Leading Article: Keep fruit on our streets

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The Independent Online
Life must be hell for the man from the council. All those complaints from aggrieved tenants, noise-averse neighbours, unproud owners of uncollected rubbish - and so little time or money to deal with them. At least that's what they keep telling us. In which case, why has Derbyshire Council spent so much effort in getting a judgement against an Ilkeston greengrocer, against whose pavement display of fruit and vegetables no one had complained? The phrase "have they nothing better to do?" comes irresistibly to mind.

Ah, yes, says Derbyshire, but it's not so simple. True, no one had objected to Brian Godfrey's sidewalk plums, and yes, there had been no accidents or incidents, but the law is the law. "Pavements are for people and have to be kept free of obstructions for the benefit of pedestrians", apparently.

This argument mirrors that of Camden and Westminster councils in London, when this summer's balmy heat brought the tables and chairs of dozens of bistros and cafes out on to the capital's grimy pavements. Justifying the imposition of a series of fines and the sequestrations of some offending furniture, Westminster's Robert Moreland declared himself to be acting on behalf of "the partially sighted, disabled and pram pushers", forced to negotiate "unauthorised" tables and chairs (authorised ones, presumably emit a high-pitched noise to warn the partially sighted and fold down into ramps on the approach of wheelchairs or buggies).

There is much in Mr Moreland's argument. There must indeed be some restriction on the rights of traders to take over the public's footpaths - even though there seems to be none on the rights of cable companies utterly to disrupt the ability of almost anyone to go almost anywhere. Cafe owners, greengrocers and stall-holders must be considerate towards pedestrians, and where real nuisance is caused must be restrained.

There is a sneaking suspicion, however, that what is at issue here is not so much public nuisance as an official desire to control everything. Mr Godfrey, as far as we can see, was causing no problem. And, lest we forget, Derbyshire council last featured in these columns when it instituted a policy of not employing smokers. It isn't just the Labour councils which seem to be prone to jobsworthism.

As reported today, Tory Westminster is trying to insist that it is entitled to charge fruiterer Eric Carter for his pavement overspill - despite the fact that the space does not belong to the council. Their attitude appears to be that if something exists in public space, then they should get the benefit from it - or close it down.

Most people would like to see the growth of a lively (if regulated) pavement culture in Britain. The colour of fruit stalls and the hum of cafes is infinitely preferable to a dingy melange of rubbish bins and cracked paving stones. Cars - parked and moving - are far more of a problem to pedestrians and street-users than any exuberant displays of artichokes. The man from the council should get his priorities right.