Sign Language

Northumberland County Council erects 270 unlawful road signs, and promptly has to take them down again.
Towards the end of March 2017, Alan Kind and some chums were out for a walk near Simonburn, just north of the Roman Wall, and they happened across a cattle grid (in a blacktopped BOAT, as it happens), with a ‘CYCLISTS DISMOUNT’ road sign clipped on to the pole of each standard ‘Cattle grid’ sign.

‘What’s all this?’ was the cry, and one of the group said ‘these are springing up at cattle grids all over the county.’ ‘Unlawful signs’ opined ADK, who wrote to the Chief Executive of Northumberland County Council on 24 March, saying, “May I please have a copy of your risk assessment and reasons, and any relevant officer’s report, that led to the installation of these signs? These signs are unlawful. The ‘Cattle Grid’ sign does not permit (by the Act and Regulations) the addition of any plate; and the ‘Cyclists Dismount’ plate cannot be used in this situation. Please tell me if you disagree and why.”

Now, remember this is Northumberland County Council, and so the usual response is to do nothing. And that’s what they did. Nothing. So ADK wrote again on 27 April. This prompted a back-dated reply of 26 April saying, “… the current 2016 Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions does allow if required, for a supplementary plate to be provided in conjunction with the ‘Cattle Grid’ warning sign indicating a distance with or without a direction arrow; a direction arrow; or ‘Horse drawn vehicles or animals’ and a direction arrow.
“While the cyclist dismount sign does not convey the message supported by that of the cattle grid supplementary plate, Chapter 1 of the Traffic Signs Manual does allow for the provision of different types of signs on the same post which also removes the need for additional street furniture to be placed within the highway.
“Local Transport Note 2/08 ­Cycle Infrastructure Design ­also indicates that the cyclist dismount sign should be used in relatively rare situations where it would be unsafe or impracticable for a cyclist to continue riding.
“Consequently as a result of incidents reported to the County Council by cyclists at this particular location, officers considered it was necessary to advise cyclists to dismount and walk over the cattle grid rather than risk potential injury whilst riding across it especially during inclement weather conditions, hence the introduction of these advisory signs.”

So the real reason for the signs is clear: liability avoidance consequent on some ‘reported incidents’ (plural) “at this particular location” (singular). And at how many other sites were similar signs erected? 134 others (at least) making 270 signs in total.
ADK wrote again on 5 May saying, “I read what you say, but your use of ‘Cyclists Dismount’ plates is still not lawful. I accept that more than one sign (as distinct from a plate, or associated plate) can, in some situations, be mounted on a single pole. But the ‘Cyclists Dismount’ sign (plate) can only be used in the circumstances set out in Schedules to the 2016 Regulations and Directions.
“‘Cyclists Dismount’ is in the sign table to Schedule 11, Part 2, and Column 2, which sets out where this sign may be used states: ‘Diagram 966. Pedal cyclists to … dismount at the end of, or at a break in, a cycle track or route.’ A road sign or plate using the words ‘Cyclists Dismount’ cannot be used elsewhere. In that respect the 2106 Regulations have consolidated and buttressed the rules, and not ‘deregulated’ them. This stricture on use is also set out in DfT Circular 01/2016. The Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2016.
“A ‘Cyclists Dismount’ sign (plate) is to be used at the point at which cyclists should dismount. In this situation at Simonburn, even if the use of the sign is proper (which IMV it is not) then the signs should be at the point of dismount, not on a convenient but distant existing pole, sited for motor traffic according the the earlier Regulations.
“Local Transport Note 2/08 Cycle Infrastructure Design relates to that ‑ cycle infrastructure ‑ which is cycle lanes, cycle tracks, etc. That Note is not relevant to the ordinary passage of ordinary cyclists along the carriageway of an ordinary public motor road.
“The road at Simonburn is not a ‘cycle track or route’ (a ‘route’ has a particular meaning in the Regulations), rather it is a minor blacktopped public motor road. If the cattle grid is dangerous, then it needs to be repaired. Your FoI officer tells me that you have installed, or are installing, similar signage at 135 locations. Are these all similarly dangerous?
“In my letter of 24 March, and again on 27 April, I asked, ‘May I please have a copy of your risk assessment and reasons, and any relevant officer’s report, that led to the installation of these signs?’ You have not provided this. May I please have the risk assessments and notes of the site visits for the 135 locations at which you intend to erect these signs?”

This is Northumberland, remember, and so no reply, or the additional information requested, was sent. ADK wrote again on 19 May, expanding the reasons against the signs’ use. Yes, you guessed, no reply, and so on 25 May a pre-action protocol letter was sent. Yet more delay, and on 15 June, the director of local services wrote to say that he had looked again at the matter, and the signs (£6,000-worth, not including labour) will be removed.
The earlier request for the officers’ reports, etc, had of course been ignored, and a Freedom of Information notice issued to focus their minds. The reply is dumfounding: “The decisions to erect the advisory signs were made at an area level and discussions were verbal within the office between the Highway Inspectors, Compliance Officer and Area Manager, therefore there are no records held of e-mail correspondence, reports, meeting notes or telephone calls.
So 270 unlawful signs, costing £6,000 to buy (plus work) were bought and erected with no paper trail whatsoever, on the basis of ‘reported incidents’ at one location. What sort of public authority behaves like that? Well, Northumberland County Council does.
Another FoI request has been served for the ‘reported incidents’ details. Maybe they don’t exist, either … This report will be updated in due course.

And, of course, the stupidity is that cyclists could lawfully be obliged to push their machines over one, some, or all cattle grids in the county by the use of a ‘no cycling’ traffic order. The roundel signs wouldn’t cost any more. But such a TRO would have to be evidence-based, justified and merited, and you have to ask yourself, is there really any evidence that 135 cattle grids in Northumberland are somehow significantly more dangerous to cyclists that cattle grids in general? Probably not.
It all beggars belief.