The government, in the shape of portly Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles, has declared war on the ‘clutter’ infecting Britain’s high streets, together with Transport Secretary Phillip Hammond he has written to councils across the country asking them to remove unnecessary signs and bollards from their streets.
Speaking to the BBC this week Mr Pickles said ‘too many overly cautious town hall officials are citing health and safety regulations as the reason for cluttering up our streets.’ As a result, he said, Britain’s town centres are being ‘overrun by scruffy signs, bossy bollards and railed off roads. Common sense tells us, he said that ‘uncluttered streets are freer, safer and easier to maintain.’
Phillip Hammond also said that a clutter of signs in town centres ‘aren’t just ugly- it’s expensive and distracts drivers.’
Eric Pickles and Phillip Hammond have a point, the mad gallery of signs and road markings that turn the average town centre into the sort of maze that would give nightmares to a lab rat drive the public mad; and with good reason. Not least the lack of logic behind their presence, for example one Sainsbury’s car park highlighted in the BBC report had spaces for sixty three cars surrounded by fifty three bollards; madness.
It is, though, perhaps, a problem of perception, as Richard Kemp the Vice Chair of the Local Government Association points out ‘one man’s clutter is another’s simple signing.’ He also drew attention to the fine line councils have to walk balancing needs of ‘residents, businesses and those of motorists.’ He also makes the rather more important point that many of the signs, bollards and the like for which councils are being criticised for erecting by central government have been placed their following orders handed down from, you guessed it, central government. Talk about damned if you do and damned if you don’t eh.
There is, of course, a kernel of truth in the case against signs, losing a few would make life simpler and our streets tidier, but it is hard to disagree with Richard Kemp when he says this is ‘largely a local decision, not something a secretary of state should be involving himself in.’
There is about all this a distinct whiff of populism, like its opposition to speed cameras a government that is about to make itself really unpopular when the spending cuts come on stream is banking a few Brownie points by squaring up to an issue that features regularly in the letters pages of the Daily Mail. All of this is par for the political course, but still rather disappointing coming from Eric Pickles.
Pickles, aka the Tory who doesn’t look or sound like a Tory is one of the least spun members of the government and far too sharp to believe his brief is really about fiddling around with road signs and bus lanes. When the cuts, which the Institute for Fiscal Studies this week said would hit the poorest people hardest, come on stream in the autumn local councils will need a clear set of priorities and the courage to fight central government to protect local services from the axe. They have a right to expect the same from the minister tasked with representing them in the corridors of power.
If anybody tells you that fiddling about with road signs is something more than a displacement activity designed to distract attention from the planned dismantling of local services; they’re talking bollards.