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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 20th February 2009
Are we suffering from a surfeit of signs? asks David Winpenny, Chairman of Ripon Civic Society

There was a time when signs were fewer and simpler. As visitors to places like York Castle Museum know, businesses in the past used emblems to mark their premises; an oversize pair of glasses for an opticians or a large bunch of grapes for a pub (the successor of the bush that alehouses had to display in the Middle Ages). We still have some memories of that in Ripon; the large crown that has in the last few years been replaced on the Market Square facade of the former Crown Inn, now Sainsbury’s; and many will remember the giant shovel that graced the ironmongers at the top of Kirkgate.

Is life more complicated now? The proliferation of signs that instruct and inform us suggests that it is – but perhaps it is just that we are more used to being directed by the powers that rule our lives. But the price we pay in terms of the look of our streetscape is perhaps too great these days.

There is no dispute that without some signs we might descend into gentle anarchy. It is helpful if a sign tells us that a street is for one-way traffic; without it there might well be chaos. And we need signs to our destinations – how often have we complained of inadequate signage as we try to negotiate the tortuous one-way systems of a strange town? And we need to be warned of hazards like low bridges or of corners more severe than we might have expected.

Looked at individually, such signs may be valuable and unremarkable – thought it is difficult to see the purpose of some of them. A new and not very attractive sign has been put up on Stonebridgegate marking ‘Paddies Park’. It informs passers-by that it is an ‘Open Space’ and a ‘Children’s Play Area’, and then tells the reader who to contact in the case of an emergency. How necessary is this? What does it add to the area, or to the knowledge of the people who live nearby and are likely to use the park? And why does the notice have to be so large (more danger of a child running into it, perhaps) and have its own pole, when not more than two yards away there is another pole with three other signs on it – and, even nearer, a lamp post that could have taken all four and done away with other poles?

There seem to be a lack of consultation between departments when it come to signs. At the junction of St Marygate and Priest Lane there are six signs, three of them saying the same thing. One is the pictorial representation of elderly people on a pictographic sign. Immediately beneath it is another sign, presumably for the people who can’t interpret the sign, yet can read, saying ‘Elderly People’. Off to one side is another, ‘Old Peoples Home’. Why? One sign would surely have done the work – and anyway, all three are probably now redundant as they referred to people living at the now-closed Ripon House behind the Police and Prison Museum. And here, too, the signs have their own pole, two feet from a lamp post, which should have been used for them.

There are no doubt rules and regulations that cover these matters. But they are too often a screen behind which officials can hide, arguing that the rules insist that the signs are placed exactly in the places they’ve put them – and if that means a pole for every sign, that’s what they must do. Or they argue that they are not allowed to place signs on lampposts, as the department that deals with that won’t allow it. None of this is true. Four years ago English Heritage and the Department of Transport’s booklet ‘Streets for All; Yorkshire and Humber’ laid out some ‘General Principles’ for traffic signs. They include:

• Restrict signs to those which convey essential information only
• Reduce signs to a minimum size and number
• Locate signs and traffic signals on to existing lamp columns, posts or buildings
• Use dark or receding colours for posts and the back of signs

All of this can be summed up in four words – ‘Use your common sense’. It should not need rules to make people see that new posts and new signs should be carefully thought about before they are put up, and that existing signs can be rationalised. Why does it not occur to someone that, for example, the new, Brobdingnagian sign on the Cabmen’s shelter is too large – and that it shouldn’t be attached to the structure at all? And what of the new, empty pole outside the surgery in North Street? What is it waiting for? And why couldn’t any proposed sign share a pole with the adjacent bus stop?

We should not let the pole-erecters and the sign-mongers get away with such sloppy practices. Let’s have a review and a rationalisation of what’s happening in the city.

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