‘The maintenance of pavements remains a discretionary power of Roads Division and the Council are neither resourced nor statutorily required to clear pavements of snow. Until such times as an understanding can be reached between Council and Roads Division that is not detrimental to Council in terms of resources or potential legal liability, the position will remain unchanged’.

This means that in our local area we are still in the same position as we were before the severe freeze last year – nowhere and with no plan. Despite councillors last year clearly instructing Council Management to come up with a Cold Weather Plan.

I call on elected representatives to work together and knock heads together in the public service – especially since we have a model of response that works just across the boarder to copy from. There is a consensus across all parties and all government departments that we can expect more severe weather going forward, so it should not be difficult to build a consensus on how to deal with it. The Southern Health Service reported today (Monday 13th) that the number of falls was less than one-third what in was in the Republic compared to the severe weather last year. We have no excuse not to act.”

Press Coverage: Cold weather response needed says Enright

By Cadogan