Fruit & veg versus health & safety (and why a little bit of clutter does you good)

Don't slip... health and safety 'gone mad'?

The Shropshire Star bristled last week with news that traders in Wellington’s New Street had received letters from the borough council warning them to remove displays in front of their shops or face the prospect of a hefty fine.

It’s the sort of story local papers love – the little man being stepped on by faceless pen-pushers, health and safety gone mad etc. It did all seem a bit silly – you’d think councils would have bigger fish to fry. That said, complaints had apparently been made about displays encroaching further and further into the thoroughfare and presumably the council just thought it was doing its duty (although why they couldn’t just pick up the phone I don’t know). Happily, common sense has now prevailed and the traders are fine to carry on as they are.

But this isn’t the only case of well-meaning councils vociferously tiding up Wellington’s streets and going a bit far. Just last Spring, Wellington Town Council awakened a hornet’s nest of protest when it decided to relocate the community clock as part of efforts to ‘de-clutter’ Market Square. Their logic was spot on – England’s towns have become overwhelmed with ill-considered and ill-fitting street signage and furniture from which they should be liberated. The repaving of Market Square has helped achieve that in the last 12 months, and that’s to be celebrated. It was just unfortunate that the town council labelled something as ‘clutter’ when a lot of other people rather liked it. If you’d seen the Square six months ago – new paviers and sans clock – you’d have reasonably asked yourself ‘at what point does ‘de-cluttered’ become ‘drab and empty’?’  In summer, the clock returned, the Square reclaimed some character and there was much rejoicing.

Ruck around the clock... which has now returned

The point is that our towns need to be safe, clean and tidy, of course, but that shouldn’t mean making them sterile and devoid of life. Towns like ours are at their best when they are full – full of people, full of stuff, full of activity. When Wellington H2A organises the Midsummer Fayre and Sounds in The Square, we’re aiming to inject activity into the streets. The colour and the buzz you can create with an event has the power to completely alter the way people feel as they walk around a place.

But events are shortlived, and when the jester has packed his tricks away and the brass band has retired to the pub, the effect soon wears off. It is the shopkeepers left carrying the flag. Year-round, it is they who have the greatest impact on how the town looks and feels, on whether it’s an attractive place we want to spend time or an unattractive place we’d rather avoid. It is their shops and shop fronts that add together to give us the town we know, and collectively they have the power to make or break it.

Leaks at J.P Fruits

The trader at the centre of this most recent news story about street displays has been grocer John Painter, whose racks of fresh fruit and veg are probably the best-presented in town. Colourful and regimented, his produce brightens up what is an otherwise dowdy part of the street; this little bit of private enterprise tumbling out into the public realm enriches the scene. Of course shopkeepers have to do this responsibly and not take liberties with space which is, after all, not theirs, but for the most part the sight of a street filled with the colours of its shops is much more preferable to one barren and bare.

So to end – lets give our compliments to Mr Painter for the contribution his fruit and veg make to our high street. Let’s add a caveat though, and say that it’s a shame he doesn’t live up to his name and paint the upper storey of his shop! For glorious as his fruity displays are downstairs, upstairs his premises look like The Alamo. Telford & Wrekin’s health and safety team should relax and leave the man alone – but its conservation team might want to drop in and have a friendly word…

This is how it looked two years ago... it's even worse now!