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Duncan: Litigious society is creating urban clutter

Speech at Social Market Foundation fringe event at Conservative Party Conference

"Transport is not only about getting people and goods from one place to another. It is also about the effect that transport infrastructure has on our daily lives, our patterns of behaviour, our sense of belonging in and being in control of our own public space.

Over the years, transport engineers have sought to achieve an efficient transport network, while minimising risks and dangers to the public, passengers and non-passengers alike. But there is a tension between these two undoubtedly worthy goals. All travel is dangerous (even walking to the shops) and the engineering response to this tension has been to seek, as far as possible, to separate pedestrians and other more vulnerable road users from vehicles using physical barriers.

Signs have burgeoned on our highways, in towns and countryside alike. Forests of poles mar some of our greatest beauty spots, but are equally offensive even in a rundown city centre. As each new layer is added, the previous set of signs is usually left lovingly in place. And the maintenance budgets for all this clutter rarely match the needs generated by the capital spending involved: so the poles and signs and multiple traffic signals just rust and become irrelevant, adding to the dreariness of the urban forum.

And when we look at the materials used in our public realm, we cannot fail to be aware of the marked decline that has set in over the last fifty years. Where once we had stone paving, we now have cheap, easily broken concrete or - worse - asphalt; where once we had paving flags we now have horrid little setts, often multi-coloured and wholly alien to the English traditional streetscape; concrete lamp-columns sway precariously in the wind - the national backlog on lamp-columns alone is estimated many many millions. In a country where do-it-yourself in the home is both obsession and spectator sport, why is it that, when we walk out of our front doors, we encounter third-rate paving materials, shoddy design, poles and clutter - and seem content to put up with it?

A new tendency is increasingly in evidence that fortifies our existing failures and that is the fear of litigation. It may well be, as the government says, that claims in the courts do not show any increase: that we are not becoming a more litigious society. But we are definitely becoming a society much more fearful of litigation. "Danger! The hot water is hot!" (it usually isn't) is a sign designed not to minimise harm to the user but to reduce the risk of a successful claim for damages should one be brought. Fear of litigation re-inforces a tendency to construct the public realm "by the book", following all the Department for Transport's prescriptions as to signage and design, so as to be able to offer in court a defence that is hard to knock down.

Let us take an example from the DfT cook-book of streetscape design. Most motorists are sufficiently clued up to understand that a large white thermoplastic circle in the middle of a junction is a mini-roundabout, designed to regulate vehicular movement by giving priority to vehicles entering from one's right. The expectation of such perspicuity is alien to DfT thinking, however. "Give Way" lines must be painted on each approach road. Also at each approach point there must be a blue illuminated sign with three white arrows on it, forming a circle - four signs and four poles. Good practice recommends in addition that some fifty or so yards before the roundabout a red and white warning sign is erected, also sporting the three circular arrows, this time in back - eight signs now, and eight poles. All this, presumably, is for the benefit of the drivers - are there more than six in the country? - who do not know what a mini-roundabout is when they see one.

The CPRE, English Heritage and CABE are now doing great things to raise the profile of this important environmental issue.

The problem is that people with little initiative or sense of aesthetics are in charge of designing our streetscape, and to cover their backsides against accusations that they have not done all they can to eliminate risk, they are overbuilding, uglifying (to coin a word) our environment, and councillors have shown too little gumttion in challenging this visual pollution.

We all acknowledge now that anti-social behaviour can be the result of chronically poor maintenance of the public realm, be it the "broken window" or the rusted guard-railing. Why have we not then built into our thinking the matching proposition that good design, high quality materials, a public realm that complements the distinctive built environment of a place - that these may encourage good behaviour, may delight the spirit, may strengthen the cohesion and community that we are all seeking to build up and re-inforce? Why have we not put the person at the heart of our design? Why have we made the prevention of harm the over-riding criterion for our treatment of the person in the public space?

The government's failure to tackle these issues is thrown into relief by its endless rhetoric on the subject. Since coming to power, the government has been committed to a "sustainable communities" agenda. This is such a huge, unfocused agenda - it covers housing provision, housing design, cutting emissions, recycling, improving the environment and avoiding the mistakes that have led in the past to the creation of "sink estates" - that it is hardly surprising that almost nothing has been achieved to further these worthy objectives. It is yet another example of the government's sitting on the bridge of the ship, portentously pulling the levers and unaware that nothing is happening down below, so absorbed are they in their own press releases.

The "sustainable communities" agenda undoubtedly includes creating an improved public realm. Gifted people have been hired by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, some with experience of working for the Prince of Wales in his efforts to improve the public realm on his own estates. A New Labour Commission on Architecture and the Built Environment has swept away the Royal Commission on Fine Arts. Huge national jamborees (admittance £600 plus, mostly recharged to Council Tax payers) have brought to our great provincial cities the good news of sustainable development.

