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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 3rd September 2010
Next time you’re out and about in Ripon – or indeed in any other city, town or village – take a good look at the amount of metalwork in the streets that is either intended to keep you safe, to provide you with information, to let the local authority keep an eye on you or just to provide an ‘amenity’.
Over the last two decades, local authorities have reversed what Lord Beaverbook did to our cities. In the war, he decreed the removal of the railings that surrounded our houses and our parks, ostensibly to help defeat the Nazis. Yet the tonnage of metal removed then is as nothing to the amount we now found ourselves surrounded by as bollards, barriers and bins, poles and signs, railings and those mysterious black boxes that may have some controlling mechanism for cameras or lights, have proliferated.
Three cheers, then, for the latest from the coalition government on the matter of clutter. On 26 August an announcement, a combined statement from the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and the Department for Transport (DfT), came down firmly on the side of the de-clutterers.
Eric Pickles, Secretary of State at the DCLG, said, ‘Our streets are losing their English character. We are being overrun by scruffy signs, bossy bollards, patchwork paving and railed-off roads wasting taxpayers' money that could be better spent on fixing potholes or keeping council tax down. We need to “cut the clutter”.’
To this, Civic Societies around the country – including, of course, Ripon Civic Society – will say a loud and emphatic ‘Amen’. And the ‘Streetscape’ survey by Salisbury Civic Society was particularly praised for its pioneering work by the DCLG. Reducing street clutter is something that has been a priority for Civic Societies for some years, but all calls locally have fallen on deaf ears.
Tackled on the subject, many of our local councillors insist that all this metalwork is required by law to keep people and traffic away from each other, and to ensure public safety. And although some local authority officials may be sympathetic to a reduction, others hide behind their official manuals, quoting paragraphs and subsections, but not using the evidence of their eyes and their common sense to see what is really needed and what might safely be dispensed with.
The error of their ways is pointed out in the letter to local authorities that Mr Pickles and his counterpart at the DfT, Philip Hammond, issued. ‘Street furniture,’ they write, ‘including traffic signs and railings, is often over-provided in the mistaken belief that it is a legal necessity. Whilst certain signs are required by law, the message throughout Government advice is that for signs to be most effective they should be kept to a minimum. Our technical advice assists authorities in the discharge of their duties. It needs to be interpreted to suit the local area.’ And, as Mr Pickles points out in his press statement, ‘Too many overly cautious town hall officials are citing safety regulations as the reason for cluttering up our streets with an obstacle course when the truth is very little is dictated by law. Common sense tells us uncluttered streets have a fresher, freer authentic feel, which are safer and easier to maintain.’
Later this month the two departments are bringing out a new edition of what is supposed to be the bible for such matters, the ‘Manual for Streets’. With it will come the message that ‘Reducing street clutter is . . . a priority for our ongoing review of traffic signs policy and we expect to provide guidance for auditing and removing unnecessary traffic signs. Unnecessary street furniture and signs not only make streets unattractive places, they increase costs for local authorities. Cluttered streets can also be confusing for drivers and pedestrians, affecting safety,’
Civic Voice, the national umbrella organisation for Civic Societies, has, like many of its member societies, been campaigning on street clutter. It is running a campaign called ‘Street Pride’ which helps local people to take a stern look at the streets and assist local authorities to get rid of all the unnecessary metal that is making what Eric Pickles rightly calls ‘an obstacle course’. Modern thinking is to use more subtle methods – paving and lighting, for example, to ensure safety.
In Ripon we have long been aware of the amount of clutter in our streets, and the Civic Society has been campaigning for a new look at the problem for some years. It has seemed at times that the clutter in our streets has been matched only by that in the minds of some of our representatives.
Perhaps now that there is some government impetus behind the campaign, they will think again – not just looking at whether any new signs or street furniture are needed, but also actively seeking out the large amount of unnecessary (and sometimes confusing or really dangerous) clutter that disfigures our historic streets.

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