There is a current debate in place-shaping and highways that cuts to the very heart of what a public space represents and how we share it.
The issue is this: is it better to create a standardised, clearly marked and delineated space where everyone knows exactly where they can and can’t go, or should we introduce an element of uncertainty to try and force people to take more account of their surroundings and therefore act more safely?
It was first raised in connection with the extremely controversial issue of shared space – a subject that almost reduced one campaigner to tears of frustration at a recent House of Commons event organised by gold medal winning Paralympian and key figure in the anti-shared space movement, Conservative peer Lord Holmes.
This month it surfaced again in the much less emotive but still highly contentious issue of removing road markings, including centre lines.
Some might be happy to dismiss the debate before it gets off the ground. After all why risk ‘uncertainty’ on the roads when lives are at risk? Hasn’t road safety improved over the years precisely because of the extra precautions we have taken? However, the significance of the risk cuts both ways. If this is so important, can we really afford to ignore ideas that might help? If there is data suggesting such ideas might save lives, no matter how odd they may seem, do we have any right to ignore them?
Any counterintuitive argument can always be denounced in populist terms as lacking common sense, but as far as shared space is concerned Lord Holmes’ recent writing and campaigning on the issue has dealt it a heavy blow.
His report Accidents By Design last summer provided a watershed moment in the debate. To point out that a road safety principle based on eye contact doesn’t work well for blind people like himself would appear to stop the debate in its tracks.
In fact some have called it ‘the largest systematic, institutionalised discrimination against blind people the UK has ever seen’. It is an extremely cavalier planner that would ignore such a point.
Having covered this issue for several years, Transport Network has seen an evolution in thinking on shared space.
At first the idea seemed a solution to cluttered and congested public realms, with evidence that it reduced speeds and so produced safer road environments. Then came the problems – the complaints, the confusion, the legal threats from residents and tragically at least one fatality, in Coventry, which was specifically linked to the issue in court. All that led to a total re-examination of their case.
In fact campaigners suggest there have been at least 10 council u-turns on these schemes, where infrastructure such as crossings and kerbs was re-instated.
Lord Holmes argues that we need at least a moratorium on shared space schemes while impact assessments are conducted, accessibility audits are carried out and the Department for Transport (DfT) updates guidance to help local authorities better understand their responsibilities under the Equalities Act. This has prompted a third phase that could be defined as a recognised need to come to a better understanding.
Lord Holmes created a 'watershed moment' in the debate
Speaking at Lord Holmes’ parliamentary event, Justin Tomlinson, minister for disabled people, admitted he had ‘been though the same journey that so many local authorities are going through [on shared space], where they set out with good intentions, they have not thought of the wider implications and they nearly always dig it back up and spend a fortune to fix it’.
Transport select committee chair, Louise Ellman, who helped chair the event added: ‘The concept [of shared space] is OK but then we come to the practicalities. If it works, great – but the reality is very different.’
Also in attendance, Richard Hayes, chief executive of the Institute of Highway Engineers (IHE), conceded that due to shared space certain places had become ‘no-go areas’ for disabled people.
He said: ‘It is time we reviewed and strengthened the guidance. It is unlikely we will get a mandatory, legal process for this issue but we can create an industry code of practice, which will have the status to suggest if it wasn’t followed a scheme could be challenged in the courts.’
He revealed that, in partnership with other institutions, the IHE would review guidance ‘to ensure that it provides the correct advice, is inclusive, and consultations are carried out at the right time and involve the practitioners and the people using the public spaces’.
He added that the IHE would adapt its current training provision to take this into account.
Andrew Hugill, director of policy and technical affairs at the Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation, also revealed that ‘in terms of taking guidance forward we are aiming to produce a draft by March for consultation and engagement’.
‘We will work with the department, through minister Andrew Jones, to ask the local government sector and communities for information, with a view for those guidelines to be launched in the summer and hopefully they can form part of the solution to the problems we have heard about,’ he said.
When questioned by Lord Holmes on the proposed moratorium, Mr Hugill conceded he would have to give ‘the politicians’ answer without being a politician’ and said it was a matter for individual authorities to decide.
The DfT has long pledged to review its Inclusive Mobility guidance and a spokesman told Transport Network a new accessibility action plan is scheduled for this year, setting out ‘what the scope of the review would entail’.
The leading exponent of shared space in this country, Ben Hamilton-Baillie, wrote in 2006: ‘Moving away from established practice requires determination, careful thought and observation, and the courage to explore and refine new solutions. The input of all street users, particularly those with disabilities, into this process at this early stage will be vital as a new philosophy for the design of public realm evolves.’
It appears we are finally moving towards a set of guidelines that enshrine that principle. It is now widely recognised in the sector that changes must be made to ensure no section of the community has its mobility sacrificed for the sake of these schemes.
Perhaps Mr Hayes summed it up best when he said of shared space: ‘There is guidance out there, perhaps it is not the best, but it is sometimes put aside because people say it doesn’t fit with the ethos of their schemes. Well, what are you trying to create? A vanity project or a public open space that people can enjoy?’