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Winter Resilience

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 26th October 2011.

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Photo of Lewis Macdonald Lewis Macdonald Labour

The images of last winter remain vivid for many people throughout Scotland: long queues of cars frozen on the M8, lorries jackknifed across major roads and commuters waiting on railway platforms, unsure whether they would be able to travel. Some members will know from experience that there were days when it was not possible to travel between our major cities and when thousands of people simply could not make the journey to work. Those were graphic images, and the disruption hit people in their pockets and cost the Scottish economy many millions of pounds.

The debate is about keeping people and goods moving and supporting the economy, but it goes wider than that. It must be about people, too—about the effects on vulnerable people of the kind of disruption that we saw last year, and about what can be done to reduce the risk of that disruption happening again. Tackling fuel poverty is critical, as the minister acknowledged, and that is a wider debate that will continue. Last winter, we called for a broader approach to preparations for severe weather, so that those who have caring responsibilities are involved in making plans, as well as those who have a remit for clearing the snow. We welcome the fact that, this year, the Scottish Government has taken steps to involve the national health service, social care providers and the voluntary sector in planning for winter weather. The publication of the report of the winter weather review group last week was, therefore, a positive step, because it pulls together several strands of winter resilience planning and covers a broad range of services and sectors. I am glad that the motion implicitly acknowledges that the report is not the finished article. Preparedness is a process, rather than an event, and the report offers a framework, rather than a completed plan.

The various contributions to the report, such as the additional briefings that we have had from the likes of the British Red Cross and ScotRail, indicate that the issue of preparedness is being taken seriously, but the report as a whole reads more like a compilation than a strategy, because it tells us what local government would like ministers to discuss, rather than telling us in detail what has been agreed. It is a good starting point, but I hope that we hear from ministers an update on that report in the not-too-distant future.

I have no doubt that ministers are keen to improve winter planning, as the motion states, but a tough winter will not test good intentions or the seriousness of preparations; it will test how effective the joining up of strategies is and how well those strategies are delivered in practice. That is why we have lodged an amendment today: the responsibilities of Government do not stop once plans are in place, nor are they confined to the areas for which ministers are directly accountable.

I would like to highlight a couple of issues to do with the kind of interventions that have been supported by the winter weather review group report. There has, rightly, been an emphasis on what individuals and communities can do to help themselves, and on what people can do to help others in their communities. An aspect of that to which the report refers, which relates specifically to the Borders, is the resilient communities initiative of Scottish Borders Council. That initiative is focused on communities that are liable to be particularly hard hit by adverse winter weather. In those areas, the community council is a sensible unit within which to organise an initiative; it can clearly play an important role in liaising between statutory authorities, such as the local authority and emergency services, on the one hand and local volunteers on the other. That approach could usefully be rolled out across the country to other communities if it is successful. It is certainly in line with the aspiration that central Government and local government should encourage the wider public to build community and personal resilience through effective pre-winter planning.

It is important, however, to ensure that community councils and local volunteers know what they are letting themselves in for so that they can be confident that they understand the risks that are involved. It is one thing to identify individuals in a community who might need extra support in the event of severe weather conditions and to notify those who are responsible, but a higher level of commitment is involved if community councils or individuals undertake to provide those services themselves. Delivery of hot food, for example, carries greater risks than delivery of warm blankets, and clearing snow mechanically with a vehicle is a different proposition to taking a shovel to a neighbour’s path. There are also particular issues with dispensing medication.