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3 March 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 4:55pm

What I learned about communities from my night with the drivers stuck in the snow

With babies and pensioners stranded on the motorway, the real leaders step out of the dark. 

By Eleanor Kelly

On the evening of Thursday 1 March, the temperature was around -1 °C in the Pennines, with snow intermittently coming down and winds whipping up what had already fallen. At 8pm, Irene Davidson, one of three councillors for Milnrow and Newhey, decided she was opening Butterworth Hall, a community centre, to help people who were stranded in the snow. Within half an hour she and Councillor Andy Kelly, were on the scene coordinating something that was, officially, uncoordinated.

There was no established plan of action, no indication of how many people we might have to help out or for how long. I turned up at the hall with a bag containing Penguin bars, a power bank and tampons.

News of the effort spread on social media. Facebook groups that are normally chock-a-block with prom dresses for sale were flooded with people sharing information about road closures. Other posts asked and offered help. And those offers translated into action.

Within the first few hours we had around 30 volunteers and donors through the doors. We also had blankets, sandwiches, bottled water, crisps and a frankly obscene number of tea bags.

By around 10.30pm volunteers had decided to scale the motorway embankment, creating a human chain to distribute donations to drivers who’d been stationary for several hours. As we left the hall, there were shouts of “Please, only go up to the motorway if you’re able, preferably in a hi-vis and know that I can’t accept liability for any injury” met by “…Alright” from everyone else. I’m not sure who the “I” was that could have been blamed.

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It was certainly cold on the road: it’s one of the highest parts of the motorway in England. But once you were moving you didn’t notice as much. Despite the occasional gust of wind hitting me, I felt worse for those staying still in their cars.

There were a lot of lorry drivers who had their own supplies, one of whom was good enough to let some young lads into his cab when they ran out of fuel. The majority of the donations we brought went to people in cars, families who had been on the road all day, including one man who had a toddler and five-week old baby with him and was in need of warm milk.

People were very grateful but understandably restless. After snacks and water the one thing people wanted was news concerning when the traffic was going to move. But their guess was as good as ours.

By our third or fourth trip to the junction, the highway authorities had made arrangements for the traffic to turn back. We walked between the cars, knocking on windows to wake up drivers. Several of them came back off the junction and were received at the hall. Some had come from as far afield as Scotland, and were in need of a rest. Others simply wanted the bathroom.

It soon became apparent the next issue was going to be space. The hall was now filled with drivers sleeping on judo mats. Luckily, we weren’t the only ones helping. Local hotels offered any unoccupied rooms. One lad I hadn’t seen since school ferried families to the Lake Lounge, a hotel in neighbouring Littleborough, and when the roads became impassable they redirected to the Flying Horse Hotel, which put people up on lilos.

There were offers of nearby spare rooms coming through too. One man who lived just up the road came to the hall at around 1am and offered a room to house a family of three, who’d been travelling for two days. I’ve seen comments online saying people were silly to have been out driving, but the family in question were returning from a funeral. One man I spoke to was in his Eighties. He had set off from a friend’s wake in North Lincolnshire at 8.30 that morning. I found it odd that people could criticise from their keyboards – everyone who was with me that night just gave, no questions asked.

By 3am the pastor had arrived to open up the church next door. This added another large space, kitchen facilities and set of bathrooms. An excellent shout when you consider the Megabus that arrived 30 minutes later. The coach had a pregnant woman on board and several small infants. One mother was just after boiling water to sterilise baby’s bottle.

While it might sound a dramatic situation most people stayed really calm. Volunteers and donors worked well into the morning to accommodate people, with blankets from The Salvation Army to food from Chunky Chicken and Aldi being delivered into the early hours (the excess of which was taken to food banks the following afternoon).

Yet I saw little of the official services through the night. And while I believe the council did send public health workers to check on people the next morning, most of the medical response I witnessed was provided by a local paramedic who came to help when he got off his day shift.

Situations like this are rather unprecedented for our local authorities and more so for local people. They draw eyes towards blurred lines of responsibility, ask questions about the malleable roles of local councillors, the expectations of whom can vary massively.

The deep freeze exhibited the social capital that burns in our northern towns perfectly. Yet there is a nagging urge to ask what could happen if women like Cllr Davidson didn’t hold the keys to the hall, or if requests for help on Facebook had simply been shirked. The importance of community leaders and those who turn out to help can go massively underestimated. They aren’t seen until they’re needed.

As for official guidelines and advice, these may have been useful to help people feel that they were supported. Yet I don’t believe it should be at the expense of preventing people from using their initiatives to overcome the individual problems they are faced with. At the end of the day, it worked.

Eleanor Kelly is a resident of Rochdale and is the Lib Dem council candidate for SmallBridge and Firgrove.

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