Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by Colin J Davis Esq (WTC 55)

WALKING IN TOWNS AND CITIES

  I am sure that other witnesses will have expressed views on the need to improve the quality of amenities for people who walk in towns and cities and particularly to encourage people to walk for pleasure.

  Having been actively involved in promoting such improvements over the last 20 years, I would like to address a single issue and put forward a practical suggestion on how we could ensure that ordinary high streets are made more pleasant and welcoming for pedestrians.

UNNECESSARY STREET CLUTTER AND OBSTRUCTIONS FOR PEDESTRIANS

  In every constituency in the country there are several shopping streets that are not and probably will never be completely pedestrianised. Yet they are the places where people come together on foot.

  The enjoyment and the appreciation by pedestrians of the special characteristics of the local environment are invariably eroded by a foreground of clutter and obstructions. The clutter is made up of signs and equipment put up in response to practical needs, yet with little or no concern for their effect on pedestrians.

  It may be useful to list the categories of equipment that is placed on pavements. They include: lamp columns, traffic sign and signal posts, traffic signal control boxes, bollards, guard rails, cycle racks, water meter bollards, electricity supply posts, waste recycling bins, bus shelters, pay phones, security cameras, traffic monitoring cameras and traffic speed cameras.

  Much of the clutter is unnecessary. The few exemplary high street enhancement schemes that have been completed across the country, demonstrate that all of the functions served by these categories of equipment can be accommodated satisfactorily without creating clutter and obstruction.

  Unfortunately these schemes have only been achieved through quite extraordinary effort by individual council members or officers and possibly with the help of interdisciplinary professional teams. When the effort is no longer applied, the teams are dispersed, the techniques are forgotten and the clutter creeps back.

NO AGENCY HAS COMPLETE RESPONSIBILITY FOR PAVEMENT MANAGEMENT

  The accumulation of clutter occurs because no single agency in an area has total responsibility for pavement management. There is no legislation to require the co-ordinated management of a street.

  All the categories of equipment mentioned above are put in place as Permitted Development under the Town and Country Planning Acts. They can be fixed without planning permission and therefore public consultation and are not affected by the government's Planning Policy Guidance notes. Some work by the statutory service companies and their contractors is carried out without notice.

  Where there is co-ordination, it has to be through a complex series of voluntary agreements, typically among as many as a dozen agencies. It very seldom takes place.

SEPARATE CULTURES AND LEGISLATION

  There is a more fundamental problem. Matters concerning efficient transport systems, roads and pavements are dealt with by transport legislation. Matters concerning the quality of the built environment: things that people on foot have the time and inclination to appreciate, such as our heritage, the quality of buildings and private pedestrian spaces, are dealt with by planning legislation.

  Public pavements fall between the two. They are formally considered as part of the highway yet, especially in high streets, they have the potential to add to the quality of the built environment.

  Judgements that attempt to balance the practical needs of transport and traffic against the desire to improve the quality of space for pedestrians are very difficult to make. There are no common forms of comparison.

  Indeed the judgements span across separate legislation (administered by separate divisions in the DETR) and in country towns, the responsibilities of separate councils (Town, District and County). Even in unitary authorities they often span between separate departments (often in separate buildings) and separate committees served by separate professional disciplines. The separate disciplines have separate professional institutions, separate languages and separate cultures.

  The effectiveness of road and traffic arrangements can be readily measured and may be regarded as a science. The quality of the pedestrian environment and the attractiveness of spaces between buildings to encourage people to walk for pleasure, often depend upon the combination of a number of less tangible local factors, including an element of art.

WHAT CAN EASILY BE MEASURED AND WHAT CANNOT

  Judgements on the quality of space for pedestrians need to take into consideration factors that can easily be measured and those that cannot, but certainly exist.

