The spectacularly incompetent implementation of cycle lanes on the seafront and elsewhere in Brighton and Hove has not only inflicted chaos but contributed to a spike in congestion and pollution.
The changes are described as “active travel” measures. They were put in place by the previous Labour administration which, until its acrimonious collapse in July, ran Brighton and Hove City Council.
But now the Greens have taken charge, don’t expect the council’s response to the coronavirus pandemic to change in any meaningful way.
Members of the Valley Gardens Forum will have a better idea why than most because of a key line from the council’s executive director for the economy, environment and culture Nick Hibberd.
He gave the game away at a meeting with the Forum’s directors at Hove Town Hall on Tuesday 4 December 2018.
He said that the strategy underpinning the Valley Gardens project was “to make driving in the centre of the city so difficult that fewer people do it”.
The same “active travel” strategy is evident in the council’s response to covid-19 – the closure of Madeira Drive, the creation of the A259 seafront cycle lane, the narrowing of London Road and the extended cycle lanes along Old Shoreham Road.
But far from forcing traffic off our roads, these decisions have led to significant increases in congestion on several routes almost to the point of gridlock.
Rather than mitigating the worst risks of covid-19, the council has knowingly, even wilfully, compounded them and endangered residents, commuters and visitors to the city.
The fiasco of choking traffic at the Aquarium roundabout where the A23 meets the A259 coast road over the past few weeks may actually turn out to be a positive lesson.
It was easily reversed, apparently at the behest of Brighton and Hove Buses, whose corporate voice would appear to carry more weight than residents, workers and visitors suffering from increased noise and air pollution or those travelling by public transport or private vehicles enduring lengthy delays.
The council’s u-turn was executed just as officials invited the public to take part in a limited consultation about the “detailed design” elements of the third part of the Valley Gardens scheme.
The Forum’s advice is to take part in the consultation despite the harsh reality that council officers have no intention of changing the “core elements” of the design or swerving its overarching strategic objective.
Roads, cycle lanes and paths “will not change” – this consultation is only about trees and lampposts.
Yet the remarkably sketchy business case used to justify the current Valley Gardens phase 3 plan already indicates a £17 million “dis-benefit” over a 20-year forecast.
Incredibly, there is no narrative examination of this enormous cost to our fragile local economy anywhere at all.
And the experience of the past few weeks reminds us of a worrying shortcoming in the current Valley Gardens plans.
They make no provision for a reverse if the outcome of funneling all traffic into the east side of the Old Steine and replacing a roundabout with a T junction is comparable or even worse.
To be clear, council officers have been entrusted with managing a £12 million publicly funded project, however they see fit, with no further monitoring or involvement from elected councillors.
However, Green councillors are on the same page as council officers – just as they were when North Street was reconfigured eight years ago on their watch.
The road was narrowed, making it much harder for buses to pass each other. As a direct result North Street, which is used almost exclusively by buses, has become the third most polluted street in England.
Today the visitor and student-focused economy in our city faces multiple existential crises. We have unprecedented public health and economic emergencies on top of global warming, with the prospect of mass unemployment and a potential knock on in terms of poverty, homelessness and mental health issues that may usher in 2021. Then there’s Brexit …
Now, more than ever, the Town Hall needs all the city’s extraordinary talent in the room, with broad-based non-partisan groups like our Forum as partners.
But key decisions appear to be heavily influenced by Brighton and Hove’s Transport Partnership. Its meetings – and the Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plan stakeholder sessions – are dominated by representatives of the city’s extremely profitable and privately owned bus company and what Nick Hibberd has termed the city’s “powerful cycling lobby”.
Many residents, traders and visitors to the city are also cyclists and pedestrians but we don’t have representation at these hugely important meetings.
It goes without saying that cycling should be encouraged and urgently requires better infrastructure. It’s great fun and good exercise – as long as you’re able bodied.
But cycling is not the answer for every journey and is not even possible for significant sections of the population.
Some members of this lobby have displayed a staggering – almost messianic – lack of empathy when they present every aspect of city life through the prism of the virtuous cyclist. To present their case as one side of a spurious culture war is at best counter-productive.
There’s so much more we have in common if we take the time to work through the issues together.
So back to consultation. A Forum delegation has been invited to a meeting with council officers this week.
We genuinely hope that this will prove to be a turning point, not simply more lip service and a box-ticking exercise as we choke on the ruinous road to a less healthy and poorer future.
Daniel Nathan is convener of the Valley Gardens Forum CIC which represents residents, businesses, trade associations and public sector organisations.
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