Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former councillor in Suffolk.
A recent report by the British Infrastructure Group of MPs and peers, led by Grant Shapps, revealed that drivers are suffering from an ‘explosion’ in the number of traffic lights, with poorly designed junctions increasing congestion. It recommends switching them off and easing parking restrictions to increase traffic flow. Amen to that.
Ipswich, where I live, knows all about congestion and its impact on local residents and the local economy, not to mention air quality. I understand that an informal study by an engineer living in the town, and employed by an international engineering infrastructure company, worked out that it has the highest number of traffic lights, for its size, across the whole of the UK.
This is largely due to the two-year £22m ‘Ipswich for the 21st Century’ transport improvement programme, which was expected to finish in June 2014. Including a new computer system controlling traffic lights, we were told that the scheme ‘will mean roadworks, but it won’t be excessive… and is cracking good value for money, meeting objectives in terms of air quality and traffic flow’. Tell that to everyone in the all-day queues, wasting costly fuel, as they try to get from one side of the town to the other, whether for work, shopping or entertainment, as they negotiate endless roadworks and road closures.
Due to a lack of joined-up planning, as soon as one town-centre road had been dug up and relaid, it emerged that a utility company needed to replace some of its own infrastructure and the whole process had to be repeated, albeit subsequently delayed to prevent public fury at the waste of money. Surely there is legislation to ensure consultation between local authorities and utility companies to prevent this sort of thing?
The ‘21st century’ project is now two years late and there is no end in sight as more elements of the original proposals are doctored and factored in, although there is no sign of the traffic lights ‘talking to each other’. A major new junction which removed a perfectly effective roundabout, but is now governed by a number of traffic lights, is a hazard because few people have any idea how to use it.
Needless to say, the original budget has overrun, although holding someone to account has proved impossible since the director responsible has moved on to another highly paid role, accompanied by a hefty payment from the county council. Adding insult to injury, Ipswich Borough Council has now negotiated £3m funding to redesign the square in front of the Victorian Town Hall ‘to improve access’. However, following opposition to the original proposals, the design ‘hasn’t been finalised’ says the Labour Leader (so how does he know what it will cost?).
Crucially, there are no plans to enhance the facilities in the Town Hall to make such an investment meaningful. The current administration closed the art gallery, which showcased some of the town’s art collections previously languishing in storage. Created under the Conservatives, the gallery was part of a strategy to raise the quality of what’s on offer in the town centre, including retail.
In any event, access to the town square will shortly be further disrupted in the coming months as yet more ‘21 st century’ works are initiated. Small wonder that Ipswich has one of the highest council tax rates in the country; and a recent Sunday Times ‘Home’ section special on East Anglia dismissed Ipswich as a place to invest, whilst praising Bury St Edmunds, despite it being less convenient for London.
The MPs’ report also urges action to ease parking restrictions. Anti-car policies took hold under Labour, when new developments were forced to restrict the amount of parking allowed, and councils started charging residents to park outside their own homes; a nice little earner, perhaps, but punitive for hard-working people on the average wage who are more likely to live in the narrow roads especially vulnerable to the policy. According to the report, which collected data from 85 per cent of local authorities, controlled junctions have increased by 66 per cent since 2000, although traffic levels have only risen by nine per cent in the same period. The resulting delays cost the economy £16 billion a year, equivalent to £514 for each car.
Some controlled junctions are essential for safety in certain locations. Nevertheless, by removing traffic lights (or turning them off at non-peak hours) as well as removing unnecessary, often confusing signage, more shared spaces can be created. Common on the Continent, they work well, with drivers and cyclists more aware of what is going on around them, slowing their speed, and reducing accident rates, whilst improving traffic flow and pedestrian access. At the very least, local authorities would save millions, residents would be a good deal happier, and air quality greatly improved.
The evidence can be found at Ashford in Kent, which removed traffic lights in 2008, and simplified the road layout, which saw accidents fall by 41 per cent despite a rise in road usage. Ironically, a recent power cut in Ipswich meant some traffic lights in a very busy location stopped working, but the traffic flowed efficiently, without incident. The shared space experiment outside the Victoria & Albert, Natural History and Science Museums in Kensington, London, has also proved a success.
So, local authorities – take note and challenge the remorseless trend for ever more traffic controls and signage. And please, please, improve project management and budgetary control; there is simply no excuse for lax management when the solution is regular monitoring by senior management and a designated Cabinet member. There is no magic money tree; they have a responsibility to ensure the very best value for the taxpayer.