Leading Article: Names that simply lack any street cred

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IT IS tempting to sympathise with the local council near Bath that has run into so much trouble with its choice of street names. Eschewing the blandness of another Acacia Avenue or Rose Lane, it decided to name streets in a new development after former working- class residents, including a local historian and a lollipop lady. Unfortunately, upwardly mobile new residents were less than happy with the idea of telling their friends to come to Reg Jones Close.

Outside Europe, the issue is simpler. Americans are fond of using numbers or letters to identify streets and avenues on a grid. In Japan, most streets have no names at all; to find a house, you must pin it down by district, block and then house number. But in Britain and on the Continent, street names must be not only informative but also evocative. Hence the difficulty.

Gesture politics is a strong continental tradition. The first act of a new regime is often to take down the old street signs and replace them with the names of its own heroes. That is why every Italian town has its Garibaldi or Cavour, and every French town its Place de la Resistance. But this approach has its dangers. If the regime fails to gain acceptance, then people will continue to use the old names. Democratic Spain turned Barcelona's Avenida Generalissimo Franco back to El Diagonal; on a larger scale, Leningrad reverted to St Petersburg.

British streets have evolved more slowly. They often bear the names of the places they lead to (Oxford Street), the trades conducted there (Ironmonger Row), or a local landmark (St Martin's Lane). But such names take generations to become formal; postmen and firefighters now forbid us the luxury of 50 years for common usage to decide.

The irony is that many of the street names that now seem historic and distinguished must have been brash or unduly political in their day. London's 18th-century districts are littered with the names of the noble families who built them, and its 19th-century suburbs with those of the Empire's colonies, generals and battleships. Interesting street names may be controversial; but they should not be imposed on residents against their wishes, and they should celebrate a person or thing that future generations will remember. Lollipop ladies are all very well, but they do not fit the bill.