There is no more pressing health issue for local residents, workers and business owners than addressing the dangerous levels of air pollution in the city centre.
For this reason, at the most recent Environment, Transport and Sustainability (ETS) Committee, the Conservative group tabled a motion requesting that the area around the Old Steine, North Street, the A259 and Duke’s Mound be subject to a full “environmental impact assessment”.
It’s also obvious that any solution to this crisis requires a holistic approach. It is essential we consider all modes of travel and transport and include the impacts of displaced vehicle traffic into residential streets – which is why our group also requested a comprehensive “traffic modelling assessment”.
Our motion was not framed to score partisan points but rather intended to ensure that as councillors we used every opportunity to do the right thing by the community we serve.
Nonetheless, Labour and Greens voted it down.
The administration’s plans for Valley Gardens Phase 3 cite “environmental screening” drawn up on a desktop model by consultants as the only evidence provided to underpin the project’s safety.
We are urged to have faith in a “vision” of the city centre – that five lanes of traffic on the east side of the Old Steine and a T-junction in place of the seafront roundabout will be “ok”.
The official word is that the Old Steine “is an open area” and “the pollution will blow out to sea” – despite the wind direction.
Council officers openly admit that they have no idea where traffic will displace. Surely any competent plan would consider the science – and empirical evidence – to support the “vision”.
Now, the administration’s lack of joined up thinking has moved up another level during the covid emergency. In recent weeks, Duke’s Mound received planning permission for changes to the junction with Marine Parade.
Council officers confirmed that the traffic study has not been “overlapped” with Valley Gardens Phase 3.
Meanwhile, North Street remains the seventh most polluted road in the country outside of London – and in a recent report, the council confirmed that progress to eliminate pollution remains significantly behind its own targets.
North Street is the centre of Brighton’s self-declared “Ultra Low Emissions Zone” (ULEZ) and yet primarily bus-generated pollution levels remain some two to three times higher than the legal limit – despite being blocked off to the majority of private vehicles.
These are extraordinary times. It is agreed by all of us that we must do all we can to create space for social distancing and economic recovery for our citizens and the city.
The council needs to do much more to alter its transport infrastructure to make active travel safer, more accessible and to reach all parts of the city. That is why a “Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plan” is being developed.
It is an important piece of work. It requires significant and robust consultation, expert analysis, evidence gathering and qualification. The council also needs to do more to support better public transport post covid.
However, we have a plethora of new changes being introduced off the back of the pandemic including Madeira Drive, the city centre, The Lanes and North Laine being closed to traffic and the A259 being narrowed for cycle or bus lanes.
For some time to come, public transport will be off limits for a significant number of visitors and workers in the city.
Because of these changes – all of which massively impact the potential traffic movements around the Old Steine, the A259, the A23 and the surrounding areas such as Kemp Town – the basis upon which Valley Gardens Phase 3 was proposed by the Labour administration, officers and consultants alike some 18 months ago must now be reimagined and reworked as part of this new situation.
To progress Valley Gardens Phase 3 without a full and up to date environmental impact study is a dereliction of duty by councillors and the council.
To have absolutely no idea how air quality or pollution will change as a result of changes to transport and travel through the centre of the city is nothing short of negligence.
Over 19 million vehicle journeys pass through the Aquarium roundabout every year (some 50,000 a day).
It is beyond deluded to think that if you reduce road capacity to the degree proposed, the result will be that everybody will abandon their vehicle and resort to walking and cycling.
The result will be greater congestion on fewer roads, increased pollution and lower air quality.
After all the argument, it is astonishing that there is still resistance to carrying out the study we have asked for.
Such research may prove our fears are baseless. The consultants might have been right all along. But what do Labour and the Greens fear? And why do they continue to refuse to allow a proper gathering of the evidence and data upon which to make sound rational decisions? We would be satisfied to be proved wrong!
Some will also argue that the radical changes are covid-driven and that everybody has an opportunity to object to them. They will argue that everything is temporary.
We are highly sceptical that these changes are intended to be temporary. To introduce the changes, a temporary Traffic Regulation Order (TRO) is necessary.
But as soon as the covid response or legislation no longer supports the temporary TRO, the changes must be reversed.
The council has, however, changed the status of these orders to “experimental TROs” and, as a direct result, the changes can remain in place post-covid.
Furthermore, the council has no budget to pay for reversing the changes, using every penny of the hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayer money provided by the government to put the schemes in.
And at the ETS Committee, Labour and Greens voted to pass a motion that instructed officers to make plans for all the changes to become permanent.
Meaningful consultation? Strategic joined up planning for the future? None at all.
It is a given that we are all committed to tackling climate change, improving air quality, reducing pollution, improving accessible active travel for all, improving public transport, supporting the economy (in particular our billion-pound tourist industry) and making sure our infrastructure is fit for purpose – and can underpin all of the above.
What we can’t do is duck the hard preparatory work and to study the projected impacts.
Above all else, if we want our citizens and businesses to wholeheartedly support and stand by the changes, they must be part of the conversation at all levels. This is not happening at the moment and requires an immediate reset.
The council is pursuing a policy of “suck it and see”. Implementation first, consultation later. This is democratically untenable.
Without a radical change in approach, this Labour administration, supported by the Greens, remains on a road to nowhere.
Councillor Lee Wares speaks for the Conservatives on Brighton and Hove City Council’s Environment, Transport and Sustainability Committee.