Whilst I certainly agree that council tax payers’ money was wasted by the ruling Conservative group at Hertfordshire County Council (HCC) on placing the 12 electronic variable message signs on verges across Stevenage, your report about it (on the front page of the Stevenage Advertiser for 24 April) was inaccurate and poorly researched. This is particularly disappointing, because I had sent you the facts more than once in recent months.
First, the cost of the sign on Hitchin Road was not £200,000 as you wrongly state. As explained in my letter to you, sent on 23 February, all of the signs cost about £200,000, so each one would have been nearer to £20,000 each.
Second, about half the money was from a central government grant, and available for no other purpose, so if none of the signs had been placed in Stevenage that would have allowed HCC to spend only about £100,000 on fixing potholes – a necessary job and a welcome sum, certainly – but you allow the two Labour councillors you quote to imply unchallenged that all the money could have been used to fix potholes.
You also printed unchallenged the claim by the leader of Stevenage Borough Council (SBC) that she did not get some e mails last August about the signs. Had you checked with me, or my letter to you of 23 February, you would have had proof that two e mails were in fact sent on 27 July 2012 and 13 August 2012, by HCC Highways to 5 of the 6 Stevenage county councillors, including the leader of SBC, about the plan to place these signs, and asking for comments. (The emails went to only the 5 county councillors representing divisions where at least one sign would go.) I responded asking if and when any of the signs would be placed in Chells, the area that I represent – although I did not in fact get a reply, and the first I knew about the one (and only) sign in Chells was when it appeared in February.
Although you were told on 9 April that the only one of these signs, that has so far been removed, was this one in Chells (it was on Six Hills Way, near Marlborough Road) and that it was taken away on 8 April, as a result of a lot of hard work by myself and local residents – you fail to challenge the leader of SBC as to why she has not similarly had any of these signs in her division removed, if they are so disliked. Also, the reason we got it removed was not only that it might distract drivers near an accident black spot, as she states, but also that it was an eyesore and it failed in any case to catch the intended traffic before it had got to a potential jam.
Any politician can “add voice to the criticism” – but a better test as regards whom to quote might be a politician who has actually done something (with the help of local residents) about the problem of the signs. In any case, it is odd to quote at length the leader of SBC (who are not involved with the signs) and not quote or even mention the Conservative county councillor for the area in which stands the offending Hitchin Road sign (the main issue in your article) – who also could have campaigned against the sign, if they had been bothered to do so.
If the Advertiser had a memory as long as mine, you would also have been able to challenge various Labour councillors, who are now criticising these Conservative inspired electronic message signs, with the fact that in 1987 the Labour dominated SBC wasted about £7,000 of local taxpayers’ money on an electronic message sign in Daneshill House, facing the bus station. It was used only once, and that was repeatedly to publicise the Labour success at the local elections. The sign then disappeared and, when I last enquired about it, I found that it was rotting and abandoned in the SBC depot.
Official figures show that £7,000 in 1987 would today be worth – you guessed it – about £20,000.