The government now believes that the root of the problem is the "skills gap": more and better designers are needed. As ever, a roll of the Prescott eyebrow is enough to send scores of civil servants, departmental hangers-on and agency staff into a flurry of activity. Skills centres are springing up across the country; new "Regional Centres of Excellence" are flush with activity, mostly thinking what they can do with the funding that has been lavished on them. It is almost impossible these days to walk down a corridor of power without bumping into a seminar on the "excellence agenda". And CABE is in there with the best of them, batting for excellence as if their life-blood depended on it (which, insofar as funding is their life-blood, is probably true).

Yet eight years on the poles and guard-rail are still there. The concrete lamp-columns crumble and sway. The signs still scream at us in our presumed idiocy. The paving cracks up and the fabric of our shared life quietly rots away. The problem is not the shortage of skills but the shortage of leadership. The obstacle is not a lack of local imagination but a plethora of national regulation. The government thinks it has the solution without realising that it, in large measure, is the problem.

Another example. Even as I speak, the government is consulting on a new Corporate Manslaughter Bill that might apply to local authorities. Civil servants say that it is intended only to apply in cases of gross abuse, but it does not say that in the proposed text. The government refuses to see that innovative highways schemes could be caught by this new offence if they depart from DfT norms. The result will likely be an even greater stifling of innovation amongst those who shape our public realm: the in-house litigation lawyers and insurance managers will see to that.

Is the government wrong to recognise that there is a problem with our public realm? No, they are to be praised for it. The problem is their sheer incompetence at the basic art of government: knowing how to get something worthwhile done. Has the Conservative Party failed to give this topic sufficiently serious attention in the past? Yes, almost certainly, but that is now at an end. The next Conservative government must and will recognise that people want and communities need a new and effective approach to the look and feel of our country: a makeover for the face of England.

What will we do?

First we will learn from local government. Unlike this government, obsessed with regional bodies and new unaccountable structures, we do not despise our traditional, elected local government. For all its rhetoric, new commissions and sustainable summits, the government has achieved almost no practical design improvements on the ground and it is to cutting edge local authorities that we must turn for examples.

Conservative-controlled Kensington and Chelsea has radically reshaped Kensington High Street, using the best quality materials and classic design principles. Nearly all guard-rails have gone, sometimes in direct contravention of DfT guidance. A greater burden of responsibility is placed on all road users. Personal injury accidents have fallen as a result. The improvements have won national and international recognition as the first breath of fresh air in English streetscape design for decades. Yet some of the key improvements had to be pushed through be elected councillors in the face of opposition from Council officers, because they did not wish - understandably - to risk their professional reputation and career by recommending a departure from DfT norms. (And that was before the Corporate Manslaughter Bill appeared on the horizon.) The DfT continues to shun the principles and practices exemplified in Kensington High Street despite the many prizes awarded to it: they are obviously unmoved by the Prescott eyebrow.

In some places the county council has removed the central white lines from country roads. The idea is, paradoxically, to improve the accident record by increasing the sense of danger.

We will also learn from abroad. The pioneering work of Hans Monderman in the Netherlands has created junctions and townscapes with no controls or signed priorities at all. With the sense of claim on the road gone, all road users, including motorists, need to negotiate with each other using eye contact: the spaces are safer and more civilised. Mr. Monderman's work is far from unknown to the DfT and the ODPM. Why have they not at least authorised a similar experiment at one or two junctions here? We will do so.

We will thoroughly reform CABE, possibly to the point of abolition. If its work is important - and I believe it could be - it should probably be carried out within a mainstream ministerial department. If it is to continue as a separate agency, then it needs new commissioners. Many of the first lot appear to have been appointed on the basis of their business relations with each other. That abuse was addressed following a public outcry. Our commissioners will be people who have demonstrated that they have got things done - and by "done" I mean built, not merely discussed at a seminar.

We will help local authorities with funding for improvements to their public realm. But we will deliver this money proportionately to an authority's progress in removing clutter. And we will expect the maintenance budgets released by that removal to be used to match-fund the government's contribution.

We will create a legal framework in which local authorities can conduct innovative experiments on the ground with no fear of legal liability provided effective monitoring of the outcomes is in place; and we will learn from those lessons and encourage their dissemination elsewhere.

We will expect a transformation in the role and attitude of the Transport Research Laboratory - a move away from abstract engineering principles to an empirical study of what works in the real world, a real world in which the behaviour of people has to be taken into account."

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