This article was kindly sent in by Councillor Marc Francis (Bow East)
The “Liveable Streets” proposals to restrict access to some roads in Bow through is proving as polarising as the EU referendum. And like Brexit it divides friends, neighbours and even families! We have another petition against them at the Full Council meeting coming up on Wednesday and so I think it is important to let Bow residents know where I stand on it as one of your local councillors.
Like most people, I want to reduce the amount of pollution in our air – for our own sake, for the sake of future generations and for the sake of the whole planet. Reducing the number of car journeys is one of the most effective ways to do that. Tower Hamlets’ location means it is inevitable many vehicles needing to access central London will drive through. However, for nearly half a century now tens of thousands of drivers each day have used our residential neighbourhoods as a short-cut instead of using Transport for London’s main thoroughfares – the A12 and A13. North Bow is one of those neighbourhoods that suffers the brunt of this, with commuters coming off at the Old Ford junction and rat-running either along Tredegar Road, St Stephen’s Road and Roman Road, or Parnell Road and Old Ford Road every morning. And they head back that way in the evening too.
So I fully support decisive action to stop this rat-running. That’s why, as Labour Party candidates at the last local elections, we stood on this manifesto promise:
“Tower Hamlets has many main arterial roads going through it, serving the strategic Transport for London road network. Through-trafﬁc should by and large stick to these main roads but many of our residential neighbourhoods have seen huge increases in rat-running trafﬁc, making them more dangerous, noisy and polluted. We will create low trafﬁc neighbourhoods, keeping through-trafﬁc to main roads, in any residential area where residents want them, with an ambition to have started on at least half by 2022.”
Somehow or other though, this laudable and unifying proposal has morphed into something much more extreme and divisive. As well as stopping that rat-running commuter traffic, our Mayor and Cabinet have agreed to the implementation of a timed “bus gate” at the junction of Roman Road and St Stephen’s Road and the closure of the “skew bridge” section of Old Ford Road. Anyone driving through the gate in the morning or late-afternoon and early-evening will be fined, including our own residents too.
Bizarrely this will force my own constituents who need to go west to start by driving east before joining traffic jams on Bow Road or Victoria Park Road – adding 20-30 minutes to each journey and increasing pollution. And the skew bridge closure will force more traffic on to Roman Road when the bus gate isn’t in operation. Most Roman Road business seem to be opposed too. There’s nothing in that manifesto statement above about introducing bus gates to block our own residents’ movements. In fact, given how live an issue this was in the run-up to the 2018 local elections, you could go further and say we were implying we wouldn’t go that far.
I’ve been listening over several months now to residents’ descriptions of the car journeys they make now that they wouldn’t be able to do if the bus gate comes into effect. Journeys to work. Journeys to drop kids at school on the other side of the Borough. Journeys to take elderly relatives to healthcare appointments. Almost all of them seem to have much more difficult public transport alternatives. I really don’t think it is right for the council to impose convoluted detours around east London to make these journeys unless we have an electoral mandate to do so.
Supporters of these restrictions and the physical barriers on Coborn Road and Old Ford Road claim there is public support for it. And the consultation last summer certainly resulted in a significant majority of respondents supporting the proposals. But a significant minority did not. And this was never billed as a referendum. If it was, it should have been conducted independently. Worryingly, we also saw significant under-representation from some parts of our diverse local community in the responses. A “Town Hall-style meeting” the Mayor promised us last November to remedy this democratic deficit proved to be nothing of the sort when it finally took place last week.
Despite this the Mayor seems intent on pressing ahead. We have seen similar situations with restrictions elsewhere in the Borough. This has provoked real anger amongst many residents. And the uncomfortable truth is that our community seems to be split on socio-demographic lines. From the dozens of emails, phone calls and conversations I’ve had so far, those in favour are generally middle-class. And those opposed are generally working-class and long-standing residents. This polarisation should worry all of us who call Tower Hamlets our home.
Given this I think it is time for the Mayor and Cabinet to compromise and allow a resident exemption from the bus gate restriction. That’s what has been done successfully in Hammersmith & Fulham. They don’t need to block Old Ford Road either. Other measures can reduce speeds and improve safety there. I know this won’t be enough for some people, but it will still ensure thousands of rat-running commuter cars and vans are stopped from driving through North Bow each day. And that will significantly reduce air pollution locally. If it doesn’t, let’s see the evidence and look at more radical solutions. But let’s take this a step at a time and carry the whole community along with us.
Councillor Marc Francis (Bow East)