Salisbury points to a solution (and to a problem)

Metric Views’ attention has been drawn to a Victorian piece of legislation under which signs may be authorised.

It is a common myth that, in the UK, imperial measurements alone are authorised on road and footpath signs showing distance. On its web site, UKMA explains the true position and shows examples of legitimate signs with metric measures:

We are grateful to a rival organisation for pointing out an additional piece of legislation which can be used to authorise the erection of signs, regardless of the measurement units that appear on them. We quote from its newsletter:

“Mr Smith is pursuing Salisbury City and Wiltshire Councils for installing signs displaying distances in kilometres: to Salisbury, North Carolina 6,276km; Salisbury, Maryland 5,750km; Saintes in France 1,061km; and Xanten in Germany 713km.

On 13 September 2011, Mr Smith received the following email from Mark Boden, Corporate Director of Wiltshire Council, claiming the council’s authority for the signs was section 42 of the Public Health Amendment Act 1890:

Dear Mr. Smith

I refer to previous correspondence concerning signs in Salisbury Market Place. I apologise for not having giving a substantive reply sooner but I thought it best to have the council’s officers including the council’s solicitor investigate the matter and advise me.

I understand that the signs concerned were erected in 2008 to commemorate the links of the city of Salisbury with its twin towns. I am advised that, under section 42 of the Public Health Amendment Act 1890, Salisbury District Council was entitled to erect the signs as a monument. Please note that Wiltshire Council is empowered under the same legislation to maintain the signs.

… section 42 is still in force and has not been repealed by any subsequent legislation. It makes no specific provision as to the form of any such monument, including any wording or numbering on it. Accordingly the signs can lawfully remain in Salisbury Market Place and in their original form. Please note that I cannot therefore share your view that the Council, its members or officers have committed a crime or otherwise acted inappropriately in this matter.

Yours sincerely, etc

Editor’s note: this was the first time in twelve months of correspondence that the Public Health Amendment Act 1890 had been identified; its wording is as follows: Statues and monuments. Any urban authority may from time to time authorise the erection in any street or public place within their district of any statue or monument, and may maintain the same, and any statue or monument erected within their district before the adoption of this part of this Act, and may remove any statue or monument the erection of which has been authorised by them.”

We have changed the name of the person pursuing the enquiry to “Mr Smith”.

Readers may be surprised that anyone would regard the sign in Salisbury Market Place as a road traffic sign covered by the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions (TSRGD). Surely, Mr Smith did not expect to be able to jump into his car, set off in the direction indicated by the sign and end up several days later in Salisbury, North Carolina.

But leaving aside such nonsense, this correspondence illustrates an important issue. UKMA believes that our country needs a single system of measurement, used for most purposes and with which everyone is familiar. Having two or more systems is not a luxury but a handicap. For many years, business, industry, the scientific establishment and consumer groups, for example, have accepted this but successive UK Governments and in particular the UK Department for Transport have not. Until they do, there will be many, like Mr Smith in Salisbury, who will not accept that Britain needs to move on and leave behind its imperial past in order to survive and prosper in an increasingly competitive (and metric) world.

8 thoughts on “Salisbury points to a solution (and to a problem)”

  1. Mr Smith in Salisbury, who will not accept that Britain needs to move on and leave behind its imperial past? That’s a very funny double-entendre, given that a Mr Ian Smith was determined to maintain white rule from his capital in Salisbury (now Harare)…
    (Editor. Unintentional. Perhaps I should have chosen Mr Jones.)


  2. An editorial in China’s “The Global Times” was quoted recently as saying, “Britain is no longer any kind of ‘big country’, but merely a country of old Europe suitable for tourism and overseas study”.

    I wonder how much of this sentiment is reinforced when visitors to Britain see that our road signs still use medieval measurement units.


  3. I understand that Imperialists ignored the solicitor’s advice quoted in the article, and vandalised the sign/monument anyway. Whatever these people pretend, they are certainly not friends of democracy or the rule of law.


  4. @Wilfrid
    People that choose to use Imperial have a multitude of units to hand, they can always pick one that sort of fits the situation or argument they are in at the time.
    I guess the same goes for the law, they (presumably ARM or an arm of ARM), can pick and choose any law for any application that they think they can get away with. Those doing the vandalising would not know nor care one way nor ‘tother.
    Even given a possible law breaking sign, it does not make it any more legal by simply blotting out parts of it, that just compounds the problem.


  5. The EU directive authorises the use of miles, yards, feet and inches on “Road traffic signs, distance and speed measurement”. Many have argued that the words “distance” and “speed measurement” apply to “any” as opposed to “road” distances and speed measurement. If one looks at the same section of the EU directive, one will see that the pint may be used “Dispense of draught beer and cider; milk in returnable containers”. It should be noted that the definition of the pint has a semi-colon which separates beer and cider on the one hand from milk on the other. Since the phrase defining areas where it is lawful to use miles does not have a semicolon, miles, yards, feet and inches may only be used on road distances and road speed measurement, but the term “road” has not been defined. The definition of a road as found in the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 (Section 142) is a tautology as it defines a road as “any length of highway or of any other road to which the public has access, and includes bridges over which a road passes”. I have however found a definition that avoids this tautology and that has pan-European significance:
    The OECD defines a road for statistical purposes as “a line of communication (travelled way) using a stabilized base other than rails or air strips open to public traffic, primarily for the use of road motor vehicles running on their own wheels … Included are bridges, tunnels, supporting structures, junctions, crossings, interchanges, and toll roads, but not cycle paths”. (

    It would therefore be unlawful for the Salisbury City Council to use miles to denote such distances on a modern sign as the direction sign does not apply to roads.


  6. @Martin:

    I agree with what you say wholeheartedly. But I just want to look at the definition of roads again. The definition that you quote is of course correct in a technical sense, but for most purposes a road surely is a travelled way that is owned or otherwise administered by a public authority, and subject to the laws pertaining to the relevant highway traffic acts (primarily in respect of speed limits, parking restrictions and the like).

    The terminology “to which the public has access” can be used to mean many things. My driveway is accessible to the public – does that mean it is a “road”? An unadopted road is accessible to the public, but does that mean it is governed by the provisions of the relevant highway legislation?

    If this can be clarified, then it should become clearer which signs are governed by the Road Traffic regulations and which are not.


  7. The EU directive is of course an ‘instruction’, signed up to by the British government. What is important therefore is how the ‘instruction’ has been ‘transposed’ into the relevant UK regulations, i.e. how the sense and meaning have been worked into the highways regulations. Personally I have no doubt, from reading directives over the years and looking at the different linguistic versions, that the rule on the use of imperial on road signs applies to road signs and road signs only. The use of miles per hour in any other context, for example, for information on wind speeds on the state-funded BBC, therefore also strictly speaking falls outside of the directive and is not compatible with it.

    To return to the signs in Salisbury, it seems to me a heartless act to object to signs which open the mind and link people in twinned cities around the world and on top of that to call the city councillors criminals for putting them up. It seems like an act of desperation to object to the measurements taught in schools in Salisbury for forty years. Time to take a reality check perhaps and realise we are in the 21st century.


  8. In York some road signs erected saying ‘Humps for 550 m’ has miraculously changed by means of an oversticker to say ‘Humps for 550yds’.

    Never mind the waste of money and time, this is now in accurate (it should now read 600yds). All due to the pedantic nature of this legislation!

    If that’s not crazy I don’t know what is.


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