I have been down to see the works from Medley to Sheepwash Channel where the towpath has been crumbling for years. Oxford City Council and Oxfordshire County Council suddenly found the money to make urgent repairs, apparently as a first phase of more comprehensive strategy to restore the path.
Their sudden interest springs of course from the death of a boy whose bike went into a hidden pothole, throwing him into the River Thames in flood. Oxfordshire Highways (from whose budget the money was dragged) specialise in this sort of thing – spending large sums of money in a panic after an event instead of doing so in a considered fashion against identifiable risks.
The difference here is that the spending of a relatively small amount of money in time would – not might – have saved a life. The vast amounts of money which they spent in the Cowley Road (immediately after a girl was knocked off her bike and killed) and on the Eastern Bypass (where a grossly negligent driver veered across the carriageway killing several children) were not related to the actual cause of the deaths but were spent to buy off public clamour – to be seen to be doing something.
The neglected towpath really was dangerous, was known to be dangerous, and had been for years the subject of warnings and demands.
It looks very good now. The works have been restrained – holes have been filled, the banks built up with sandbags and the surface made good without getting that twee suburbanised look which council officers like to impose on rural wildness. Supervision fell to Councillor Jean Fooks, one of the few city councillors one would trust to get on with the job sensibly.
Early Summer growth has made it all look natural very quickly. So – a good job, well done. Why was it not done earlier?
I probably have somewhere some photographs of its previous condition. The surface was unstable, sections of bank had fallen away, and the risk of falling in to the river was high. I am a fervent opponent of most works done on alleged safety grounds, generally seeing them as money wasted to give pea-brained Health & Safety officers an untroubled night and more work to fill up tomorrow. Even I thought the works well overdue.
There are various reasons why nothing was done:
No voters live by the towpath
Specifically, no-one likely to vote Conservative in the County Council elections lived down that way. Oxfordshire Highways love spending money on roads. Everyone can see what they are getting for their money, and big glossy schemes play well with the rural voters and look good on officers’ CVs. Repairs and maintenance are not so impressive and are neglected even on roads. Who cares about a footpath used mainly by Lib Dem dog-walkers and Green cyclists?
It required co-operation between the Councils
The inquiry into the Cornmarket debacle (when £5 million and several years was spent resurfacing a short stretch of shopping street) found that officers from Oxfordshire County Council and Oxford City Council “fought like rats in a sack” over a project on which they were supposed to be co-operating. There is an ongoing feud at councillor level as well, which wastes a vast amount of time and money, helps bring local politics into disrepute, and reminds the rest of us of Samuel Johnson’s barb about the order of precedence between a louse and a flea. It takes something shocking to knock their heads together.
The warnings came from a tainted source
One of the councillors in whose Ward this stretch of river lies did give repeated warnings of exactly what came to pass. She was right. Unfortunately, she is generally known as a self-publicising screech-owl, willing to leap on any passing band-wagon. This doubtless plays well with the party faithful in her Ward, but it annoys the hell out of everyone else and devalues her moments of common-sense. She has been barred from a pub in Osney for boring the customers with politics. I once heard her address a meeting of some council committee; they listened politely enough before ignoring her completely. I would have thrown her out of the window if I had been forced to convene a meeting to listen to her clap-trap. So – the wrong Cassandra, one whose intervention was never likely to put this job onto the urgent list and may have had the opposite effect.
There is plenty more to be done, including the stretch between the bridges at Medley, which still looks as it did at the time of the accident, when the photograph above was taken. Every winter, holes appear such as you can see in the foreground. Every year, until this year, someone has come along and filled the holes up – not as good as fixing the problem, but better than nothing. This year they did not even other to do that much.