LPUK deputy leader Andrew Wither’s wrote an article on Economic Voice about the infantile reaction to snow in the UK and places blame squarely on the welfare system. In the comments I wrote suggesting another reason:
I’d love to go out and – unpaid and uncompensated – clear a few meters of public pavement outside my home. I see it as a social nicety and wonder why my neighbours are not doing the same already. If we all did our bit the whole street would be a lot safer for pedestrians [including me].
Then of course, I turn on the BBC and hear about all the liabilities and insurance money available to people who slip on imperfectly cleared paths and the anchor person giggling about how cynical they are being. I am lead to understand that if I don’t do a perfect job – by some unknowable standard – then I open myself up to being sued for some huge amount of money.
The message is that the only way for me to be safe in the snow is to sit deliberately inactive and watch people struggle over the snow that it’s well within our power – my power – to remove and wait for the council to take up all the insurance risks and “do something”.
This is madness.
I was – unfortunately – able to confirm the advice of the BBC, sort of.
I contacted my Labour MP who started a three-way conversation with the Labour Council who responded with a Times article stating:
Private landowners are not obliged to clear snow or ice from the highway, even if the road or pavement passes over their land. Indeed, from a legal point of view it may be risky for private individuals to clear these areas. By sweeping snow from one part of the pavement you can create a danger in another area and if someone is injured, you will be liable for negligence or nuisance.
On your own land, it is a different matter. You owe visitors a duty under the Occupiers Liability Act 1984 to take reasonable care to ensure that they are reasonably safe. This means that if you know someone (such as the postman) is likely to walk up your garden path, and you also know that the garden path is slippery, you must take reasonable steps to clear the path of snow and grit it if necessary.
So… the law places an unchosen obligation on owners of roads and paths to protect arbitrary users from anything nature throws at them, absolving the people who actually chose to risk it and then creates liabilities to anyone seeking to reduce the dangers of their own environment voluntarily. In practice this obligation is not met and nobody seems to expect it to be met. I think this is a clue that the obligation is irrational and ridiculous, people see it cannot scale to the main land owners, the councils, who consistently fail to meet it.
My take, following Peikoff (audio @ 11:37) is that nature is not something Government should ever try to protect people from, this principle would justify too much. The placement of this obligation on landowners is exactly an attempt to protect the masses from nature and is also a form of coercion applied to owners of roads, paths and other types of land.
Instead of placing unchosen burdens on land owners, the pedestrians and drivers that use the land should accept responsibility for the risks they have but should also be able to volunteer their assistance subject to landowner consent. All that is required is a change in law transferring responsibility clearly to the road user and mitigating the liabilities to people acting in good faith to help out. No duty or obligation needs to be placed on anyone because safer paths and roads are a rational value to most of the population. In practice this is a small change, most people expect the paths to be unsafe after its snowed and there is actually very little carping about legal obligations.
Given the present conditions of thick ice coating London paths, its hard to imagine how the most incompetent action would make anything worse but I expect a body of folk knowledge would develop about how to tackle snow under this regime. We would learn how to act and when, using what tools and materials and we would gather those things in advance. The creation and distribution of this knowledge to neighbours and tenants would be encouraged by the landowners as they act to protect and restore of the value of the land. They would ask people to stop handling it incorrectly and announce their actual preferences. I submit that this folk knowledge is evidently missing in the UK, and cite the lack of rock salt in general stores as evidence that we don’t know what to do, or care to learn.
For this to be fully effective the ownership pattern for roads would need to change, knowledge sharing would work better when coordinated by local road owners such as residents associations or chambers of commerce covering a few streets each. To have the authority to speak to volunteers without accepting an obligation from Government implies the sale of roads to these organisations. I think this would be popular as it would provide a local actor in solving similar parking and bin collection issues. Concentrating ownership to groups of residents would enhance the incentives to act voluntarily as all the benefits of action (improved safety, cleaner streets, more convenient parking) would go directly to the residents.
Of course, this could be phased in gradually as grass roots groups form to buy their roads from Councils, and those people that prefer the old system can negotiate a contract replacing the imposed obligations of the Occupiers Liability Act, or leave the roads in the hands of councils.