Walter's World: Drain blame

IT was only to be expected that the recent horrific road accidents on the road alongside the Ramsey Forty Foot Drain should hit the headlines. We all feel sorrow and sympathy for the families and friends of the victims. At least two local newspapers have

IT was only to be expected that the recent horrific road accidents on the road alongside the Ramsey Forty Foot Drain should hit the headlines. We all feel sorrow and sympathy for the families and friends of the victims. At least two local newspapers have run campaigns on "something must be done today regardless of cost" lines: and a number of petitions have been received.

Let me try to put the problem into a context, and explain the work that we have been doing for many years to address the "Vehicle into water" accidents.

The wording of one of the petitions put to Cabinet at last Tuesday's meeting was ... " I beg you to stop denying the need to save lives along this road and consider the matter properly."

Unfortunately, we were not allowed to answer back as the constitution does not allow debate on matters not on the agenda. I hope that by the time you get to the end of this article, you will be able to see how unfounded those words were.

Back in the early 1990s, this council conducted an accident study of the 35 sections of Fenside Roads, totalling some 74km (or 47 miles).

As a result, the 50mph speed limit was introduced on the Forty Foot Bank, together with warning signs about its accident record. Since then, additional warning signs and coloured surfaces with 50mph signs have been added.

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In 1999, we studied the provision of safety barriers along these Fenside roads. Because of the characteristics of the Fenland peat soil, it showed that neither conventional nor wire-rope systems could be constructed to required safety standards without additional piling support in the drain banks.

This piling could compromise the integrity of the banks, with enormous potential for environmental damage. We have also consulted the Dutch transport authorities to see what we could learn from them. They have less difficulty with putting up barriers as their soil is generally silty rather than peaty: but they still have many kilometres of canal-side roads without barriers and they still get around 850 vehicles per year entering the waterways.

There is another type of barrier called an "end fixed barrier" which might possibly be used if there is enough space alongside the road. That costs £200 per metre to buy: so the 7.5km length of the Forty Foot Bank would run up a bill for £1.5 million plus installation.

On the subject of statistics, the Ramsey Forty Foot Bank did not have the worst accident record of our Fen Roads up to the end of 2005. North Bank Whittlesey had a worse record, as did three other roads in Fenland. Rest assured that we are continuing to investigate this with some urgency. We are also studying the many suggestions that have come in as a result of the newspaper campaigns.

Money is obviously an issue but, as I think you can see from the above, engineering difficulties are the most significant problem area at the moment.

Meanwhile, for those of you who have to drive on these roads: have a care. Remember most of the people who died never thought it would happen to them: and make sure you know what to do to escape from a submerged vehicle.

Budget debate

THE budget debate went pretty well as we expected. At the last minute, with around 17 hours to go before the debate, the opposition produced an alternative budget which involved reducing Shire Hall staff by a further 21 posts on top of the reductions already planned. Even during the debate which followed, they were not prepared to disclose which particular posts they had in mind.

They asked the council to take their word for it that the posts they would cut would not affect services and that 75 per cent of the capitation costs of the people concerned could be saved in the next financial year.

Having recently done a restructuring exercise to remove 10 posts, I find it inconceivable that savings could be realised that quickly when our appeals processes and redundancy costs are taken into account.

Net results noted

BROWSING the internet the other day, I came across a web site giving performance league tables for national government and local government web sites.

The first thing I observed was that local government generally does better than central government. Cambridgeshire sits pretty well in the middle of local government performance in this field, neither notably brilliant nor notably bad.

However, I was amused by some of the performances from central government. Top of their league was the Child Support Agency.

Given that the agency's performance in other areas is bad enough to have the Sword of Damocles hanging over its very existence, one is tempted to ask how bad the rest of central government is if that lot came top.

Bottom of the central government league was the Office of National Statistics. The next time they tell you that you ought to be comfortable with your head in the oven and your feet in the fridge, remind them of this performance.

The slowest site - the one that takes the longest to give users the information they are looking for was the Office of the Rail Regulator.

Whether it is naturally a slow site, or whether its sheer volume of traffic gives rise to that performance, is anybody's guess.

However, the performance that impressed me least was that of the Disability Rights Commission web site. It failed the "accessibility test" on every single page. When I think of the amount of money we have had to spend on accessibility for the disabled under the Disability Discrimination Act, I really think it ought to be able to do better.