Maybe Bath's rulers are cleverer than I think

"YOU'D THINK with all the money they saved on not having Christmas lights, they could afford to clear the pavements more than they have..." This was a grumble I heard in a shop in Bath earlier this week, as the ice and slush built up. Well, not so much a grumble, really, as a ritual moan. The good burghers of Bath are used to acting as a sort of Greek chorus, standing by and wringing their hands while the council enacts its ancient role of tragic buffoon...

This moan was based on an announcement earlier this year that Bath would not be having municipally funded Christmas street lights this year - not enough money in the kitty. In fact there were also wide-spread rumours that it was nothing to do with money - it was all to do with the fact that the traditional municipal lights had been stored since last year in conditions of such damp or dirt or degradation (stories varied) they were no longer usable. Anyway, the shopkeepers of Bath kicked up a fuss, the same fuss they kick up when it is a matter of insufficient parking, or torn up pavements, or digging for cable TV, or bad refuse- collection, and then it all died down, as it tends to, until it's time for people to get worked up about Cleveland Bridge again...

Cleveland Bridge ? This is a bottle-neck on the way into Bath from London, on the A4. They've been indulging in traffic works to "improve" this since last summer, maybe longer, and tailbacks, trailing halfway round Bath, have caused endless misery to commuters and residents. They felt even more miserable when they found the council, by opting for cheaper improvements, had deliberately let the misery go on much longer than necessary. When the protest exceeded the normal ritual moan, the council actually shelled out a few more bob to hasten things slightly, but it didn't seem to make much difference.

Occasionally people do lose their tempers over the ongoing complacency of the council that oversees Bath. Not long ago there was a letter in the Bath Chronicle from a director of Sulis Pianos, an excellent firm, saying that he didn't know how much longer he could go on dealing with the council, which in his experience was the most incompetent, inept, and procrastinating local administration he'd ever come across. But anger seems to get nowhere with the council, which not only seems to be incompetent, inept etc, but also has the hide of a rhino, so that most people eventually give up and content themselves with a ritual moan.

Now, I don't live in Bath - I live across the border in Wiltshire a few miles away - so I have no axe to grind, but I think I can offer a few objective theories as to why world-famous Bath behaves in such a parochial manner. The first was actually offered to me by a local resident when I first arrived in the area. "You'll notice that Bath is surrounded by hills," he said. "This has a funny effect on the air here. It seems to trap the air in a saucer and make it very heavy, pressing down on the people, inducing a sort of lethargy and inertia in Bath..."

Well, perhaps. The second cause of the council's complacency may well be that it has committed so many big crimes in the past (eg tearing down much of the Georgian suburbs, allowing such hideous modern buildings to be erected in the centre) that it now loses no sleep over minor crimes.

The third cause that comes to mind is the cause that was pinpointed by Jan Morris in an essay written in 1974. Her theory was that Bath was, at heart, not a city at all, but just another Somerset country market town which, by a freak of passing history, had been given the outward appearance of a world city. Bath has the body of a slice of world heritage: inside, it has the mind and heart of a small local council, penny-pinching over Christmas lights, dithering over its spa waters, counting the pennies...

I could be wrong. It might be that Bath and North-east Somerset Council, or whatever it is called this year, is clever enough to put out an image of bumbling, self-important, slightly pompous, slightly ineffective incompetence in order to deflect criticism, on the principle that if people have learnt not to expect very much from you, they won't get very upset by you, and just restrict themselves to a ritual moan...

Whatever the reason, it's a gripping spectator sport watching the people of Bath wring their hands. I'm just glad I'm over the border from Bath, in dynamic and go-ahead Wiltshire, where only this morning I was tottering along the unswept pavements of Bradford-on-Avon... But that's another story.

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