‘Liveable Streets’ Open letter from Linda Wilkinson to LBTH

Linda Wilkinson was born in Bethnal Green and lived in Columbia Road for many years. She left the area in her twenties but in 1986 returned to live just a stone’s throw from her original home. She has in turn been an accountant, scientist, playwright, author, radio producer and Chair of Amnesty International UK. An abridged version of this letter first appeared in the East London Advertiser. 

Take it away Linda!

I am a lifelong resident of LBTH and am currently the Chair of the Jesus Hospital Estate Residents Association, which encompasses most of the area covered by Scheme 2 & 3 of the Liveable Streets Bethnal Green, which centres on Columbia Road. I am also a founder member of Bethnal Green Streets for All. I am writing to you to explain why you have thousands of people in our Borough objecting to the Liveable Streets Schemes and to suggest some ways forward which would benefit us all.

I have been engaging with the consultation for this scheme in Bethnal Green since the very beginning in Spring 2019. It was obvious from the very first workshop that PCL Consult neither knew the area they were dealing with and had, along with LBTH one assumes, decided exactly what was going to happen. It remains a classic of spread-sheet design which was driven so obviously by the cycle lobby. No shame in that, as long as everybody else is taken into account, they have not been.

Dictated to as to how we live our lives

The scheme began from an assumption that we all spend our days going on very short car journeys within the Borough at distances which could easily be walked or cycled. Hence, we have to be stopped, for our own good. In short, we were being dictated to as to how we live our lives working on an assumption that we are all lazy neer-do-wells, something many of us find deeply offensive.

The other stated objective is to stop rat runs by those outside of the Borough and reduce traffic past schools which is laudable, but this goal never stacked up. Some schools were protected, others were not. At the same time as the Council closed a school by Victoria Park and proposed to build one on Wapping Highway, surely one of the busiest and most polluted roads in the Borough.

In addition, the scheme if adopted will see ASB sky rocket. I could go on at length about the shortcomings in the consultation, which are legion; if you are interested a further discussion may be had.

Some councillors have forgotten who they represent

When asking officials from the Mayor, to Councillors, to members of PCL what the scheme was really about the goal posts changed depending on who you spoke to. It has not been helped by some councillors who seem to have forgotten that they are there to represent not themselves, but the residents, all residents, not just the tranche they like. Disability or age was not mentioned in any of the original consultation documents for the Bethnal Green scheme.

If implemented in full, within an area which measures approximately 1.3 x 0.6 km we shall have 18 one-way systems and 14 road closures. Within this area are three care homes for the elderly, two blocks of flats for the vulnerable and one school for disabled children all of whom rely on special transport to support them and all of whom will be significantly challenged by the road closures that will force transport to take significant detours. Carers, who are paid by visit, not travel time, will be considerably out of pocket and service vehicles e.g. ambulances and waste removal trucks will find it almost impossible to move around.

You will be told by the Council architects of this scheme that all of the emergency services are happy with this. We are not. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out where the pinch points are. This is an old and labyrinthine area, narrow streets, sharp turns etc, bad enough now, disastrous if the closures happen.

Those who cannot walk or cycle, of which there are many, will find that a two-minute drive to the GP or a five-minute drive to the Royal London Hospital, will take 20-45 minutes on hugely congested roads and the same to return. Disabled workers who need to drive will have time and cost added to their journeys.

We have looked at the EqIA for this scheme locally and asked Alice Maynard on the Board of TFL to advise us about it.

Inequality assessment inadequate

Her response after investigating the LBTH proposals was

“My suggestion would be that you tackle the issue with LBTH from the perspective of the equality impact assessment which I found incredibly difficult to locate and is, in my view, inadequate. In particular, a proper assessment of impact is sorely lacking and, if it were more appropriately assessed, the requirement to seek to mitigate would follow and thereby minority voices could be heard.”

We have approached LBTH with this information and asked for further information and a response to her comments but we have heard nothing.

Over 30 odd years we have worked with successive administrations and, in the immediate area, we have traffic pretty well controlled. There are closures, road narrowingีs and one-way streets sufficient to our needs. I am not saying this is true for all areas, but the significant numbers of residents opposing this would lead one to assume they may feel similar.

So, I hear you say, we should just sit on our hands and do nothing? Not at all.

Firstly, you should all be aware that as of next year the ULEZ zone (Ultra Low Emission Zone) will be expanded to include LBTH. This is a good thing and we shall hopefully see emissions plummet, job pretty much done on that score one feels.

Secondly, I ask you, our representatives, to take off your rose-coloured glasses. Traffic will NOT evaporate, the ridiculousness of keeping Skew Bridge closed makes us wonder whether you think about this at all?

We do have many problems with vehicular traffic in the Borough. The access roads to the A13, A12 and A11 to name but a few. These will in no way be addressed by the Liveable Streets scheme. These need a separate approach from traffic planning professionals, in true consultation with residents.

Save local shops, not clobber them

In this Covid era, and it is an era, you should be making decisions which facilitate survival of local shops and allow the many workers here who drive, or rely on their cars for work, to function efficiently. Not clobber them to extinction.

Much is being said about Liveable Streets being about social cleansing, and increasing property values. The phrase Environment Gentrification comes to mind. I hope that isn’t so, but it is a valid question for you to ponder and answer.

Which brings me to the heart of the matter. Representation and inclusion. You are there to serve us, you have codes of conduct, LBTH for all? You are a local government body and therefore mandated to listen to your electorate.

I was Chair of Amnesty International UK for six years, not a Council I admit. Our 250,000 members then, not dissimilar from the population of LBTH. Boroughs are complex things and one simply cannot ask the residents to make all of the decisions as one does in a volunteer organisation, but we should be involved in a meaningful fashion.

What many of us would like to see is a halt to the schemes, a moratorium on them whilst we consider a way forward together. Obviously Skew Bridge should be opened.

Very early on, in this process, I wrote to Mayor Biggs and Cllr Pierce suggesting that if we worked together, we could develop a scheme of which we were justly proud, a beacon for other schemes in the UK. I still believe this is possible.

My suggestion is this: the establishment of series of residents’ panels within LBTH to work with the Council at an early stage of implement strategic goals, and a Residents Overview and Scrutiny Committee. These should not allied to any political party. Robust terms of reference would ensure that there are substantive outcomes from these and ownership would lie within the community in partnership with LBTH.

I am not saying it would be easy, but easier than having thousands of us on the streets protesting about this.

I appeal to you again to work with us, you are our elected officials, but we are your electorate.

Linda Wilkinson