Wednesday, 5 November 2014

My Maiden Speech to Sutton Council, 3 November 2014

Having been elected as a councillor in May, on Monday I made my first speech to full council. This nerve-racking experience was made all the more so as my speech opened the debate on my own motion, criticising the council's new road scheme in Hackbridge, inviting a less-than-warm welcome from the 83% of councillors sitting beneath the yellow flag, while hopefully doing justice to the concerns of the residents who were in the public gallery.

Here's my motion:

This council agrees the lack of formal crossings has made it more difficult for pedestrians to cross the road in the Heart of Hackbridge (due to work carried out as part of the Heart of Hackbridge scheme) particularly for more vulnerable people such as children, the elderly and the visually impaired. This is contrary to the key aim of this project to improve the pedestrian environment, and contrary to three of Sutton Council’s core aims, to empower everyone, to promote diversity, and to make services accessible to all. Therefore, to achieve the project's aim, to comply with this Council's core aims, and to allow all pedestrians to navigate the Heart of Hackbridge without fear, formal crossings should be reinstated as a matter of urgency.

For any non-local people reading this, here is some background to the scheme. First, a puff piece from July, giving Sutton Council's view of the new layout.

The comments below that article give a flavour of residents' view of things. By September the Council was starting to get the message, leading to:

Unfortunately, despite their claims, Lib Dems were still insisting that everything's fine and only minor tweaks are needed. Worse, while residents were being told that their concerns were being heard and "pushed" by Lib Dem councillors, in private they were doing the opposite and blocking my attempts to have the crossings upgraded. So I proposed a motion to flush out the Lib Dems and force them to take a position. 

Alas, Lib Dems did not support my motion, instead they voted for a wrecking amendment which proclaimed how wonderful Hackbridge is. Disappointing, but at least residents now know where the Lib Dems stand. 

A special mention to Cllr Nick Mattey, "The Hackbridge One", who defied his party orders and voted with Conservatives against the Lib Dem wrecking amendment. 

Here is my speech in favour of the motion, sadly limited by the 5 minute time limit. How to explain everything that's wrong with the crossings in just 5 minutes?

The £1.4 million Heart of Hackbridge project is about far more than a road scheme: it’s visually and economically regenerating what was a slightly forgotten corner of Sutton. Residents welcome the investment, everyone agrees that it looks better, and we all hope for a lasting economic improvement from what's been done. Unfortunately these important goals have been put at risk by a bizarre fixation on removing pedestrian crossings.

Right across Sutton we are adding and upgrading pedestrian crossings, particularly near schools, but in Hackbridge we’re told that removing formal crossings will make people safer! They actually believe that!

In fact, the Department for Transport’s own research shows that these courtesy crossings were never likely to work, because of the high vehicle speeds in Hackbridge.

They found a tipping point at 15mph. Below that, 30-40% of vehicles give way to a waiting pedestrian, and all’s well. But above 16mph, the proportion of drivers giving way decreases significantly. They found that above 16mph, only about 5% of vehicles yield to a waiting pedestrian. Meaning that as you stand at the side of the road waiting to cross, about 20 vehicles will pass before one stops to let you across. That is more or less what happens in Hackbridge, and it’s not good enough. 20 vehicles!

The speed limit in Hackbridge is 30, and that’s often exceeded. The difficulty getting speeds down to 15mph was always going to be a risk for this project before it was even built.

We’ve been told that only a small number of residents are against the changes, and that residents support the scheme because there was a consultation. But the consultation itself highlighted these very concerns – residents repeatedly raised concern about whether it would be safe to cross, if the zebra crossings were removed.

And since the scheme went in, residents have been saying all summer that the courtesy crossings are not safe places to cross, even for able-bodied adults. But for children, the elderly, disabled groups and particularly blind people, they can be frightening no-go areas. Some vulnerable residents have said that now see Hackbridge itself as a no-go area, as a result of these changes.

All this, right by a primary school. Remember – this scheme was supposed to improve the pedestrian experience! That was a key goal of spending £1.4 million.

Now we have this interim safety audit. It found that “pedestrians were using the uncontrolled crossings with a noticeable degree of caution.” Now, that’s couched in formal language, but this is exactly what residents are saying. That's what they've been saying since these things went in, and what they said in the consultation before they went in. For the Council, this should be ringing alarm bells.

One common problem, also cited in the safety audit which said that this often happens, is that people cross halfway then get stuck in the middle of the road, as the traffic from the left just carries on. I’ve experienced it myself, and I can tell you that it’s genuinely unnerving. How do vulnerable residents feel? Stuck in the middle of a very narrow road with traffic attempting to pass them on both sides?

By the way, the safety audit response actually refers to the critical 15mph tipping point mentioned in the government research, but doesn’t actually explain the significance of the 15mph figure. A key fact, concealed from members and the public.

I am in favour of innovation, but new ideas sometimes don’t work. Failure is a part of progress. So if this Council is going to try new ideas, which I think we should, we must also be prepared to admit failure and swiftly correct it. Especially when safety is at stake.

Removing the formal crossings from Hackbridge has not worked.

The government research flagged this risk, the consultation repeatedly highlighted concern about the crossings, and from the moment they went in, residents have been pointing out that they don’t work.

I’m sure we’ll hear this evening that there’s a process to be followed, and we need to be patient. But residents have heard this “wait and see” game all through the summer, and they have seen through it. Tonight's wrecking amendment is just more of the same.

The fact is, if we were just following standard processes, we’d have a standard mini-roundabout, standard pedestrian crossings, and happy, safe residents who can cross the road.

The appeal to "Process" is a smokescreen. If people think that these crossings are better, they should stand up here this evening and say so publicly. If they want to back the residents, they should agree to my motion calling for proper crossings.

An improved pedestrian experience in Hackbridge, accessible to all, promised by this project, demands proper pedestrian crossings - before someone gets hurt.

The Council pubished an audio recording of the meeting, so I've extracted the section containing the debate on Hackbridge, put it on Google Drive and hopefully this link will let you listen to it.

If you forward to 41 mins 10 in the recording, you can also hear my brief concluding remarks. I can't post the text of those as they were mostly ad lib, answering points raised in the debate.

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