Councillor Marc Francis on Liveable Streets

Liveable Streets Bow Proposal July 2020

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)

96 Comments

  1. Councillor Francis,
    I understand resident access through bus gate keeps drivers happy. Ok, but I think bus gate should be 24/7 then.But skewbridge is dangerous for pedestrians and deathtrap for cyclists. We don’t have cyclelanes in Bow. People always moan about bikes using park and canal.Well we can’t have it both ways. Closing skewbridge would improve horrible road for pedestrians ( but very popular and soo well used during temporary closure) but also would be brilliant for cyclists and reduce cycling in park and canal. Please be fair and learn to share! You say you represent us all.

    1. Beverly,

      The footfall over Skewbridge is negligible – pedestrians use traffic free Victoria Park and sleepy Chisenhale Road.

      There are no recorded deaths or a history of serious traffic incidents involving cyclists in this area. Cyclists can and do use park roads or turn from Grove Road into Bunsen Street (no car traffic).

      No one is pushing cyclists off parks and canal towpaths – they are just being asked to cycle safely and give priority to pedestrians.

      What is the real reason Beverly you are advocating for the Skewbridge closure?

    2. Before there were any cycle lanes around here I used to cycle across Skew Bridge twice a a day during the week to work in Farringdon. My favoured route was along the Hackney Road and straight across Old Street roundabout. I never had a problem. Obviously I kept a good lookout for what was going on around me, and gave way to big metal things – even if it was my right of way. At that time I also owned a car. We are not separate tribes.

    3. Peter
      1. If it was pedestrian worthy then footfall wouldn’t be negligible, as the temporary summer closure proved overwhelmingly. Why should pedestrians be forced into detours by traffic? Have you tried getting a wheelchair over it? Step back and think about what you’re saying;
      2. The park closes at dusk, which is as early as 4pm in winter;
      3. We don’t need to wait for deaths to improve infrastructure?!
      4. That simply isn’t true. Here’s a few hours after your response: https://twitter.com/SaveColumbiaRd/status/1353316702516359169
      5. To assume everyone who disagrees with you has a property portfolio to increase is unhinged.

    4. Apologies all for my radio silence on this over the past few weeks and especially to Beverly for not responding before now to your own suggestion of longer hours on the bus gate in return for my suggested exemptions for residents and local businesses. I think it’s a good one. I’ve spent more than one afternoon in St Stephen’s Green recently and it’s clear to see the commuter traffic streaming eastbound from 2pm onwards. Directing that elsewhere would be a big plus and certainly help reduce pollution even further. If the Mayor can agree exemptions for a trial period, longer hours on the bus gate for the same period makes sense.

      I think all councillors were probably hoping we would have moved to a decision by now. There have been some really good discussions amongst Labour councillors, and I think it’s fair to say, quite a few want an exemption from the bus gate for residents. True also, that quite a few don’t. Hopefully, we will get a chance to determine our collective position before too long. I am still not convinced skew bridge needs to be completely closed to traffic though. Am very interested whether there are further traffic calming measures there that could improve safety for cyclists and pedestrians alongside a ban on non-resident vehicles?

  2. Ooof! That’s a bit of a low blow Tim. Just to explain, the electorate in Bow East ward get three votes. But you can’t vote for the same candidate more than once. Most voters use all three, but a few don’t. So Rachel, Amina and I all got about 2,600 out of a possible 4,500 – roughly 60 per cent. And we are genuinely grateful for every one of them. Turnout for the Mayoral ballot was 42 per cent and John got 48 per cent of 1st Preferences. 60 per cent with 2nd Preferences. Either way, we all stood on a promise to end commuter rat-running, so that’s what we should focus on doing, along with all the other positive changes in Bow that I think there is a pretty broad consensus for.

    The under-representation of responses from the Bangladeshi community in this consultation is not just “unfortunate”, it is unacceptable. Ten years ago, I was responsible for Housing Services in Tower Hamlets. If officers had come back to me with an under-representation of Bengali or Somali views of this magnitude in any consultation we had carried out, I would have told them to go back and do it again. An effort has been made to seek more diverse views, but it didn’t do enough. There were plenty of other flaws in this consultation. If you want to ignore them, that’s your shout. But my responsibility is to serve the whole community and ensure all my constituents’ voices are heard.

