Greenwich Council is to scrap its low-traffic neighbourhood in streets west of Greenwich Park – only a year after a senior councillor promised that the scheme would “just be the start” of measures to cut traffic in the borough’s back streets.
The decision, due to be signed off by Labour transport cabinet member Sarah Merrill this week, ends an 18-month scheme where through traffic was stopped from passing down Crooms Hill, Royal Hill, Point Hill and Maidenstone Hill following complaints from residents about rat-running and antisocial behaviour from drivers trying to avoid queues on the A2. The streets were the only back roads in the immediate area not blocked to through traffic.
But while traffic dropped in those streets, roads to the east of Greenwich Park such as Maze Hill – also used as cut-throughs by drivers – saw a surge of traffic and antisocial behaviour by drivers. However, analysis commissioned by the council said that the increase in traffic was also down to a host of other factors.
A stand-off on the hill this morning. The van, motorbike and bus all on the wrong side. #cyclingingreenwich @KateM45 pic.twitter.com/dWbROYwNer
— Adrien Mercier 💙 (@_Adrien_M_) February 23, 2022
Initially, Greenwich planned to deal with the issue by expanding restrictions to those streets too. But those plans were scrapped last month, and now the west Greenwich scheme – originally known as the Hills & Vales low-traffic neighbourhood – will now be taken out at a cost of £27,500, a cost to be met from the £474,000 in penalty charges paid by drivers who broke the law to pass through the area.
The news will devastate residents who had fought to have the traffic curbs put in – and who had been led to believe that the council was supporting them when the borough’s highways committee recommended the scheme stay in place last year.
It will also alarm campaigners who have already highlighted the lack of “healthy streets” in Greenwich compared with outer boroughs such as Hounslow or Croydon.
The U-turn, which follows an internal battle within Greenwich Labour, also leaves questions over one part of Greenwich’s climate emergency plan – a call for a 45 per cent cut in car use by 2030, but with no clear strategy as to how this will be achieved. Traffic in Greenwich borough increased by 19 per cent in the decade to 2019, with back roads taking much of the brunt.
One councillor said that a high turnover in staff in the town hall’s transport department meant it was hard for policies to be devised.
‘Disbenefits identified for drivers’
News of the LTN’s scrapping was slipped out on an obscure section of the council website early on Tuesday evening, with no public statement from Merrill or council leader Danny Thorpe.
While councillors can normally challenge decisions made by cabinet members within five days, a “call-in” has been banned because the traffic order runs out this Friday. It “would not be prudent, nor in the public / taxpayer’s interests to wait for call-in to expire”, the decision paper reads.
“The consultations have identified significant concerns, there is evidence of increases in traffic at least partly attributable to the scheme, and impacts have been identified on access for certain groups with protected characteristics,” the paper adds. “Given the negative impacts and significant concerns identified, it would not be appropriate to make the LTN permanent in the form it currently exists.
“Disbenefits are identified for drivers and those who rely on cars: older and/or disabled people and people from certain ethnic groups may be more likely to rely on cars. This may also disproportionately negatively impact carers for disabled and/or older residents, who are more likely to be making regular private vehicle trips through the LTN.”
A consultation into the scheme ended last Friday, although preliminary results had already been published earlier that week.
While 70 per cent of respondents to the consultation in the affected area had supported the scheme, 53 per cent outside had opposed it.
But analysis by the consultancy Steer suggested that much of the increase in traffic in the wider area was down to local journeys being taken by people avoiding public transport and using their cars during the pandemic – the phenomenon that low-traffic neighbourhoods are designed to stop. Journeys by bike were up 8 per cent in and around the area.
The study found that while traffic had increased in streets east of the park, “the overall level of increase on roads in the areas adjacent to the LTN are more significant than the volume of traffic the LTN displaces. This means other factors are contributing to these traffic increases.”
Steer’s report puts this down to traffic heading to Ikea and other Greenwich Peninsula developments as well as “increased home deliveries and greater use of private vehicles over public transport options”.
It concludes: “This increase in use of vehicles for shorter distance ‘local’ trips goes against stated local and national policy and LTNs can play a role in helping prevent that car-based recovery from eventuating.”
