'Blooming heck': Why Lancashire County Council wants proof that hanging baskets and Christmas bunting will not topple lampposts

There are claims that hanging baskets and Christmas bunting could be a less spectacular sight across Lancashire this year after town and parish councils were told that they will have to pay to check whether the lampposts that the displays are attached to can take the strain.

The lowest-tier local authorities will have to stump up £55 to Lancashire County Council to test any lighting column that is more than seven years old before permission will be granted for it to be decorated with seasonal adornments. They will also have to adhere to a maximum weight limit.

County Hall – which is responsible for the local road network in all areas except Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen – says that it has always levied a charge for the assessments, which are conducted in order to protect the public from anything that could lead to the “catastrophic failure” of a streetlight and cause it to come crashing down.

However, several parish and town councils have told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) that they have never been billed for the tests before – and claim they only discovered that they were liable for the payments in the wake of revised guidance issued by the county council, which the authority says reflects the latest national advice about exactly what can be attached to lampposts and how.

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Some of the county’s smallest councils say that they were also taken by surprise when they learned that their hanging basket displays must not exceed 20kg – a stipulation that County Hall again says has long been in place.

A number of Lancashire’s town and parish authorities claim that a combination of the practical and financial considerations they are now facing could force them to scale back their floral flourishes – in the very year that they wanted to make picturesque memories during the Queen’s platinum jubilee celebrations.

In Chorley, Adlington Town Council’s previous hanging baskets – 40 of which traditionally grace lampposts along the A6 and Railway Road – will now have to be reduced in size in order to meet the weight limit.

There were fears that some of the hanging basket fixtures on Lancashire's lampposts could have been left bear this year because of a charge to check that the lighting columns could stand the weight of the displays

However, the town’s mayor, Kevin O’Donnell, says that the authority was determined not to see the number of displays slashed this summer of all summers. But that commitment to colour will come at a cost.

“We are planning quite a few events for the Queen’s jubilee weekend and we’d hate it if we didn’t have any hanging baskets up.

“They really do look good, particularly on sunny days – and it would be bare without it.

“We’ll make it happen, because we want to give residents and people passing through a nice display – so we are dipping into our reserves to find around £2,200 for lamppost testing and about £3,200 for new baskets which will meet the new loading requirements of 20kg.

The streetlights on Railway Road in Adlington used to carry hanging baskets weighing 50kg - but Lancashire County Council says that the displays should weigh less than half that amount for safety reasons (image: Google)

“This is for lampposts that happily held 50kg baskets last year,”said Cllr O’Donnell said, who criticised what he described as the county council’s “dogmatic intransigence” over the issue.

His town council colleague Jeanette Lowe believes that the testing bill is an unnecessary expense.

“People would be upset [if the baskets were stopped], because we didn’t have any during lockdown in 2020 and everybody did miss them. But that year they understood why – I don’t think they would accept it this year.

“You’re not telling me that a hanging basket properly affixed to a lamppost is going to cause a problem – we’ve been putting them up for 20 years without any trouble,” Cllr Lowe added.

Walmer Bridge has been brightened with planters - but hanging baskets may be out of reach for Little Hoole Parish Council because of the lamppost testing charge

However, according to the county council’s new streetlamp attachment guidance document – which has been seen by the LDRS – there is “a common misconception that lighting columns can automatically accommodate attachments of any type, size or weight”.

It adds: “This assumption is generally incorrect, as not all columns are the same and many are unsuitable due to their design, age and material type. A relatively light addition – such as a sign – can result in considerable extra load being exerted in a strong wind, which can subsequently affect a column’s structural stability, leading to catastrophic failure, damage, injury or death.”

Attachments are permitted only on steel lighting columns and where no other additions are already present. The lampposts will have to be rated as being in “as new” condition – either by virtue of them being less than seven years old or by passing a structural condition test that shows any corrosion of the steel column amounts to less than 10 percent.

Depending on the outcome of the assessment, a re-test will be ordered for between three and six years – meaning that the cost to parish and town councils will not be an annual one.

Many hanging baskets come with special reservoirs which store water and release it to the plants over time – a feature that adds to their weight and risks making them heavier than the 20 kg – or 3.1 stone – limit.

The more widespread awareness and enforcement of the rules this year has led to rethinks and downsizing of displays in several areas, the LDRS has learned.

Lea and Cottam Parish Council in Preston used to have 34 hanging baskets, but had to give them away when it was previously advised that they were exceeding the permitted weight.

The authority’s clerk, Bill Whittle, told the LDRS that councillors were already considering introducing replacements this year – irrespective of the fact that is the Queen’s jubilee. However, the initial option that they explored still proved too heavy – and so now the authority will have to decide whether to purchase much smaller “half-round planters”.

Mr. Whittle said that while Lea and Cottam could probably afford the £1,250 that it will cost to test the lampposts in its area – if members decide to buy the new baskets – he could imagine that “a lot of very small parishes wouldn’t be able to do that”.

The chair of Little Hoole Parish Council in South Ribble expressed just such reservations.

Laurence Dryden said that the authority had previously looked into adding hanging baskets to the area’s popular freestanding planters – before it became aware of the structural testing charge – but decided against it.

However, he said that the extra cost would now have to be “factored in” if the authority decided to revisit the idea.

“You can get a hanging basket for about £20 – so it would cost more to have the lamppost checked than to buy [the display].

“Members of the community do notice even when we do things like plant daffodils. I can see it from both sides, but I think it is a bit costly when people are trying to make the streets look a bit better. And for us, it might not be feasible,” Cllr Dryden added.