    1. And you stood on a promise to make cycling and walking safer but you’re arguing of your own accord to just completely rip out the only bit of cycling infrastructure in the whole Bow scheme, which is already nonexistent. Honestly, if you could only step back and take a secondto listen to yourself. Sounds like you need a car to be listened to by you to be fair.

    2. And you do Marc, Its a shame all Cllrs cannot bring themselves too. Cllrs need to remember everyday they represent the whole community not just a select Privileged few with Money, Voice and powerful positioning.

    3. My point is that you don’t dilute manifesto commitments to fill a democratic deficit; particularly with crude presumptions about what those who didn’t vote for you, or at all, want.

  3. The two week window when these figures were collected was and is unusable as Bow was undergoing a huge road resurfacing project during that period forcing traffic through the counters on Roman and Old ford also two major incidents on Mile end road closed that area for long periods. The data sets are corrupt. Old ford is an emergency artery for the 8 residential skyscrapers in Bow East and now we no longer have a local fire stn even more so we cannot have physical barriers increasing journey times for our Emergency services. We need a road that is usable without delay to be kept in place no matter what happens!

  4. That’s what actually happened Tim. I got flurries of emails from Bow West residents – who I don’t represent – calling for a 24/7 bus gate. The consultants LBTH has been using are very knowledgeable and I actually like them on a personal level, but they are certainly not neutral. Like council officers, their job is to put forward proposals and let democratically-elected councillors decide.

    If the only compromise you’re willing to accept is an exemption for disabled Blue Badge holders, we’re probably not ever going to come to an agreement. But I’d encourage you to see this glass as half or even two-thirds full, rather than entirely empty. Either way, I’d also caution you to be careful who you mean when you say “we all filled in the forms and attended the workshops”.

    Nineteen per cent of the community in Bow East ward is of Bangladeshi heritage. And yet only 4 per cent of the responses were from Bengali residents. That is a significant under-representation. I’ve also seen the “heat map” where in Bow responses came from, which shows many more from the conservation areas than from the estates. The petitions do too. That needs to be factored in.

    Just to be clear, I really don’t want another referendum – we’ve got one coming up on the Executive Mayoralty already! With an exemption for residents and local businesses and the removal of the physical barrier on Old Ford Road, I’m happy to agree this right now and get it in place for the spring. If others want more, they should stand on that platform at the local elections next May and see if people agree. Labour’s last manifesto pledge shouldn’t be a Trojan Horse for it.

    1. I confess to not having realised when I filled in my consultation form that I would at some point need to myself stand for election in order to see the Council’s proposals implemented. It is a peculiar logic and one I will leave you to pick over.

      I suspect the types of unfortunate underrepresentation to which you refer are likely reflected in local council elections, when you were last elected on 20% of a 38% turnout. But you were rightly happy to take your seat as a councillor without, presumably, then implementing aspects of, say, Conservative Party policy to plug the representational deficit. We don’t mandate voting in elections, much less consultations, and in any event, I fail to understand your reasoning that because many Bengali residents chose not to respond, that then requires the dilution of the scheme in the ways you propose, on no evidential basis.

      I personally think your lack of green ambition for Bow is on the wrong side of history and will achieve next to nothing for the area at great financial cost. You are simply arguing for more of the same, contrary to the best interests of residents, whether we, or indeed you, ‘believe’ and vote in line with scientific evidence or not. But only time will tell.

  5. What amazes me is that if this was really about the health of residents and the future of our children why has Ben Johnson Road, St Paul’s way or Devons Road not had any consultations these roads lead straight onto the A12? Why no vehicle count? All types of vehicles use these roads daily.. All these roads have primary and secondary schools I would have thought by virtue of their arguement this would be priority but heh that’s just my thinking !!

  6. The congestion charge operates successfully in the City of London with a resident’s exemption, which is on our border, why not have this system in Tower Hamlets?

    1. @Zilpha

      The congestion charge cost £85m to run last year. Luckily those costs are covered by the charge itself – but where would the money come from to operate a similar scheme in Tower Hamlets, to maintain the cameras, keep an up-to-date database of residents’ cars and so on?

      Unless we want a charge each day for non-residents who want to drive into Tower Hamlets/Bow? Reading the room, I’m not sure that would be massively popular.

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