‘Traffic will only continue to get worse’
Tuesday’s decision completes a U-turn that was a year in the making. The scheme – like others across London – had been aimed at tackling a long-term increase in motor traffic in London, much of it borne by residential roads; as well as to make it safer for people to walk and cycle.
While the Hills & Vales scheme was introduced in August 2020 with money supplied from central government in the wake of the pandemic, it was some years in the making. Former Greenwich councillor Mehboob Khan told the borough’s highways committee last year that the police had demanded action because of the anti-social behaviour from drivers.
Initially, councillors were bullish about the Hills & Vales scheme – despite a furious backlash from some rank and file Labour members, who began to organise themselves against the policy. When plans were unveiled to put the same measures in place for Maze Hill and Westcombe Park, Sizwe James – Merrill’s predecessor as transport cabinet member – promised that “this was just the start”.
“If we don’t act now traffic will only continue to get worse,” he told this website last February. “It has already doubled over the last decade in London and in our borough alone between 2014 and 2019 the number of miles driven on our roads increased by one hundred and thirty million.
“People who choose to drive through residential areas are disproportionately affecting everyone’s quality of life – due to air and noise pollution, speeding and illegal parking.
“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?”
However, many of those residents do live in the borough – in the south, where Labour seats are under threat from the Conservatives.
And the road to a U-turn began when the Conservatives began campaigning against a similar scheme on the Page estate in Eltham – an area with a higher proportion of drivers.
Labour suffered poor mayoral election results in the south of the borough and when James left the council’s cabinet in the spring – he has left London and he is standing down as a councillor – his replacement, Sarah Merrill, began dismantling his policy, scrapping plans for traffic curbs on the Page estate.
With traffic queues on Maze Hill and Vanbrugh Hill refusing to go, Greenwich turned in desperation to Royal Parks, asking it to reopen Greenwich Park to through traffic during the morning rush hour. The charity refused its request.
Last July, the council began to weaken the Hills & Vales scheme by opening it up to traffic during the morning rush hour. Residents say this has done nothing to cut traffic on Maze Hill and Vanbrugh Hill and has led to drivers speeding down Royal Hill – which contains a school with a unit for deaf children – to beat the 9am cut-off.
Merrill then took a harder line on the issue, complaining that residents’ concerns about the Hills & Vales scheme took up “90 per cent” of her workload. She later criticised one proposal for a smaller scheme in Horn Park, on the borough border with Lewisham, and had to recuse herself from taking the decision on the scheme.
The Shooters Hill councillor even complained that she had been lobbied at home about the issue – she is married to Neil Robertson, the co-ordinator of Greenwich Cyclists, which has pressed for the scheme to continue.
While scrapping Hills & Vales may help Labour campaign in the south of the borough – and in the ultra-marginal Blackheath Westcombe ward – Labour may pay a price in the north for its confused policy on traffic, particularly if its decision results in antisocial driving spreading to both sides of the Greenwich Park.
The Greens are targeting the new East Greenwich seat while Greenwich Park – home to Hills & Vales – could also become vulnerable.
Merrill herself was deselected by Labour members in Shooters Hill, but is understood to have been picked to fight the new Eltham Page seat – where the U-turn on curbing traffic began.
The decision paper does open the way to council officers proposing a new low-traffic neighbourhood in the area – but it is unclear what form that would take, or how any different scheme would be effective.
Last year Greenwich tried to pass off a scheme for a one-way street in Woolwich as a “low traffic neighbourhood”, but former councillor Khan said last year that such a policy would not work in the Hills & Vales as “eight and a half thousand vehicles down a narrow street just wouldn’t be feasible in terms of air pollution, noise and road safety risks”.
The paper also calls for “a borough-wide approach to traffic management”, but with Greenwich’s road system enmeshed with Lewisham’s and fed by major routes from Bexley and Kent, it is unclear what this actually means without London-wide measures.
While Merrill and Thorpe seemingly unwilling to take action on traffic in their own borough, residents in the north of the borough will now be looking at City Hall for action, such as a possible £2-per-day driving charge to combat pollution, floated by Sadiq Khan last month.
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