  To set simple guidelines for universal application about the minimum width of footways may ignore valuable local assets. For example the relatively narrow, steep and winding pavements in Hampstead Village, if judged against a simple minimum width requirement, could be considered sub-standard. Yet these steep, narrow pavements contribute towards the special character of the local urban environment.

  This sort of balanced judgement between what can be measured easily and what cannot, is needed in every high street in the country. People place high value on the character of their own area. Emphasising local distinctiveness often requires special care to be taken in the management of pavements that form the setting of important buildings and groups of buildings.

  An example of where such balanced judgements have been made, due to extraordinary effort and interdisciplinary co-operation, can be seen at the recent pavement enhancements at the Strand outside Charing Cross station. The scheme included the removal of three rows of unsightly guard rails. A possible, though low, risk to pedestrians was balanced against an improvement to the setting of the surrounding listed buildings at the heart of the capital: St Martin in the Fields, John Nash's terrace and the station itself.

  In normal circumstances there would have been no encouragement and no methodology whereby possible risks to pedestrians could be balanced against better opportunities for the same pedestrians to appreciate the local amenity and heritage.

PRAGMATIC DECISIONS

  In practice, day-to-day decisions relating to pavement management in the vast majority of streets in the country are taken at very pragmatic levels. Those involved simply consider the single immediate issues such as where to put an equipment box or service pillar solely in relation to its purpose and ease of installation. It is as though a plumber putting central heating in a house considered it acceptable to festoon every room with pipes because it made the work easier.

  One cannot blame the people who do the work. It is unreasonable to expect someone given the task of installing cycle racks and guided only by a simple instruction to fix them on a pavement near the main shops, to have read or even have heard of a PPG.

  It also seems unreasonable to expect an engineering technician, who has been given no help in the appreciation of spatial concepts or the recognition of historic buildings to make judgements on an appropriate pavement design in the context of the urban characteristics of a particular area.

  The theoretical principles of integrated Transport Plans are difficult to interpret at a local level. Some guidance has been issued on what might be acceptable and desirable for pedestrians. But much of it fails to address the subtle issue of what constitutes quality. It often relies on simple measured standards, which might or might not be appropriate in a particular location. Secondly it fails to give practitioners any help to make judgements which balance the often competing needs of tourists, cyclists, people with disabilities and people who walk for pleasure.

A SUGGESTED WAY FORWARD

  I suggest that because these balanced judgements should take into consideration the characteristics of individual places, which are not easily quantified, local people should be given the opportunity to help in the decision making process. Also I suggest that the co-ordinated management of pavements should be a legal requirement.

  The committee might therefore wish to review the rules on Permitted Development under the Town and Country Planning Acts regarding work on pavements and which effect pedestrians and consider including these matters in the planning control system.

  Obviously there are arguments against change, on the grounds of delay and expense. Experiments in a few selected places would help establish the extent to which they are justified.

  There might however be some interesting benefits. Faced with possible difficulties in fixing traffic signal control boxes at pavement level, the industry might find that it can resolve the technical difficulties and locate them underground.

  There are likely to be many more similar innovations in the interdisciplinary approach that this suggestion would encourage. The design and location of pedestrian crossings seldom have any regard to the form of surrounding buildings and the concepts of the linked pedestrian spaces. In many high streets there are opportunities to create crossings that would be a pleasure rather than a challenge to use.

  If such experiments were to be considered, I suggest they are carried out at the places where people from all backgrounds meet on foot: traditional high streets. It is here that walking in towns and cities should be a pleasure.

SYNOPSIS

  If walking for pleasure is to be encouraged, higher standards of pavement management are needed. There should be less clutter and obstructions.

  At present no single agency in an area is responsible for pavement management. This causes a loss of amenity for pedestrians, particularly in traditional high streets. The Committee may therefore wish to review the rules on Permitted Development under the Town and Country Planning Acts and consider including all aspects of pavement management and works affecting pedestrians under planning control. Initially as an experiment it could apply to a few sample high streets across the country.

Colin J Davis

January 2001


 
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