If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Thursday, 5 August 2010

A Tale of Some Stones

Oh, for the love of the deity of your choice, or none, read this:

An iconic set of stepping stones that appeared in Hollywood movie Robin Hood have been paved over by the council amid health and safety fears.

For centuries ramblers have crossed the River Dove in the Derbyshire Dales using the stepping stones, which have featured on postcards and calendars as an enduring image of an area visited by over a million people each year.

But the famous spot has now become an ugly eyesore after the uniformly flat limestone blocks were placed on top of the stones to stop people slipping.

Yes, it's the Elfin Safety mafia again. Or is it? I used to work in that field (H&S, not Dovedale), and I think I can see what is going on here. The National Trust have, for whatever reason, asked the County Council to review the stones from a public safety viewpoint - not an unreasonable request for a public body. The Council have determined that there is a significant risk of someone falling off the stones and spraining an ankle (not drowning in the river, as some of the commenters seem to assume). And here is the crunch: it's not, as so many think, a case of taking action to prevent people hurting themselves. It's action to remove a significant exposure of the Council to liability claims. And it has probably been insisted on by the Council's insurers, who would have to stand the cost of any claim for damages that was brought against the Council. That would increase the Council's insurance costs, and who pays for that? Ultimately, the Council's actions are taken to prevent ratepayers' money being channelled to the careless, the grasping and the greedy. And, as a ratepayer, I can't argue with that.

But it's wrong.

There was a time when people were expected to look out for themselves, to take care when they did things, and to shoulder the consequences of their own foolishness or lack of foresight. In those days, the Council would have said "Bugger off, those stones are pretty and they are staying as they are". But now, anyone experiencing the slightest misfortune finds a friendly solicitor who will bring a case for them, no-win-no-fee, on the basis that IT MUST BE SOMEBODY ELSE'S FAULT. And they are likely to win. In many cases, the courts will find in favour of the 'ordinary person' against the large organisation, be it a business or a local authority, despite evidence of the person's carelessness. All they have to do is demonstrate that the place was not inspected recently (define 'recently'), or that 'reasonable' steps had not been taken to remove any risk identified (define 'reasonable', ha ha), and they have a clear case of negligence. In minor cases (say, under £3000) the authority is unlikely to defend the case, as defending it is more expensive than fighting it, even if they win. And the greedy and the grasping walk out with their pockets bursting with fivers.

And that's wrong too.

The result is that businesses and authorities are doing ludicrous things to protect their shareholders/taxpayers from this kind of action. Think of the bag of peanuts that says "Warning: may contain nuts". Think of the headteacher banning conkers in the playground. Think of the lorry driver who has to wear a hi-vis vest at all times, even when alone in the cab. We are all terrified of legal action - which is likely to be successful, remember.

Whatever, the result is the vandalism of capping a set of lovely, time-worn stepping stones with spirit-level-flat blocks, and it's a damn shame. I have walked across these stones myself, and they are (sorry, were) pretty and picturesque in the way that old, random, worn things often are. Nature's patina. And now, they are level and uniform and, possibly, safer, although that will remain unclear for a while*.

But the problem isn't really one of Health and Safety Gorn Mad Again. It's one of a legal system that will choose to find in favour of complainants far too often, and for the flimsiest of reasons. And behind it is a society that increasingly believes that nothing bad should ever happen to anyone, and that businesses and corporations are intrinsically evil and should be made to pay. Big babies, in other words, who cry to Nursie every time they stub a toe.

So, in our Brave New World, we turn this:

into this:

What a shame.

(*One final thought: limestone, when exposed to rain and light, gets incredibly slippery. One of the strange things about potholing is finding that the limestone you are climbing on is as grippy as fresh tarmac - no daylight, no algae, no slips. Perhaps they should have covered the new slabs with that sandpapery stuff they put on wheelchair ramps just to be sure?)


  1. I'm amazed that it was not a site of 'outstanding' something-or-other and they allowed it.

    Try modernizing some crappy old house and listen to the moaning from the pointless pen-pushers about 'heritage' or some other pathetic shite.

  2. Couldn't agree more. We proposed some very modest improvements to our house (a mile from the village, 200m from road behind trees, not visible from anywhere other than our lane) and we were told that the proposals were unacceptable, as they would change the essential character of the dwelling. A new roof and a few Velux windows? Jeez. This story just shows how 'Elf and Safety' trumps every other consideration; even common sense.


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