Conservative councillor Christian Mitchell finds an issue that really matters – an unobtrusive £96 sign

I am pleased to report that I am indirectly responsible for a ‘headline’ story in my local newspaper, the West Sussex County Times – although I think this must certainly count as a very slow news week if a story as trivial as the one I am about to recount can feature on the front page and on the entirety of page 3.

Some background. There has always been a public bridleway running northwards out of the old town centre of Horsham. It used to lie along the line of the original North Street, in front of St. Mark’s Church. The road itself was the bridleway, and people rode horses and bicycles, and walked and drove, along it.

Then in the early 1990s the church was almost entirely demolished to make way for an office block, and for a dual carriageway to be run through underneath it. The old North Street simply ceased to exist, and was realigned, running from a vast new signal controlled junction, behind the new office block.

All that remains of the old church is the spire, as seen above. The office block – running across the picture – marks the route of the old North Street.

The architects and designers of this enormous building had two problems, one rather serious, one less so. The first was new Department of Transport requirements on the height of bridges. The whole building sits some distance above ground level, in order to accommodate a huge underpass.

This was obviously a challenge, and meant, at the town centre end of the building, a steep ramp and steps in order to gain the necessary height.

The second challenge was the existence of the bridleway itself, which had to be maintained, by law.

As he was working on a front canopy for the main Sun Alliance building, [architect] Peter Davidson discovered that North Street had been a bridle path and he was obliged to keep it. It meant that anything built, or growing, over it had to be high enough to allow for the passage of a horse with a rider wearing a top hat. ‘Apart from that what worried us was that a cyclist could ride up and down a bridle path and there would be lots and lots of cyclists riding up and down. In fact some do, but it’s never been a serious problem.’

From ‘A Journey Through Horsham’s Changes’ – John Buchanan and Annabelle Hughes, 2008, Horsham Society

I am one of those cyclists who does, occasionally, ride up and down this bridle path. It provides a slightly more attractive route into the town centre than the enormous junction behind the new office block, which looks like this -

The fundamental problem with using this bridle path is that it was not at all clear to anyone on it that cycling was legal upon it. It looks just like a footway.

As I wrote last year, this is a recipe for hostility. I have been shouted at cycling along here by a member of the public. A Horsham cyclist, Greg Collins, recounts here his account of being stopped by PCSOs while legally using this route. You can also find complaints being made to local councillors about cycling on this bridge here (pdf), all parties to the discussion – including the councillors themselves – completely unaware that cycling on Chart Way is perfectly legal.

With this in mind, I got in touch with West Sussex County Council and asked them whether they could erect some small signs making clear that this was a bridleway, and that cycling was permitted. To their credit, they were very helpful, and within a few months two small green signs appeared on existing poles at either end of the path. You can see one in the photograph above.

Amazingly, it is the presence of these signs that have aroused the ire of District Councillor Christian Mitchell, who is quoted at length in the paper, railing against them in extraordinarily overblown language.

The superfluous addition of these two modern signs to the existing cast iron sign posts is wanton architectural vandalism.

And -

I’d like to be generous and hope that these two new signs informing the public that Chart Way is a public bridleway and that one can freely ride a horse into The Carfax from North Street is a belated April Fool’s joke. However, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Quite why, after more than 20 years, some jobs-worth felt the need to attach these two ugly signs, I don’t know.

The Carfax and the roads leading to it won national awards and praise for its [sic] design. But it didn’t happen by accident. Much thought and consideration was given to the colour of the stone paving, to the band stand, to the decision to have working gas street lamps and to ensure that the rest of the street furniture, namely the benches, litter bins and street signs all matched and were as unobtrusive as possible.

The eye for detail by the then chief executive, Martin Pearson, and the councillors who worked on the town’s redevelopment was simply incredible.

And not only are the signs brutal, detracting from the heritage signpost that has been designed to blend in with the street scene, they are a waste of taxpayers’ money at a time when we were all having to further tighten our belts. I cannot accept that this was a spending priority after twenty years without them.

The county highways officers should do the right thing and remove them immediately and put them back in the store cupboard from where they came from until a proper use can be found for them such as a public bridleway in the countryside, not one in the town centre.

This is such exceptional guff, on so many levels, it is quite hard to know where to start.

