Joan Bakewell: Don't live in fear - set the people free

The complexity of road signs is so great you can cause a traffic accident by trying to read them
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The Independent Online

One little risk recently got a whole lot bigger. Parents are debating more intensely than ever the degrees of protective care and oversight they give their children. The watch kept on a sleeping child is now freighted with the terrible saga of the McCann family and what is regularly referred to as "every parent's nightmare".

Risk-taking is increasingly seen as bad, and to be blamed whenever bad things happen. In fact there are arguments on both sides, and the gains of taking risks need to be borne in mind every time we look to the state or government to bring in laws that supposedly make us safer.

Take an example less fraught with distress than the McCanns' personal suffering. Consider design, and how we can all agree that we prefer what passes for good design over the ragbag of accumulated junk from earlier decades. Look around you at the streetscapes of your towns and villages and how hedged in they have become by numerous attempts to safeguard your welfare. Street lighting, various and hideous, and creating light pollution on a grand scale; staggered traffic crossings where you have to weave your way between waist-high barriers; a complexity of road signs and traffic instructions so great you can cause a traffic accident simply by trying to read them .

All such insults to the environment are usually put there by local authorities, fearful of health and safety considerations that, they somehow believe, could easily land them in court paying out big sums to citizens they're meant to protect.

There are several hiccups in this argument that are highlighted in a report just published by Cabe, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, called Living with risk: promoting public space design. Cabe is championing a new way of looking at risk that doesn't simply see it as a lurking menace, but could contribute to the quality of life around us.

Consider water, and recall the rumpus that attended on the opening of the Princess Diana Fountain. A simply designed watercourse was suddenly headlined as a major hazard when the publicity surrounding it enticed far too many children to frolic far too exuberantly in its sweet waters. What followed was crazy: the whole area fenced off, numerous advisory agents called in, warnings and rules posted in conspicuous places.

Water is risky. If it is deep you can drown in it; if it's not you can slip on it. People know that and can make their own decisions accordingly. The responsibility shouldn't be taken away from them by the nanny instincts of litigation-fearing councils and other agencies.

There are signs that attitudes are changing. Anyone who has seen children frolic with glee among the upward spraying water jets that shoot apparently at random from the courtyard pavements of the Royal Academy or Somerset House will know the biggest risk is of a severe soaking and very wet clothes.

I have seen the same pleasure taken in the square at the heart of Dijon: there is a water feature flowing through Manchester's Exchange Square which was nearly aborted because of fears for people's safety, but now gives visible pleasure to many.

As for the fear that we live in a litigation society, Cabe's report suggests such suppositions are greatly exaggerated. "A strong - though perhaps unfounded - belief in a 'compensation culture' fuels disproportionate responses to risk... It is a powerful idea reinforced through the media and the growth of no-win, no-fee practices by legal firms."

One might add that risk assessment management has become a growth industry whose thinking infects our own judgement. People are being relieved of the burden of thinking for themselves.

In fact the number of personal injury claims is going down, having remained relatively stable since the late 1990s. Mean damages awarded in cases brought by no-win, no-fee companies fell between 2002 and 2005. All of which gives a clarion call to councils to ease up on the health and safety regulations, in the interests of better design.

Several councils offer strong evidence that less clutter improves the environment without harm to citizens. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has removed 715 metres of guardrails, reduced 40 litter bins to just five, abandoned pavement build-outs and dismantled several staggered crossings. Pavements are aligned along the entire street, rendering the whole place easier on the eye.

There is no evidence of this increasing accidents. Indeed where there have been claims elsewhere against highway authorities they usually relate to deficiencies of maintenance rather than faulty designs.

Our whole attitude to risk needs to be called into question. While health and safety guidelines are all too often seen as mandatory instructions, we quite easily disregard the two most risky aspects of modern life. Crossing the road is one. We expose ourselves daily to its risks and exercise judgement, timing and low cunning to keep ourselves alive.

The other is going to war. And our collective voices seem to have had little control over that. The risk of terrorist activity increases, the cost in manpower and money escalates, the country's international standing staggers, and we don't seem to know who made the risk assessment, and how culpable they are if things go wrong. Odd that.