Park Street or Dark Street?

Never put off until tomorrow that which you can put off indefinitely.

When politicians express a desire to keep down the PSBR, they are usually referring to the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement. Dacorum Borough or Hertfordshire County Councillors could just as well be talking about the Park Street Bridge Repairs.

The lights on Park Street Bridge in Berkhamsted were damaged by vandalism in the Summer of 1997. My neighbours and I complained repeatedly about the lack of illumination, but Dacorum Borough Council, its contractors, D.W. Webster, and Eastern Electricity were all extremely reluctant to get on with the repairs. Staff rarely appeared on site and never stayed long. Their standards of competence also left much to be desired. Whenever an electrical appliance goes wrong, there are local people who say that it is Webstered.

D.W. Webster's men once left an unguarded hole by the side of the bridge, which was not filled in for several days after Dacorum Borough Council received complaints about it. Offcuts were regularly left scattered under the bridge. A boxful of rawlplugs was once dropped into the River Bulbourne beneath; the contractors departed without bothering to pick them up.

On another occasion an old fuse box under the bridge was left open, and a cable end with exposed wires was left trailing. I did not touch them to see if they were live.

A trench was dug across the public footpath and filled in so loosely that I could feel it sinking beneath me when I stood on it. The tarmac has now sunk severely and unevenly, and become a pedestrian hazard.

D.W. Webster describes itself as a "Public Lighting Contractor". So public, in fact, that its telephone number is ex-directory.

Mike Bishop, the officer in charge of street lighting at Dacorum Borough Council, proved so reluctant to answer letters and return telephone calls that I had to complain to the then Chief Executive, Keith Hunt. I finally received a letter on 23rd. March 1998 in which Mr. Bishop promised to carry out a full investigation and to let me have the results as soon as possible. I am still waiting for them.

The problem is exacerbated by Webster's contract. This stipulates that 98% of street lights must be kept operational at any one time and standard faults have to be dealt with within five days. A perfect incentive for the contractors to deal with the easy repairs and put off the difficult ones.

Mr. Bishop told me that the contract is between Webster's and Hertfordshire County Council, and that Dacorum Borough Council had no power to renegotiate it. I have no reason to doubt his word. However, I am sure that the contract does not specify that correspondence is to be ignored or given an inadequate response. Neither, I suspect, does it stipulate that holes are to be left unguarded, trenches loosely filled, wires left trailing, fuse boxes left open, offcuts scattered under the bridge or rawlplugs tipped into the river.

The bridge was rewired, a quantity of asbestos was removed, and the old, fragile light-fittings were replaced by a more vandal resistant design. Three of the four lights worked until the Summer of 1998, but one then failed.

Mr. Bishop claimed that all four lights were working satisfactorily in May and that since then all repairs had been completed within five days. He seems to have accepted the contractors' word without checking up on them. In fact all four lights had never worked at the same time since early 1997.

Mr. Bishop then decided, as a result of information supplied by his supervisor, that the problem was persistent vandalism. In fact there had been very little vandalism since the new lamp fittings replaced the old, fragile ones. The only significant case occurred when a lamp glass was smashed in early November 1998; perhaps this is what the supervisor saw. I wonder how often he visited the site? The lamp in question was not working before the glass was smashed, and did not work once the glass had been replaced.

I wrote to Mr. Bishop to tell him that he was mistaken, and that the lights were not working, not because of persistent vandalism, but because nobody had repaired them. His reply contained the lines, "I am sorry that you continue to dispute the facts previously explained to you", and, "I would therefore suggest that you are not in a position to say `there has been very little vandalism'". In other words a chair- bound bureaucrat in Hemel Hempstead determined that he knew more about the locality than the local residents.

In response I made another complaint to Keith Hunt, and sent a copy to The Gazette. The local newspaper printed extracts of it on Wednesday 2nd. December 1998. By the evening of Thursday 3rd. all four lights were working.

Unfortunately, Lamp One, numbering from the Park Street end, was buzzing loudly in a manner which suggested a loose connection. An electrician inspected it on Friday 4th., but made no attempt to repair it. By the evening of that day it had failed again. It was still buzzing, but emitted only intermittent flashes of light.

By the evening of Sunday 6th., Lamps One and Two and the street lamp at the bottom of Park Street had all failed. I suspect shoddy repair work to Lamp One resulted in a failure elsewhere in the circuit which supplies all three of these lamps. Once again, the bridge was too dark to cross safely at night.

On Monday 7th. December 1998 I faxed details of the saga so far to the Dacorum Independent. A reporter from this newspaper questioned Mike Bishop, and then came to see me and to inspect the bridge. The following day, an electrician from the Borough Council arrived and quickly restored Lamp Two on the bridge and the street lamp at the bottom of the road to working order.

On Wednesday 9th. December, the Dacorum Independent carried an article about Dacorum's failure to maintain street lighting in the borough, including the lights on Park Street Bridge. On the same day, an electrician from D.W. Webster carried out extensive repairs to Lamp One.

Was it a coincidence that it suddenly became possible to repair these lamps so quickly at the same time as the problems were highlighted in the local press? I doubt it. A more likely explanation is that Dacorum Borough Council is more concerned about its image being dented by bad publicity than it is about serving the local people who fund it.

All was well until the end of 1999, when Lamp Two started to shine during the daytime as well. I thought it wiser not to report this, as it was better to waste a little electricity than to have all four lamps Webstered. However, by June 2000 Lamps Two and Three had both failed. I reported the fact to Mike Bishop by letter, but nothing was done for two months. Another succession of correspondence followed. Mr. Bishop's excuse for the delay was that, "It was not clear which lamps you were referring to"! The letter I sent to him in June was headed, "Park Street Bridge Lights"!

The lamps were finally repaired at the end of September 2000. All four worked until the spring of 2002, when vandals smashed Lamps Three and Four. I repeatedly e-mailed Mike Bishop about this, but no repairs were carried out.

Lamp Two was vandalised in the Summer of 2002. Only one of the four lamps now worked. My e-mails to Mike Bishop were not answered. I subsequently found that he was on holiday, and nobody had been delegated to deal with his correspondence in his absence.

Like most Dacorum Borough Council officers, Mr. Bishop is entitled to six weeks' paid holiday a year, to be taken at his own convenience. Private sector workers are fortunate to receive three weeks, which they take when their boss allows.

In the Autumn of 2002, the Highways Agency, which repairs roads and street lamps, was transferred from Dacorum Borough Council to Hertfordshire County Council. Unfortunately, Mr. Bishop was transferred with it and retains his old job. I asked him for his new e-mail address, but he refused to give it to me.

Members of the public are now expected to telephone the County Council's call centre in order to report lighting faults. One resident complained that she had to wait in a queue for eighteen minutes before her complaint could be heard.

Some amateurish repairs have put Lamp Two back into lighting in December 2002. An excessive length of white flex is coiled up and attached to the lamp column with insulation tape. Lamps Three and Four were finally repaired in February 2003.

We pay ever increasing rates of council tax, but acceptable council services are not being delivered.

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