Transport secretary Chris Grayling has blasted some council chiefs for “acting beyond their powers” by opting to use the metric system of kilometres and metres used in European road signs, over the UK’s standard imperial units of miles and yards.
In the letter he sent last week to council chief executives, which has been seen by LGC, Mr Grayling stated that the use of non-prescribed signs on public highways without authorisation “might be deemed unlawful”, with authorities using them “acting beyond their powers”.
“The erection of an unauthorised sign in the highway is an obstruction and the possible consequences of erecting or permitting the erection of obstructions can be severe,” he said, adding that those responsible could lay themselves open to a claim for damages.
Mr Grayling, who has been embroiled in controversy lately for Crossrail and HS2 delays and the fiasco over ferry operators picked in the event of a no deal Brexit, is known by opposition MPs as ‘failing Grayling”.
One chief executive described the tone of the letter as “micromanaging”, at a time when council resources are currently overstretched due to having to organise EU elections as well as local elections due to Brexit bungling.
They said: “Anyone would have thought that the cabinet might be dealing with the burning issues of our time like the social care crisis, rising child poverty or public service funding. It would appear that different priorities keep us awake at night.”
Another chief commented: “This looks purely political to me. There might be some pressure from ERG and this is a reaction to assert the status quo.”
Graeme McDonald, managing director of the Society for Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers, said that Solace is not aware of any significant instances of metric distances being used for traffic signs. “This is not a priority issue for local authority chief executives,” he added.
Mr Grayling’s letter comes after The British Weights and Measurements Association made him aware of a small number of new pedestrian route signs using metric measurements, for example new signs in Bournemouth that direct pedestrians in distances measured in metres and kilometres.
Chris Parkes, team leader, traffic management at Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council said the council had been made aware that some street signs directing pedestrians around Bournemouth do not comply with the correct measurements required in the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions. He added: “These signs were installed as part of a wayfinding project and we are currently in the process of updating them to comply with the Department of Transport’s requirements.”
The timing of this campaign to purge the UK of European-style street signage may not be entirely coincidental, with Brexit weighing on people’s minds.
A spokesperson for the association, Warwick Cairns, told LGC he thought the “unlawful metric pedestrian signs” popping up on road and footpath signs were related to anti-Brexit sentiment.
“I think there is an ideological mindset in some councils that the metric system is related to being international and outward looking, and that being European is mixed in with that,” he said. “It’s part of culture wars going on around the world. Sometimes, people override the law to further their take on what they think we should be culturally.”