Deep and crisp and even ….. (?)

20 01 2010

The onset of winter has given the media another opportunity to run the ‘couldn’t organise a p***-up-in-a-brewery’ story. However, when the snow is a distant memory it’s unlikely that there will be many stories urging that funds are ring-fenced for maintenance. It’s more likely that we will see stories urging budget cuts instead.

It’s an unfortunate fact of life that memories are short and the problems of the moment always seem so much more important than the strategic needs of infrastructure maintenance. That is why the role of the professional engineer is so important. It’s our job to ensure that we keep the long-term needs of society firmly in our sight and lobby for the resources necessary to do the job.

It should be acknowledged that highway teams all around the country have worked hard and done their best in difficult circumstances. After many years of mild winters it has been hard to maintain winter maintenance budgets against competing demands and salt suppliers plan their production accordingly.

Over the last decade there has been a great deal of pressure to align budgets with government priorities, in particular ‘education, education, education’. But for those students who appear to have difficulty in getting to their exams through the snow, what price winter maintenance? It’s a salutatory lesson for those who don’t know; we don’t maintain highways for fun, it has a real social purpose.

Some will be aware that the UK Roads Board, following last February’s freeze, updated their winter maintenance guidance outlining a variety of measures that should be put in place. See section 13 of the attached guidance document produced by the UK Road Liaison Group in December 2009.

The chair, Mathew Lugg, put a lot of effort into warning that climate change has upset many of the old certainties. However putting their recommendations into practice requires time, skill and above all adequate funding.

However, before too much blame is placed upon the engineer, it should be pointed out that the citizen also has a responsibility to be prepared. Many motorists will take warm clothing and a hot drink when they venture out in poor weather. But how many bother to check their anti-freeze, screen wash or tyre pressures; the AA reports show that it is far too few. Also, how many motorists have taken a course driving on a skid pan? It’s not expensive and may help prevent many of the vehicles we see on our TV screens ending up in a ditch. Before the objection is raised that the road should be ice free, skidding also occurs in heavy rain and after a light shower on a greasy road in the summer.

Without doubt the next few years will be very difficult. All political parties have stated that budgets will be reduced and difficult choices will be made. Now, more than ever, it will be important for every engineer to use their knowledge, skills and abilities to ensure that the objective needs of society are not abandoned to short-term financial pressures. Plainly this is easier said than done but if we don’t argue the case for essential maintenance of our infrastructure who else will?

Ian Jenkinson

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