© 2017 The Harpenden Society
Perhaps it was the fact that 2015 celebrates the 900th anniversary of Magna Carta that stirred the democratic impulse. A very serous discussion took place at the January committee meeting which arose out of the frustration felt that local district politicians and planning officers refuse to acknowledge the flaws and errors, both practical and legal, in the Strategic District Plan that imperils the sustainability of Harpenden. The disregard of the rationally measured advice of The Society, the Harpenden Green Belt Association and other citizens and the refusal to consider any amendment to the plan has led The Society's committee to believe that the whole business is driven by political rather than civic motivation
Several voices urged that Chris Marsden, as Chairman of The Society, should actually stand as a candidate for the Hitchin and Harpenden Constituency at the coming general election on a 'Responsible Housing Development' ticket. There were even offers of financial help. The argument was pressed that the town's civic society, charged by its legal purpose to defend and enhance the social and environmental life of the town, could not lightly sit by when, in its view, the town was being subjected to maladministration fuelled by political expediency.
The debate was composed and pragmatic. The taking of such an action, it was felt might be regarded as close to an infringement of a charity's duty to evade engagement with party politics and the logistics and expense were also considerations, as was the difficulty for a single issue fringe candidate of judging what might be viewed as a success by measure of votes cast. In the end, and with some reluctance, the committee agreed not to make so unprecedented a move but instead assented to a major campaign within the ambit of the election to raise this significant issue with all candidates, inclusive of an invitation to a public meeting that would scrutinise their attitude to so synthetic, dangerous and apparently untouchable a building scheme regardless of the infrastructural shortfall. The message would be to withhold support from any candidate willing to back this wilful and negligent programme.
Nonetheless, it was a dramatic moment. It is rare that a civic society should feel its location so beleaguered that it would even consider so radical a step.
You probably saw the paradoxical announcement from the county council that it was going to 'update' street lighting and make it darker between 11.00 p.m and 6.00 a.m by a factor of 25%. Despite the claims that much money is saved by switching off street lights, recent research by the Road Research Laboratory begs to differ. There is a demonstrable correlation between night accidents and street lighting. At 64 sites where street lighting was improved there was an average 30% reduction in night accidents and 45% reduction in accidents involving personal injury. Cost-benefit accident savings show annual savings greater than the cost of energy consumed. A pilot project in Worcestershire, admittedly over a small area, where two out of three street lights were extinguished after midnight, has witnessed a definite rise in offences where previously the crime-rate had been negligible.
Let me say at once that I recognise the need to make savings not so much in money as in energy pollution – but, at the same time, I strongly believe that there should be a trade-off by way of safety. Four times now I have personally fallen foul of walking the streets in Harpenden's post-midnight blackness and, when all is said and done, twelve o'clock is not so very debauched a time to be returning from the theatre or some other event, say, in London. The army guardroom, when checking in soldiers who had been out for the evening, used to enter the abbreviation S.P.D after their names, were it merited. It meant 'Sober and Properly Dressed'. On all four occasions I was S.P.D, honestly. Fortunately, I escaped with only slight injuries each time. These were very gloomy moonless nights and what I did was walk into cars parked on the pavement.
I think it reasonable to ask that, if we are to have a black-out, then the pavements should be free of obstruction. The charity 'Living Streets' nobly campaigns for a total ban on pavement parking and advices people to canvas their local authority accordingly. The SADC parking office, when last I approached it, claimed to be neither instructed nor resourced to act. The legal situation is shadowy although the 1835 Highways Act and Rule 244 of the Highway Code would appear to cover the case. Nor am I being so obsessed as to object to temporary parking on pavements for visits or calls in daylight.
Let us, however, consider the practical proposition of the car owners who believe they somehow have the right permanently to keep a private possession on a public thoroughfare. It is bad enough when people colonise a stretch of the public highway as if it were their own and locate their private possession thereon but at least they are only inconveniencing other motor car drivers. It is the private decision to occupy part of the public footpath on a permanent basis that needs addressing from the pedestrian viewpoint.
It is a noxious phenomenon that has grown gradually and insidiously over many years, self-evidently relating to the rise in car ownership. In 2013 there were 34.5m registered vehicles in the UK, 28.7m or 83% of which were cars, something of an advance from the 2m of 1948. Somewhere along the line the convention, pleasingly inherited from the days of horses and carriages, that private vehicles should be privately housed has been abandoned. Harpenden has some 12,500 houses and some 22,500 vehicles. The overspill is obvious.
Yet there would be uproar if we decided to plant others of our possessions on the footpath. A lockable fridge freezer; a rabbit hutch; a tool shed, all on wheels; most likely of all, a couple of wheelie-bins; why bother dragging them backwards and forwards every week?
The authorities, whether it be council or police or both, should, in principle, return the pavements to the pedestrians. If not, the least they could do is switch the lights both up and back on and keep us safe. A forlorn hope for, as one transport commentator recently and sorrowfully pronounced, 'in the struggle for the streets the pedestrians lost.'