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'Stop nicking my street furniture'

Tree, lamp-post and granite setts

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

A man chains himself to a lamp-post to stop it being removed, people fight to keep "unsafe" trees and residents campaign for cobbles. Whether it's the need to cut crime, bow to health and safety rules or reduce costs, councils across the country are removing things from streets that people don't want removed.

So there you are, the boxes are unpacked and you're settling in nicely to your new house.

The council can come away and pick it out of the ground and put a monstrosity in its place
David Cemlyn
Lamp-post activist

The sunlight dapples through the majestic plane trees, a bird cheeps from its perch on a Victorian lamppost, a bicycle jiggles over the picturesque cobbles.

It all seems worth the stress and the mortgage. But what's this coming into view? A cavalcade of fluorescent-jacketed workmen is marching up the street.

A chainsaw is applied to a trunk, spades flick cobbles out of the ground, and there's a mournful screech as your lamp-posts are uprooted. The council has come to nick your street furniture.

Of course, as far as the law is concerned, this isn't "nicking" at all. Cobbles and lamp-posts do not belong to the street. They're items the council can take away whenever it wants.

And yet these removals are enough to provoke rage among otherwise calm and unflustered folk.

'Motorway lights'

When Bristol council removed the antique lamp-posts from David Cemlyn's street in the St Andrews area of the city, it did not realise the volcano of anger they were about to unleash. By the time it came to uproot those in the next street, he was resorting to direct action, chaining himself to a threatened post and going on hunger strike.

David Cemlyn locked to a beloved lamp-post
David Cemlyn spent three hours chained to a lamp-post

"I live in an area totally developed between 1880 and 1900," he says. "These lamp-posts were put up when my house was built and the council can come away and pick it out of the ground and put a monstrosity in its place."

If the replacement of the old cast iron columns with what he derides as "motorway lights" was not galling in itself, the fate of the removed lights is enough to propel him into apoplexy.

Bristol council removes the old lamp-posts and where they are in a useable state carts them off to one of the city's conservation areas, which include the wealthy Clifton neighbourhood. St Andrew's is, unfortunately, not a conservation area.

"We haven't got a Georgian square like Clifton so we don't deserve nice lights," says Mr Cemlyn.

A variation on the same story is being repeated in Ealing in west London. There the council is overseeing a major street lighting renewal, started by the previous administration. Antique lamp-posts are removed and, where they can be renovated, moved to a new "heritage quarter" near the old Ealing Studios. Those outside the quarter, but in conservation areas, receive heritage-style modern replicas.

Crime fighting

Again the council has been surprised by the strength of feeling among some activist residents.

"They have been just amazed by how much part of their way of life that these heritage lamp-posts are," says Eric Leach of the Save Ealing's Antique Lamp-posts group. "It is the thin end of the wedge. Will the trees go? Will the parks go?"

Modern street light at dusk
Some people are really rather averse to these

Of course, the councils have reasons for removing the antique lamps. They say lighting must be renewed to bring it up to modern standards for brightness and help cut crime and boost road safety. The old lamp-posts cannot be brought up to standard.

But the lamp-post savers dispute the assertion that the old lamps cannot be modernised, and that greater brightness is legally required or desirable anyway. If they've survived with the old lights for the last 100 years, why not another 100?

It's not just lights. One of the great perils in 21st Century Britain is the tree. Whether it's root systems threatening subsidence or branches falling on people, mature trees are disappearing from British streets with alarming regularity.

In Antke de Souza's street in north London the menace was giant pears. An over-rigorous pruning was blamed for a sudden freak crop of the massive fruit in 2006. One car had a window smashed and there were reports of lucky escapes for pedestrians from the "killer pears", as the local newspaper dubbed them.

People power

The council's response was a plan to cut a number of the trees down.

"Apparently there was one complaint of a pedestrian being hit by a pear on the head," says De Souza.

"The solution was to cut the trees down rather than to have the fruit picked. Several of these trees have been there for 50 years. They are stunning, beautiful trees. In the spring time they produce massive flowers and the street becomes transformed. These trees are the ones that make a difference."

Retired people have got time to walk around and see their local environment and have the time to ask - do we really want to lose this stuff
Eric Leach
Lamp-post activist

In this case people power prevailed and the council agreed to pick the pears rather than chop down the trees.

But it's clear that health and safety is a big factor in street furniture removal. In Beverley in North Yorkshire conservationists fought the council over the removal of a 25ft stretch of cobblestones that was a "trip danger".

And it's not just what's being taken away, says Sandy Patience, chairman of Beverley Civic Society.

"The main issue we have is the proliferation of traffic signs. They are put up unchecked by several uncoordinated departments. Like everybody we suffer from excessive health and safety regulation. A lot is to protect themselves from being sued."

