Cllr Renata Jones is a councillor in Charnwood.
The first I ever heard of the shared space concept was seeing one materialise in Leicester city centre. It just sprung up one day, at the newly named Jubilee Square. Formerly known as St Nicholas circle, I still feel the need to smirk a little whenever I hear or feel forced to use what still feels like the new name for this area, although we’re now a few years on.
Having worked near said square when I first heard it was to change, I asked around and read some more. I heard concerns of fellow workers and some business owners in the area. I found info on the council website. I responded to a consultation. Knowing how slippery council can be perceived to be, I demanded in doing so that I get a receipt of my consultation response, and notification of when the meeting to discuss it would be, and copy minutes of any outcome. I got an email receipt acknowledging my consultation related response. I had thought I’d go to the city council and watch the debate, but I was never told when it was debated. Nor was I sent related meeting minutes. Work just began one day to change the square.
Despite voicing concerns at the plans, I never anticipated just how odd it would be when finished. A deliberately undulating lawn created what could perhaps aspirationally be called a ‘design feature’ to an architect or garden designer, or perhaps injury or death trap by a health and safety officer. Parts of the lawn had one meter high cliff edges. High enough to do enough damage if you fell off onto the concrete below, but shallow enough that it’d look flat if you walked along head up instead of down. I tried asking the council if there’d been accidents as a result of this soon after creation, only one report I believe they said at the time. Observers frequenting nearby establishments told me they’d seen three the first day Heras fencing was taken away, two pedestrians and a cyclist. Sounded more painful somehow for the cyclist, given related speed of travel.
But the ‘shared space’ element gave me more concern than this. I struggled to use it as an able bodied pedestrian. Over weeks that followed, I attempted to drive through it to get to work, and it was the most stressful driving you can imagine. We don’t have jay-walking in the country. Pedestrians do always have right of way. But in either role, pedestrian or driver, it was hard to see crossing points, where to go, where or when was best to stop or proceed. I sat and ate my lunch on the odd undulating Picasso lawn on some sunny days, watching cars get confused, turning right into a dead end, driving on what was road if they could remember a time it was road. Even those cars attempting to follow what was roughly coloured differently to road would get confused. Without kerbs, pedestrians and parking were everywhere. Drivers are on tenterhooks driving through, fearful of what might jump out at them next, so they stray off the coloured bits onto the sort of pavement bits, as there’s no curb so no bump.
How do blind people cope? I was struggling, able bodied. How would someone navigate this madness if you couldn’t fully see it either? “Look at the ground”, someone eventually said to me. “Those ridged lines, blind users feel them with their shoes” I was advised. Like the bumps on the ground at traffic light pedestrian points. I see, metaphorically and physically speaking.
I should point out the political split. City council unitary authority, almost entirely Labour, with an elected mayor at the helm. In the boroughs and county in surrounding Leicestershire, Conservatives mostly hold the power, including in my borough.
I was recently appointed to an outside body to champion the voice of our blind residents. This is through my borough council role. I’m guessing it was that, rather than my alumni status, that got me to an invite to DeMontfort University recently to hear the plight of those struggling with disabilities, highlighting the plight of the blind. By far and away, the biggest take away I had for the day was accounts of blind users attempting to use shared spaces, and giving up in despair and in fear of their lives. Guide dogs don’t recognise those ridges in the road, and walk straight out into traffic, taking their humans with them. One lady had nearly been ran over by a taxi on Jubilee Square, changed her route, only to nearly get hit by a bus when another shared space styling pavement arrangement sprang up around her near Belvoir Street.
There were accounts from around the country. I didn’t realise so many shared spaces existed, or so many near misses had already happened related to them. It seems such systems have caused concerned tabloid headlines since 2012. However, our city council seem in favour of yet further pedestrianisation, with rumours rife the entire golden mile could be the next shared space on their hit list.
I really felt for these disabled users who feel unable to go into our city. We know it’s a worry for mental health if residents find themselves increasingly trapped in the same four walls, isolated from society. I hope we can make our streets safer again, and places that do actually work for man, woman, child, for beast read perhaps guide dog, or even motorists.