Greenwich Council’s plans for a low-traffic neighbourhood in parts of Blackheath and east Greenwich are set to be dropped – despite continued reports of speeding and antisocial behaviour by drivers in the area.
Plans for the Maze Hill and Westcombe Park low-traffic neighbourhood, covering streets between Greenwich Park and the Blackwall Tunnel, were put forward last spring in response to concerns that a similar scheme in streets west of the park – known as Hills & Vales – had resulted in drivers using the area as a cut-through to avoid the A2.
Sizwe James, the council’s cabinet member for transport, promised that the scheme would be “just the start” of measures to address problems caused by drivers from outside the area using local streets as rat runs. Traffic in Greenwich borough increased by 19 per cent in the decade to 2019, with back roads taking much of the brunt.
But the ruling Labour administration got cold feet on low-traffic neighbourhoods after the Conservatives began campaigning on the issue in the south of the borough, where car ownership is more prevalent. The issue was also the subject of turmoil within the local Labour establishment. James was replaced as cabinet member for transport by Sarah Merrill, who complained about the issue taking up so much of her time.
Now a paper quietly published on the council website recommends Merrill drops the scheme when a decision is formally made next Friday.
The report says that “appropriate traffic calming measures on Maze Hill, Vanbrugh Hill and Westcombe Hill would potentially address specific issues … including inappropriate HGV traffic”, and that traffic levels would continue to be monitored.
The decision will be welcomed by many drivers as well as a number of residents in Charlton, who feared their existing problems with rat-running on streets such as Eastcombe Avenue and Victoria Way would be exacerbated.
But it is likely to anger a vocal lobby of residents in streets east of Greenwich Park – particularly Maze Hill and Vanbrugh Hill – who have complained about traffic jams and antisocial behaviour from drivers seeking to avoid them. They wanted measures to match those put in place west of the park in August 2020.
One resident has regularly posted video of drivers speeding the wrong way down Vanbrugh Hill on Twitter in recent months.
A life threatening, speeding driver (it’s a 20mph limit) who comes from a blind bend on the WRONG side of the road at 5.30pm on a Saturday – it’s Vanbrugh Hill in @Royal_Greenwich @DanLThorpe @Chris_C_Lloyd @cllrsarahmerril Action required now pic.twitter.com/AymY80f7KW
— Kate Middleton (@KateM45) January 16, 2022
Low-traffic neighbourhoods seek to stop through traffic in residential streets with planters or bollards to make it easier and safer to walk and cycle. Critics say they merely shift traffic elsewhere, advocates say they encourage people to stop using their cars for many journeys. They are supported by London mayor Sadiq Khan, have been introduced across many London boroughs – using funds from the Conservative government – with varying degrees of success.
The Westcombe Park plan would have seen cameras installed to allow buses and emergency services to travel down Maze Hill, Vanbrugh Hill and Westcombe Hill, with planters blocking the fourth north-south route through the area, Halstow Road. Vanbrugh Hill and Westcombe Hill are bus routes. All the closures would have been along the railway line which runs through the area.
Maze Hill had been particularly badly hit by an increase in traffic after the Hills & Vales measures were introduced. Data shared with a resident and seen by 853 suggests that traffic increased by up to 59 per cent in the morning rush hour between August and November 2020, matching a 57 per cent drop on Crooms Hill, which had been closed to through traffic.
“If we don’t act now traffic will only continue to get worse,” James said last February. “Why should the health of our residents and in particular our children be at the mercy of drivers who do not even live in the borough taking short-cuts through residential areas because that’s what their mobile sat-navs told them to do?”
But a consultation found hostility to the Westcombe Park scheme inside the affected area, with 54 per cent of residents against or strongly against the plan and 34 per cent expressing positive feelings.
Outside the area, 59 per cent were against the scheme, with 33 per cent in favour, according to an analysis of responses.
Most people were concerned about displacement of traffic onto major roads – with one of those major roads, the A206, having been narrowed to accommodate the segregated Cycleway 4 as part of a separate scheme.
Other worries included being cut off or facing longer journeys to local services, or drivers choosing to use other minor roads instead.
Attention will now turn to whether the Hills & Vales scheme stays in place. The traffic measures had pitted west Greenwich against east Greenwich, with the council’s attempt at a compromise – allowing traffic to use Greenwich Park – rejected by Royal Parks. Instead, the west Greenwich scheme was watered down to allow through traffic to use the area during the morning rush hour.
Whatever the council decides will enrage residents who already feel badly let down by how it has handled the traffic issue – either those in east Greenwich who feel under siege from traffic or people living in the west wanting to keep their quieter neighbourhood, which had previously suffered from queues and dangerous driving.
There could also be a political price. With elections due in May, the Green Party, who have performed strongly in both areas in recent years, will be waiting to pick up disgruntled voters in its quest for a first council seat.
Neither east nor west Greenwich was considered a priority for a low traffic neighbourhood by Transport for London. Its analysis, taking into account schools, deprivation and low car ownership, showed that Charlton and Woolwich were the most suitable areas instead.
A small scheme to turn Sandy Hill Road in Woolwich into a one-way street has been given the go-ahead, but elsewhere in the borough, another low-traffic scheme in the Horn Park area of Lee has also been dropped.
Last November Greenwich councillors passed its climate emergency plan, which includes a call to cut car use in the borough by 45 per cent by 2030. “The displacement of traffic on surrounding road network does not align with the borough’s Carbon Neutral Plan,” the decision paper says.
At present, just 11 per cent of suitable roads in the borough have been made safer for walkers and cyclists, according to the Healthy Streets Coalition. With Greenwich’s Labour administration now seemingly unwilling – or unable – to take new measures to make driving less attractive, activists will now be looking at City Hall for action – even if Khan’s credibility on the issue is low locally because of his commitment to the Silvertown Tunnel, which threatens to introduce yet more traffic to the area.
Earlier this week Khan floated a £2-per-day daily fee to drive anywhere in the capital as a measure to cut car use, with the mayor conceding for the first time that a road charging system may need to be introduced in the long term. A daily charge could be introduced in 2024 – the year before the tunnel opens.
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