Wary councillors

At the heart of the matter is the preservation of streetscapes. If your house is listed or you're in a conservation area, there's a fair degree of legal protection for the look of the place. But in unprotected streets, householders find themselves at the mercy of an often ruthless pragmatism.

And the level of "consultation" of residents can be varied to say the least. In Ealing only those on conservation panels were asked their views before the decisions were made on street lighting.

But people power does seem to work. In Bristol the protests of Mr Cemlyn and others have led to a suspension while the policy of lamp-post replacement is discussed with residents. In Ealing the council is working with Mr Leach and his group, after their campaign was highlighted in the Ealing Times and picked up by other media.

Councillors now know to be wary of a dangerous group - the early retirement activists with burgeoning web skills.

"It is part of a realisation by people on the ground and retired people who have got time to walk around and see their local environment and have the time to ask - do we really want to lose this stuff," says Mr Leach.

Mr Cemlyn is also retired, dryly noting: "Retired people like me are going to lead the revolution."

So for those who espy fluorescent-jacketed marauders roaming in the street, it might be best to contact their retired neighbourhood firebrand.


Send us your comments using the form below.

I completely support these protesters. I can't understand why councils and builders don't get that basic concept that if you remove any sense of cultural heritage from people's surroundings, then what is left becomes disposable. Cobbles are not just bits of stone. They are bits of stone people have been walking on for hundreds of years - our fathers and our grandfathers. In a real sense, they are a part of us. Denude a place of beauty, and you denude its people of beauty, too.
James Martinez, Gateshead

It is a source of continuing frustration that people do not talk to their councillors about these things and that complaints from residents often only reach the elected representatives through personal grapevines or through the council's employees. If you're concerned about your street furniture, phone the council and ask for the contact details for your local councillor. Especially in boroughs and districts they genuinely care and will listen.
Cllr Gavin Ayling, Shoreham-by-Sea, England

I live in the same area as David, he's got a lot of support. The council stole all our Victorian paving slabs to use posh bits of Clifton and left us with asphalt, now they're stealing our lamps, scumbags.
Paul, Bristol

As a resident of St Andrews, I am hopeful the new lights will still be commissioned. The old ones are more or less useless, and not in the least attractive. One can admire Mr Cemlyn's, er, campaigning zeal while reckoning there are several thousand more worthwhile causes which could occupy his time.
Baffled Bristolian, Bristol

I am in 100% (if not more) with Mr Leach, I wish there were more. I do believe in progress but wouldn't it be nice in direct communication with whom it concerns. In our place, old features are ripped out, all for progress. Old "decorative" electricity poles with three thin wires were replaced with thick match sticks and a single thick (water-hose size) dangling in the air. Then the new lantern, absolutely not wanted, so bright that suddenly in the house we have a 24hr daylight situation. Safety? Heard of reflectors and todays car lights?
Gerard van der Veen, West Woodburn

Hurrah for the Mr Cemlyns of this world. I work in local government, and one of the biggest causes of complaint with the public is trees. Yes, trees. They are either in the wrong place, or they've got leaves that fall off, or the Council have dared to prune them, or may be it plans to fell one. You can't win with trees. We were obliged, eventually, to fell a perfectly good sycamore because its keys fell onto someone's decking. The tree had been in place a lot longer than any decking! One woman wanted a whole row of trees felled because she said they interfered with her TV signal. It was the council's fault that a thief got clean away from a house - he jumped over the fence into woodland owned by the council, and disappeared. If the trees hadn't been there, he wouldn't have been able to get away, the owner complained. But you try and get a diseased and dangerous tree felled, for everyone's safety, and the do-gooders are out in force. You can't win with trees. Now lamp-posts are different - if they're shining when they should, and aren't in a dangerous condition, leave well alone!
Catherine, Southampton, UK

The council have no right to go against the wishes of residents, they are servants of the people, not rulers of the people. Every major change should be discussed with all effected residents, and if it is not, then its a clear breach of democracy. But then again when did democracy ever work? Politicians rarely ask the people what they want.
Chris, Peterborough

I'm not from the UK, but topics like this really bake my biscuit. In the face of sterilising modernity something as simple as a 100-year-old lamp post is a refreshing change from the assembly line world we live in.
Michelle, Tampa

I think people want the aesthetics of their streets preserved. That's all. Cheap "functional" street furniture does nothing for the human soul - unless you're into the plain and unadorned look. Besides, this is nothing new. In 1959, when nearly 90, the delightful AE Matthews made national headlines by sitting, for several days and nights, on the pavement outside his beautiful Georgian home near London. He wanted to prevent the council from putting in a new streetlight, the design of which he felt was totally out of keeping with the neighbourhood.
S E Arliss, Toronto, Canada

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