Bridleways aren’t just for horses, Cllr Mitchell – they’re for bikes, too, which is an entirely reasonable mode of transport in a town centre. Did you know that? Dribbling on about people wishing to ride horses into the town centre completely misses the point.

The cost of these signs was £97.64. An absolutely miniscule sum of money when you consider the size of the West Sussex County Council budget in entirety, let alone the Highways budget. (When even the pence are included in the price, you know it’s small). Is this really the only expenditure you see fit to rail against, or indeed the most appropriate target?

And now on to the matter of ‘architectural vandalism’. Setting aside the grim irony that the route in question lies on top of a demolished church, the remaining spire of which nestles, surrounded on three sides, by an office block, it is curious why, precisely, it is the addition of these signs that has provoked Mr Mitchell’s outrage.

The picture in the paper is selective and misleading.

If we stand back and look at this sign, in context, what do we see?

Three larger – and far more garish – signs, that existed long before the addition of a barely visible green sign to a green post. Is Mr Mitchell calling for the large red ‘Emergency Access – Keep Clear’ sign to be removed, or to be rendered more in keeping? Or likewise, the ‘no heavy goods vehicles beyond this point’, or the large and obtrusive sign for West Sussex County Council?

Curiously, he is not. Mr Mitchell’s outrage against ‘brutal’ signs is, apparently, selective. I can and will go on. There are a vast number of signs dotted all over the area, which have existed for many years.

Two signs telling cyclists to stop cycling, a few yards away from the new sign. They have existed since the bridge was built. No comment on these ugly signs from Cllr Mitchell.

A garish yellow CCTV warning sign, one of several CCTV signs along this path.

‘Beware Uneven Paving’.

‘Danger Falling Hazard’.

‘CAUTION Pathway slippery when wet.’

And attached to the pole of the other sign -

Another CCTV warning, along with a cigarette butt receptacle.

No comment on any of these signs from Cllr Mitchell, all of which have been in place for many years, and all of which are far more obtrusive than a green sign which matches the pole.

Indeed, we don’t have to look very far to find more examples of street furniture that does not blend in with the exemplary Carfax. The whole town centre is dotted with signs for drivers that simply do not match their carefully-designed surroundings.

A garish, illuminated ‘one-way’ sign, just yards from the offending bridleway sign.

Another sign just yards away, with its own pole and illumination, telling drivers not to drive on the pavement. Unnecessary? Who knows!

Elsewhere in the Carfax, we find more ugly signs stuck on attractive lamp posts -

A plethora of unnattractive No Entry signs -

And of course the ubiquitous ‘Cyclists Dismount’ signs.

This is to say nothing of the huge signs and gantries dotted nearby giving motorists directions, which if any sign is to be called ‘brutal’ or ‘ugly’ would certainly qualify ahead of a small green one that you can barely notice.

Seemingly these signs, and all the others, are exempt from the strictures on aesthetics Cllr Mitchell is apparently so keen to dispense.

I have a proposal for the councillor. I’ll pay West Sussex County Council the £96.64 for these two new signs, and also remove – with his approval – all the pointless and redundant ‘cyclist dismount’ signs dotted around Horsham town centre. At no cost! That way the tax payer is no worse off, and plenty of garish signs – which Cllr Mitchell so evidently dislikes – will disappear.

How about it?

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This entry was posted in Councillor Christian Mitchell, Horsham, Horsham District Council, Signs, West Sussex County Council. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Conservative councillor Christian Mitchell finds an issue that really matters – an unobtrusive £96 sign

  1. Greg Collins says:

    I’ll chip in to the collection for the signs, even if I doubt 1 in a hundred understand what they mean

  2. Anna Coe says:

    I’m a reporter at the County Times and my colleague wrote the article. It’s really interesting to read your views about it. I wondered if you would you like to write a letter responding to Mr Mitchell’s views and highlight your concerns about the lack of awareness of it being a cycle route? If so, email ct.letters@sussexnewspapers.co.uk but please keep it to a maximum of 350 words.

    • Adam says:

      Given the space that the County Times devoted to Cllr Mitchell’s rant, I’d suggest the paper give more space for the other side of the story to be presented than just a 350 word letter.

      Thought this was a great blog post.