Lancashire County Council’s cabinet member for highways and transport, Charlie Edwards, told a recent cabinet meeting at County Hall that it would be unfair for residents living in parts of the county without parish or town councils to be “subsidising” the sprucing up of areas where additional council tax is charged for that very purpose.

Parish and town authorities are able to levy what is known as a precept on the council tax bills of people living in those places in order to fund improvements to the public realm.

However, the smaller councils seem to see it differently – including Fleetwood Town Council, whose chair, Cheryl Raynor said that the lamppost tests were a “massive cost that we haven’t budgeted for”.

“You are getting penalised for being a town council. People in parished areas already pay a precept, so it’s like paying twice.

“We try to do extra things that the county council and [district council] don’t pay for, but this charge will eat into the budgets we have for those other things, like our ‘in bloom’ activities,” said Cllr Raynor.

She added that the cost of the assessments would also have to be considered when the council was deciding how to decorate the town in the depths of winter as well as the height of summer – because it usually hangs Christmas displays from almost 50 lampposts, a seasonal statement that it had hoped to expand upon this year.

Meanwhile, back in Chorley, Clayton-le-Woods Parish Council, initially feared that the testing charge would mean it would have to scrap plans to add an extra 18 hanging baskets in the Wigan Road area to the 48 that it usually erects elsewhere in the village.

The authority has now found an external company who will carry out the assessments to the county council’s standards, but for a lower price. That means Clayton-le-Woods residents will still get more than five dozen lamppost displays – albeit reduced in size because of the weight limit – but not without putting an £1,100 dent in the parish’s budget.

Parish council chair Peter Gabbott said that it was a shame that County Hall had decided to recoup the cost of the streetlamp tests in a year when villages wanted to put on a show for the jubilee celebrations.

Clayton with Whittle county councillor Mark Clifford said that County Hall should be responsible for testing all lampposts because they are “the authority’s own assets”.

Speaking in his capacity as a Chorley borough councillor for the Clayton East, Brindle and Hoghton ward, Cllr Gabbott also added: “I am disappointed to see these costs being passed from the county council to parish councils – many of whom are small and cover rural, less populated areas.

“There are many examples of money that could be better spent by Lancashire County Council – such as its £30,000-per-year chauffeur service contract – and most residents would prefer to see that funding channelled into ensuring a great visual spectacle throughout our villages, especially in the Queen’s jubilee year,” Cllr Gabbott said.

The county council told the LDRS that it has a contract with a local company for an “executive car service”, which is booked mainly for civic events being attended by the authority’s chairman. The cost of the service varies each year depending on the number of events attended, but has totalled around £7,300 for the current financial year, beginning in April 2021.

POPPY PROBLEMS?

Several parish and town councils have expressed concern to the LDRS that paper or plastic poppies attached to streetlights during remembrance week could fall victim to the new testing charge.

Heskin Parish Council chair Angela Bamber asked: “So what now – we’ve got to pay to use a lamppost to honour our war dead? It’s ridiculous.”

Fleetwood Town Council had this year planned to expand the number of poppies it hangs in public places – many of which would be placed on lighting columns.

Lancashire County Council told the LDRS that it was “very unlikely” that lampposts would have to be tested to see if they could bear the load of “lightweight plastic poppies” – but parish and town councils would still have to contact County Hall to discuss their plans “as no two sites are the same”.

‘WE CAN’T LET BASKETS AND BUNTING PUT PUBLIC SAFETY AT RISK’

Labour’s deputy opposition group leader on Lancashire County Council told a recent cabinet meeting that it was “fundamentally wrong” for parish and town councils to have to pay for lamppost tests if they wanted to use the columns to brighten up their areas.

Lorraine Beavers said that members of authorities like Fleetwood Town Council – on which she also sits – work hard all year round to keep their localities looking good, including at Christmas.

She said that they would now have to “pay for the privilege” of putting up enhancements such as Christmas lights to “make our towns look better”.

However, Charlie Edwards, the Conservative cabinet member for highways and transport, defended the authority’s stance – and said that hanging items from streetlamps was far from free of risk.

He said that “windage area”, as well as weight, had to be considered.

“A hanging basket can be different to a massive flag in terms of the implications it would have on a particular lighting column.

“As the steel columns corrode from the inside out, the only way we could check that [they are] suitable to support the additional weight is by undertaking a column test so that we can identify the level of internal corrosion – and where the level of corrosion is not suitable, then we have to obviously make the judgement as a matter of risk and public safety.

“I think it’s right that we have this consistent approach across the county – it’s all about public safety and nothing else,” said County Cllr Edwards.

County Hall’s guidance on hanging items from lampposts covers both permanent and temporary additions. As well as hanging baskets and bunting, banners, defibrillators and speed indicator devices all come under the scope of the document.

There are rules about how high any additions can or must be, as well as their placement in relation to other street furniture, like traffic lights.

Signage for events gets a particular mention, including a warning that putting signs on lampposts – or elsewhere within the “highway limits” – without permission could lead to a fine of up to £2,500.

Public liability insurance of at least £10m to cover a single incident is required for anyone applying to add an attachment to a lighting column.

Responding to the issues raised by the parish and town councils in this report, a spokesman for Lancashire County Council said: “We have an ongoing programme of testing to ensure the safety of our street lighting columns, and have written to parish councils about an update to the guidance we have in place for anyone wanting to attach items to them.

“The strength of columns varies depending upon where they are in their lifecycle, and it’s vital that they are tested before anything is attached to them for safety. We also check that event organisers have the necessary insurance in place for their activities.

“We have always required applicants to fund the testing of columns before attaching anything to them as the county council does not set aside resources to assist with events and activities being carried out by third parties.”