Flashback to February 2007


Here's a test of your knowledge of the Highway Code. If you are driving near Whitchurch and see a road sign which says "A49 ZAMKNIETA na odcinku (12km)" what is the appropriate response?

And scratching your head doesn't count.

But back in February 2007 that was the puzzle facing motorists who were negotiating major roadworks close to the Shropshire town. They were being left baffled after signs in Polish sprang up along the busy route to help foreign lorry drivers. Of course, the Polish truck drivers would not themselves have been baffled, but the signs caused widespread surprise and comment, and made headlines in the national media.

There was a twist too. Although some of the signs were in Shropshire, they had been placed there by the Cheshire highway authorities, which did not go down very well with the highways bosses on the Shropshire side of the county border who quickly asked for them to be removed.

But what did the signs say, and what did they mean?

According to Google Translate, "Zamknieta na odcinku" means "closed on the stretch," for 12 kilometres, in this particular case.

Then we have "Objazd A49 do Whitchurch pobliskich miejscowosci" which translates as (Google tells us) "Detour of the A49 to nearby Whitchurch villages."

Lastly "Do A49 Whitchurch skrec w nastepna droge w prawo" would be interpreted by Polish drivers as "For A49 to Whitchurch turn right at next junction."

The Polish signs were put in place by Cheshire County Council as part of the £1.5 million roadworks scheme to upgrade the A49 Whitchurch Road from Ridley to the Cheshire and Shropshire border which began that month.

The council worked with a Polish translator to get the wording right, and to put them in context there were only eight of them out of a total of 200 for the entire roadworks scheme.

A spokeswoman for the Cheshire council said at the time: “The main reason the signs have been put up is because a lot of Polish lorry drivers pass through there, and it is imperative they understand what is going on.

“The signs are there to prevent any hazard and it is a health and safety measure.”

The council said there was a significant Polish population in the Crewe area, thought to be about 3,000, and a number of them made their living driving commercially, working for British haulage companies and Polish- registered lorries.

According to the council there had been "significant problems" during two previous resurfacing schemes on A roads.

The council rubbished a report in a national newspaper which sparked off debate by claiming the signs had been put in place to cater for towns such as Whitchurch which had had an influx of thousands of Eastern European workers.

However one Whitchurch resident was quoted in the Daily Express as saying the signs were "the most ludicrous example of political correctness I have ever come across" and Philip Davies, the Tory MP for Shipley in West Yorkshire, was quoted by the paper as saying: "It's absolutely bonkers, but what worries me is that once one council starts, others follow."

No, nothing at all to do with political correctness, the council responded, and everything to do with road safety.

The Wrekin MP Mark Pritchard waded in to the debate by asking Local Government Secretary Ruth Kelly what guidance she had given councils.

“Local communities are right to question why local authorities seem to be able to find funds to erect signs in foreign languages but have little money left to erect English signs," he said.

In the event the Polish signs did not last long, at least on the Shropshire side of the county border, because Shropshire County Council asked for them to be removed.

A council spokeswoman said: “Our divisional office asked Cheshire County Council to take them down because they are not our signs.”

So the Shropshire signs were taken down after only a few days.

Highways chiefs over the border said however that the Polish signs in Cheshire would remain in place until the works were completed.

Cheshire County Council engineer Steve Kent said: “As the authority responsible for the A49, it is our duty to make a judgement having balanced a particular safety issue against strict adherence to national guidelines.”

The road was closed for six weeks during the improvements to a seven-mile stretch, but the good news was that the job was finished by contractors two weeks earlier than expected.

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