Opinion: a salty problem for local lovers

I have made myself unpopular in some quarters this week by refusing to back a motion to Federal Conference which would create two new statutory duties: on local authorities to stockpile a certain quantity of salt and on householders to clear snow from the pavements in front of their homes. This, I am assured (and believe) is common in other parts of Europe.
There are two problems here: one is liberalism and the other is localism.
The potential legal obligation to clear snow from the pavements actually falls to pieces in practical terms long before it becomes an issue of principle: is clearing snow actually a helpful activity? (It depends on the type of snow, the frost conditions etc.) What do you do in the case of the elderly or infirm? (Hope their neighbours will help out?) And what about blocks of flats?
But the fundamental problem is that we do need to learn to be liberals. We are a bit prone to fall into the trap of wanting to make people do things or banning things. We have got better in recent years but even at the most recent Federal Conference there were still two bans, both on issues which did not really require national legislation.
‘Nudge’ – 260 pages of the blindingly obvious published last year – argues basically that it is fine to encourage people to look after themselves better but not fine to force them to do it. The authors rather alarmingly call this approach ‘libertarian paternalism’ but manage to summarise it nicely: ‘less in the way of government coercion and more in the way of freedom to choose’.
And we can always summon up Mill: ‘the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.’
It is to say the least pushing it to suggest that we harm others by failing to clear our pavements. Equally, where is the harm in failing to wear a seatbelt, which has been an offence for some years?
As for localism, it is true that many councils got it badly wrong over snow clearance. I have said so locally in the press. It may turn up in the county council election manifesto in 2013. It has already featured in a street letter.
It is, however, basically a matter for local determination. And it is for local people to deliver their democratic verdict at an appropriate time in the future.
This, of course, is the challenge facing the Federal Policy Committee’s Localism Working Party. We all know that we as a Party support localism. But there are plenty of us who say ‘Yes, but…. ‘, whether it be over the rights of councils to set licensing policies, the supposed evils of ‘postcode lotteries’ or the ‘need for national minimum standards’.

Are we really ready to be radical and embrace both liberalism and localism? I hope so.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • What about changing the law so that it’s absolutely clear that if you do clear the snow from the pavement in front of your house, you won’t be held liable? That will permit people who want to clear the snow to do so, without requiring it of those who (for whatever reason) don’t.

    In terms of stockpiling grit, you’ll probably find that a lot of councils do that anyway, but I’d agree completely that it’s a matter for local councils to decide and not central government.

  • Andrew Suffield 20th Jan '10 - 5:39pm

    For front seats, it’s less significant since the only thing you’ll hit in a head-on collision is the windscreen, but there’s still the possibility of being hit from the side, and being thrown into the person sitting next to you.

    I suppose we could permit driving without a seatbelt if you were alone in a vehicle, and it wasn’t a convertible so you couldn’t become a projectile, and… this would make the rules rather difficult to understand and interpret. A flat ban has the advantage of simplicity, and doesn’t really cause a huge restriction on your freedom. If you desperately want to kill yourself in a car crash, you can always go to a private race track.

  • Antony Hook Antony Hook 20th Jan '10 - 7:12pm

    Very good article.

    It is refreshing to read an opinion or argument about a policy issue that is actually grounded in basic liberal philosophy.

  • See being old I can remember we use to not clear the pavement but clear a path down the pavement we all did it because we all saw the pavement out side our home as ours.

    Where do you put the snow well on the outside of the pavement, you only clear a narrow piece, 1964 we had three to four foot of snow, radio warnings stated do not walk on the pavement walk in the road, because icicles on the roofs were falling and hurting people.

    but i remeber my mother digging a pathway down the pavement and others if we had elderly people we take hot tea and food if you had disabled people same thing. not anymore..

  • Well nudge isn’t blindingly obvious or more importantly accurate. I doubt if the people who pick bodies out of trees or perform operations in hospitals etc agree with you that not wearing seat belts causes no harm to others.

    If you read JS Mills, he had a lot of opinions that don’t really hold up in 2010.

    I agree with the leave councils ot their own devices and the impracticallity of a clear your path law, even if it was desirable, which I doubt.

  • We are liberals not libertarians. We also require cars to have airbags, rather than allowing you to choose whether to buy one with airbags. We require fire doors on buildings over a certain height.

    In the US where seatbelts are not compulsory in all states, airbags explode more aggressively, since they are trying to save you even if you don’t have your belt on. And then they cause more injuries. So the law reduces injries to others. And it reduces “emotional injuries” to people who would otherwise see their loved ones die.

  • Andrew Suffield 21st Jan '10 - 9:21am

    While the risk-compensation idea does apply to individuals travelling alone, I don’t think anybody has ever shown that it applies to secondary casualties from people you hit after being thrown around inside the vehicle. I would be fairly surprised to find that it did (ie, that a person who is not wearing a seatbelt will drive more safely when they have a passenger compared to when they are alone).

    Whether the total impact of seatbelts is positive or negative is much harder to determine (and the historical data is circumstantial for this purpose); I’m not prepared to make that case right now. The point was simply that they cannot be considered illiberal on a “no harm, no crime” basis.

  • The problem with Prof Adams stats is that the conclusions he draws from them are utterly tenuous.

    Lets assume that more than 1 thing (i.e. seat belts) could be affecting the ratio of cyclist/pedestrian to motorist death ratio.

    I’m sure readers can think of plenty. You may as well conclude that the increase in in car cd players has been responsible.

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