There’s a little bit of a fascist in all of us. For some, the tragedy of human want may provoke an impatient urge to expropriate and centralise for the more efficient use of economic resources. Others, alarmed at the world’s exploding population, may be attracted by calls for a programme of mass compulsory sterilisation.
But for me it’s letter boxes and street numbering. I want order. I want consistency. I want standards. And I want eye-watering penalties for property owners who try their fellow Britons’ patience and waste our time by making their addresses impossible to find. I am driven to distraction by the merry chaos of British residential and commercial addresses, and if I crick my back one more time stooping to try to force a flimsy paper envelope through a vicious ankle-level steel trap of a letterbox, I shall resign as a libertarian and howl for regulation.
Last weekend I went leaflet-delivering for Lee Rowley, the Tory prospective parliamentary candidate for the winnable marginal East Midlands seat of North East Derbyshire. This capable and determined man (he has fought Dennis Skinner in Bolsover) needs all the support he can find if he is to get his name around a big and geographically incoherent constituency. I sometimes join him and his team on a Saturday morning, leafleting towns and villages where he needs to be known.
‘Mediating’ grassroots candidate-selection meetings I often ask would-be candidates: if you were lucky in the Commons ballot and won the chance to sponsor a Private Member’s Bill, what would it be? After a lifetime of delivering and canvassing, I know what mine would be. I can hear the Commons Clerk reading it out now …
‘A Bill to establish a rational system of street numbering for domestic and commercial addresses; and for the application of compulsory common standards for the elevation, internal dimensions, resistance of spring-loaded flaps and density of draft-excluders, of all letter boxes designed for general use; for greater clarity in the siting of such letter boxes; for ease of access to and between such letter boxes; and for associated purposes.’
If you haven’t delivered mail to thousands of addresses with which you’re unfamiliar, you can have no idea of the obstacles. First you have to find the property whose address appears on the uppermost envelope in a stack of about 50 in your hand. It’s coming on to rain. Many addresses mention no street number, but only a house name — like ‘Four Winds’ or (this one spoke more eloquently to me last Saturday than the householder can have intended) ‘Wit’s End’. House-name-only envelopes are distributed randomly among street-numbered envelopes, there being no easy system for ordering them.
But universal numbering would be only the beginning. Most streets have odd numbers on one side and evens on the other — but not all. It’s common for the number to have fallen off the door or gatepost, or never been there in the first place, so you have to guess, assuming that the house after number 25 is number 27: but don’t count on it. It might be 25A. Further, time and chance demolish whole rows of numbered houses, so you may leap from (say) 15B to 73. Blocks of flats usually — but not always — share a single street number, but less often display it. Some, though, continue the street numbering from flat to flat, so that (say) one block of 20 flats will contain numbers 31-50, Main Street.
In Derbyshire, many streets and avenues seem to have little lanes, intakes, alleys or passages just off the main road but which continue the house-numbering as though they were on it. Which street a house on a corner attaches its number to is entirely random. Some houses face on to a road, but number themselves along another road behind them.
My Bill will end all that. It will provide for the appointment of a national commissar with powers to overrule local authorities and require householders to conform to a universal system. The Postal Access Czar would oversee a regional network of officers, and have powers to hear appeals against their rulings. But there would be no appeal from the Czar’s decision. If necessary, we would have to derogate from the Human Rights Convention to bring in my Bill.
All addresses in Britain would be subject to a rolling programme of review. Officers would have sweeping powers to require — on pain of fine or imprisonment — that these rationalised house numbers be prominently but tastefully visible from the road in standard typeface (no Gothic) readable from pavement; and that house names be relegated to the status of whimsy.
Finally, minimum standards of access would be required, with adequate signposting to indicate whether mail is to be posted through doors or into clearly marked free-standing mailboxes. If two adjacent houses have parallel paths up to their respective front doors, a shortcut from one door to the other must be provided, to save shoe-leather.
Permissible letter boxes would be a minimum three feet above ground, flap-springs mild, the aperture at least eight inches wide, and the draft-excluder made of bristle soft enough to let an envelope containing a two-sheet Conservative questionnaire (A4 folded into three) pass freely through.
My Bill would cause the most enormous row, as did early attempts to standardise the time of day across England. There would be furious claims about the rights of freeborn Englishmen, etc; Charles Moore would probably try to get himself imprisoned for non-compliance; but after Royal Assent, and once the clamour had died away, resistance would crumble.
Our candidate could thank his canvassing team by adopting my cause in Parliament, if only we can get him there. Then one day his name would be added to that gilded list of innovators who brought a little much–needed standardisation into a fruitlessly chaotic world. Charles Richter, Samuel Plimsoll, Leslie Hore-Belisha, Daniel Fahrenheit, Lee Rowley… ‘Have your streets been Rowleyed yet?’ people would ask. And our campaign in North East Derbyshire would not have been for nothing.