The Right to Rest

Argus title : Set a benchmark to benefit the city

This article is inspired by 3 women I never met – Lily Newsome (nee Boothroyd) and her two sisters Ivy and Glendora Boothroyd. Lily died in 1980 aged 85, Ivy and Glendora in 1982 and 1994, aged 81 and 96 respectively.

I think of the sisters often. They seem like old friends. When I rest on their memorial bench in the rose garden behind Hove Museum, I am grateful to them for the ease and comfort they give me.

I do not know if the sisters lived their lives well, but in death I associate them with rest and contentment. And this is a fine way for any human being to be remembered.

Unfortunately ease and contentment wanes as visitors leave Hove Museum – that is if their mobility is impaired. For the city has a policy of not placing memorial benches on city pavements. And an inadequate budget to provide seating itself.

I have spent much of the past few years with elderly, frail and disabled people. I have watched them struggle up and down Brighton & Hove’s busy streets and steep hills. Even on the most punishing hills in residential areas, there is nowhere for them to rest.

Over the past 6 weeks I’ve had to organise my father’s funeral. I’ve been impressed by the range of different funerals available and the variety of ways in which the dead can be commemorated. You can have religion (any kind) or not. You can choose a “caring lady funeral director”, a horse and hearse or a man in a top hat.

You can choose environmentally friendly ‘pods’ instead of coffins, commemorate your loved one with a plant or a rose bush or entwine their bones in the roots of a tree.

You can list your loved one in the Book of Remembrance, and record their name on a grave stone or a plaque in a Woodland Garden. But you don’t seem to be encouraged to buy a bench.

Benches are mentioned in the small print of one very helpful pamphlet, but not actively promoted as a desirable choice. In fact, it’s not an option families can choose, but one they have to apply for. And even then, families may no longer place memorial benches outside cemeteries or parks.

In years past, many families sponsored memorial benches with discreet plaques to record the names of their loved ones. These were placed both in parks and in public highways, often in areas they had frequented.

However, the comfortable old wooden benches have all but disappeared. It is now virtually impossible to find one on a street or even in a bus shelter. Most of our major shopping streets provide nowhere for tired shoppers to rest. And seating that does exist is heavily used.

In bus shelters, benches have been replaced by narrow strips of red metal and plastic, deliberately positioned at an angle making it difficult to sit and rest.

Many a time I have cursed whatever tall, able-bodied car driver designed or commissioned these benches. I find it impossible to believe that anyone who actually has to wait for buses or carry home shopping could possibly have designed them.

These sorry excuses for seating are too high for anyone under average male height to be able to sit and rest their feet flat on the ground. The fact that they are set at an angle and of slippery material means that anyone wearing a skirt tends to slip forwards. The strain on the back is intolerable. Time and again I have seen elderly people (who of course lose height with age) struggle to balance on them.

It has been suggested that benches have been removed or made uncomfortable to prevent their use by homeless drinkers. If so, this is an extraordinary decision.

Drunk and drugged people are sometimes disorderly. And it can be a problem if disorderly individuals colonise benches. But this should not be a reason to deny public seating to the city’s people.

We don’t suggest closing down the A&E department at the county hospital because it is misused by drunks. Neither do we seek to close down schools because some children are bullies. In fact, we seek to protect staff from violence and prevent bullying in schools. We know we need these facilities.

Policy makers in our city need to wake up to the fact that good public seating is of vital importance to the health and well being of the city’s people, especially those who are frail or elderly and those who have mobility problems or are prone to exhaustion. All these people have a right to move around their city without fear of collapse.

If there are limited budgets for pavement seating this should be reviewed. And imaginative ways can be found to access private funding. For example, it could be a condition of planning consents that public seating be placed outside major residential developments and shops. There is far too little even in Churchill Square.

The purchase of memorial benches by bereaved families could be actively encouraged and facilitated. In the year ending 31st March 2004 3157 people died in Brighton & Hove. If even 10% of bereaved families were prepared to fund the purchase or upkeep of a bench the city’s streets could be transformed.

The average funeral costs around £2,000. Flowers alone can cost hundreds of pounds. Often grief-stricken families spend unwisely because, understandably, they seek ways to honour their loved one. Surely some would welcome the opportunity to provide a memorial of practical use to the community.

To purchase a new memorial park bench costs £490. It is also possible to ‘adopt’ an existing park bench, thus assisting in its maintenance, for £90. This may seem expensive. Until you realise that £90 can be the price of a single wreath. And that charges for a superior coffin usually exceed £1,000. A horse-drawn hearse will cost above £850 (£730 more than a motorised hearse).

It’s not good enough for council officers to say that “it is not our policy to provide memorial benches on pavements”. Policies – like budgets – can be reviewed and changed.

It’s true that many pavements in residential areas are quite narrow. In such circumstances, smaller, narrower benches could be purchased. All that matters is that there is a place for two people to rest, space for a wheelchair or buggy to pass and a design which does not allow anyone to sleep or hide out of view.

It may be hard to find sites not impeded by ‘street furniture’, such as sign posts and street lights. However, the position of such furniture should be reviewed. Most street furniture is placed on pavements with regard to the needs of drivers, not those of pedestrians, wheelchair users and children in buggies.

And as to whether householders living in the immediate vicinity of a proposed bench might object, there’s a simple answer. They can be asked. There is no reason why applications to site benches in residential areas could not go through some sort of planning process.

It’s true that there may be attempts to vandalise some benches. However, they are now made of resilient plastic which looks like wood. It is difficult to damage.

The city cannot boast that it ‘values diversity’ if it pursues policies which imprison elderly and disabled people in their own homes or oblige them to go into residential care because they cannot negotiate the streets in which they live.

I’d like to get a memorial bench for my father. And to put it somewhere on or near the steep hill on which he lived, and up which my mother still struggles, out of breath and distinctly wobbly.

But, for now, the Council won’t allow it. So we’ll just have to carry on sitting on neighbours’ front walls.

“Why am I breathless, Jean?” gasps my mother as we rest half way up the hill. “You’re 82, Ma” I reply. “That’s not too old, is it?” she says.

It ought not to be.

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