HC Deb 15 May 1991 vol 191 cc283-5 3.35 pm
Mr. Dudley Fishburn (Kensington)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to co-ordinate the design and planning of street furniture. May I suggest that, when hon. Members go home this evening, they look at the streets around them with fresh eyes? What will they see but a forest of clutter? They should count the mass—or mess—of signs, signals, posts, lamps, bins, poles, bus shelters and kiosks that lie along the way. That jungle of metal, concrete and glass has, as so many things do these days, a fancy name—street furniture. That comes, no doubt, from the same mentality that calls a rat catcher a rodent eradication engineer.

London, like all British cities, is snared in a tangle of metal signs and bossy notices, which sprout from our streets like a forest. London and its suburbs are as polluted by that stuff as by noise or fumes—rather more so, in my estimation. The problem is that so many authorities have the power to put their bit of "furniture" where they like without consulting anybody else. Imagine the effect in your home, Mr. Speaker, if every friend or member of your family were able, without consultation, to put their furniture, lights and wallpaper wherever they wanted. That is what has happened in London's streets.

The average council has half a dozen different departments erecting poles, lights, parking meters, shelters and so on. British Telecom, the water and gas authorities, the local cable television company and old Uncle Tom Cobbleigh can erect their own signs without a care about where they go or what they are put next to. As each organisation knows that its own bossy notice is more important than anyone else's, it competes to be better placed—right in the way. It is no coincidence that, among the many people who support the Bill, the Royal National Institute for the Blind is one of the foremost. Our streets have become an obstacle course for blind people.

Not only is there usually no discussion within local authorities, but some companies, such as British Telecom, seem to have no in-house design of their own. Road signs come in every shade of the rainbow, including rust, because, once they are up they are never taken down again. Not only are our streets a clutter, but there is little sense of design. The idea of a street having "a look" has been abandoned to the vandalism of random bits of metal and concrete.

That work is done not only without planning permission but usually without a word of co-ordination. Other great European cities would never permit such a mess. The American cities teach us that if we do not do something soon, we could get even worse.

What is to be done? The Bill that I am introducing makes a start. On the day of the public expenditure debate, I reassure the House that my Bill will cost nothing. It is called—I am sorry to say that the rodent eradication engineers have got to Westminster, too—the Street Furniture (Design and Planning) Bill. It would oblige all the statutory bodies which have a right to put their stuff down in our streets to co-ordinate operations between themselves within the context of the local authority.

First, statutory bodies should get together on design. If they want to have orange and mauve signs in Stoke-on-Trent, let them. But at least let all the signs be in the same orange and mauve and in the same lettering.

Local authorities should start to move towards a uniform typeface, a range of accepted colours and a range of standard materials.

In my constituency, the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea has taken an intelligent lead on the matter. It now co-ordinates within the town hall all decisions on street furniture. No longer does the traffic man go his separate way from the borough engineer. Local authorities should be allowed, even encouraged, to co-ordinate the appearance of our streets in the same way, for example, as the National Trust does of its properties.

Are lamp posts to be concrete or cast iron? Are pavements to be asphalt or York stone? Often there is a good reason for the concrete or asphalt, but if the decision is made by a competent, named group of people, well and good. My Bill does not seek to replace one form of bossiness with another. Its aim is not to allow local authorities to control things willy-nilly. It seeks to make those who wish to put down street furniture give the local authority 28 days' notice. If in that time the local authority does not indicate that it requires planning permission, the proposals should be allowed to go ahead.

We could also make progress by something as simple as the sharing of single metal poles. Why should not the parking sign and the no-left-turn sign share the same lamp post? Many bits, including lights, do not need to be on a pole in any case. The Royal National Institute for the Blind is in favour of street furniture such as lights being attached to houses along the sides of the streets rather than to metal poles in the middle of the street.

Local authorities do not hold all the cards. Therefore, my Bill also seeks to bring the many statutory authorities which have been so successfully privatised not within planning constraints but into the general planning picture in the local authority. British Telecom, British Gas and the cable television people have the right not only to dig up our streets but to put their bits on them afterwards. Under my Bill, they will need permission from the local authority to do so under the provisions of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. At present, such bodies are exempt.

The general development order established by that Act spells out what requires planning permission and what does not. By objecting within 28 days, any local authority could bring the planning apparatus into play but, of course, it usually would not seek to.

My Bill would get around the nonsense by which orange kiosks can be plopped down without so much as a by-your-leave in front of any house in the land. If British Telecom decided to put a phone box outside No. 10 Downing street, there would be no method of preventing it from doing so. Under the general development order, there is no distinction between any ordinary street and conservation areas.

My Bill would help to encourage tidier streets throughout our cities. It would encourage local authorities to publish a code of practice. As happens in Kensington today, those rules would be established as a result of talking to residents and their associations whose streets are the ones that have to take the clutter. A little local democracy would see many a pole, board or notice come down. People like their streets to look neat. In and around London what we have instead is too often a mess.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Dudley Fishburn, Mr. Matthew Carrington, Mr. Robert G. Hughes, Mr. Richard Tracey, Mr. James Arbuthnot, Mr. Hugo Summerson, Mr. John Bowis and Mr. Andrew Mitchell.