      • I should have made clear in my post that the West Sussex County Times did devote a substantial portion of the article to a response from West Sussex County Council, namely that

        ‘the signs went up in response to requests from some local people… we believe the police even stopped some cyclists telling them they shouldn’t be riding along here. This is incorrect as they can use this route, so as to ensure all users are aware of the classification of this path the signs were put up. We did get permission from Horsham District Council to use the post for our signs, thus reducing costs and the need for extra posts. The county council has a duty to sign public rights of way and in this case we do feel the signage is beneficial.’

        As it happens, I actually approached Horsham District Council initially about getting some signage on this route; they told me that as it was a bridleway, it was up to West Sussex County Council to sort out the appropriate signage.

  3. Paul M says:

    Firstly, three cheers for Anna Coe – perhaps you have the chance to put this straight in the paper (though I wouldn’t hold my breath).

    When I looked at Councillor Mitchell’s web page, I got a surprise. I was expecting to see grey hair, perhaps a moustache, and burst blood vessels in his cheeks – the classic golf-club bore. But he looks almost – well, young!

    Mind you, a bit of a giveaway when you read what he does – a barrister who proseecutes benefit fraud cases. Do you suppoe he has any interet in prosecuting tax fraud cases? Or motoring offences? I suspect not.

    Despite his apparent youth, I suspect he is all much of a muchness with local politicians generally – it is pointless looking to local councillors (with some honourable exceptions, eg Brighton & Hove) to promote cycle-friendly initiatives. Amateur politicians are just great big bags of prejudices and opinions which cannot be confused by the facts. At a national level, our Westminster politicians, and indeed most of the GLA members, are professionals who carry a lot less baggage and the current administration is not really that much less likely to see the light, and bring about a material change in policy on cycling, than its predecessor, but either way what is needed is for national government to take away local government’s discretion on cycle provision. They already have limited discretion about how to maintain raods for motor vehicles, or how to run the schools which remain in their control. They get national funding to a base level, strict guideleines on what to do with it, and limited freedom to tinker around the edges on quality or quantity of provision. that is what cycling needs.

  4. Good job he’s not here in Wales, the sign would be twice as big to accommodate two languages!

  5. Clive Walker says:

    It would be nice to see a lot *more* encouragement of cycling in Horsham. Both along existing cycle routes/bridleways – and with the creation of new ones – rather than objections to signage when it is there for good reasons

  6. We cyclists have made a rod for our own back by breaking the rules so often.

    • In the latest data released by the DfT only yesterday, it was revealed that 47% of motor cars were breaking 30 mph limits. This is a fairly consistent trend, yet this epidemic of rule-breaking has not made any rod for the back of any motorist, law-abiding or otherwise.

      It shouldn’t, of course; people should be treated as individuals, whether they are riding a bike or driving a car. The lawlessness of other people should not affect the treatment of the law-abiding.

  7. Bill G says:

    Speak for yourself Infoex~x!

  8. Peter says:

    Good post. Just when you think you can’t be shocked by a Horsham councillor along comes somebody to prove you wrong!
    And thanks for helping to get the sign put up in the first place. I’ve only just started cycling along Chart Way myself after someone pointed out to me that it was (perhaps surprisingly) actually a bridleway. It’s pretty crap really (and unrideable when even remotely busy) but as you say it’s better than the alternative.

  9. Francis Vernon says:

    Great post. I might even stir my stumps and get a letter off to the County Times myself.

  10. perthbiker says:

    If Christian Mitchell studies hard he might get to be an idiot.

  11. plastic99 says:

    Brilliant! It’s a shame that you should have to spend so much of your time on making a case like this, but your through pictorial and written assessment of the sorry tale does you great credit. The photos add interest and explain the problem beautifully.

    As far as I’m concerned you’ve left Mitchell looking pretty stupid – focussing on the horse and conveniently ignoring the bike – and I hope his party realises that. Perhaps as a councillor he should be more worried that law-abiding members of the public have been harassed by the police for going about their business in his ward? And perhaps he should be gratefulthat something has been done about it?

    I hope you’ll publish his apology when it’s forthcoming.

  12. the1eyedview says:

    Very late in the day to leave a reply I know, but I was looking for some ‘stuff’ on Christian Mitchell and happened across this most excellent piece – so thank you! My local constituency made the disastrous mistake of selecting him as their PPC for the 2005 General Election and he cost them a huge number of votes. I wondered where he had gone….you have my every sympathy…

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