A Case for Localism: The Highway that Became a Free Car Park

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition passed a Localism Act late in 2011 granting local authorities the legal capacity to do anything that an individual could do as long as it was not specifically prohibited. This represented a significant shift in the principle that had always prevented Local Authorities from doing things they hadn’t been expressly told they had to, or were specifically empowered to do. Fierce budget restraints have brought strong restraints of course, but the new freedom has enormous potential for local autonomy in the long term.

Here in Bristol, I think this should have brought hope for one local issue that has eluded efforts over two decades to sort out. In practice it has been just one more reason why the Bristol City Council have put the issue on hold. A council officer emailed recently:

“Bearing this in mind, it is likely that the Traffic and Transport sub group will not be putting forward recommendations for the implementation of yellow lines / parking restrictions to come out of this year’s budget if they can be done for a lot less in the near future. At the next meeting of the group on 12th November, they will produce a recommendation list for the Partnership Councillors to consider which may include some parking restrictions, however at present this seems unlikely.” (email from Council Officer dated 11 October 2012)

The issue I have in mind is the simple case of The Fosseway, a narrow Bristol cul-de-sac, that offers unrestricted free parking on both of its sides while serving as the sole access road to a block of 31 retirement flats at its closed far end. The flats have no road access apart from The Fosseway and all vehicles must pass along its 120 metre length to visit or to leave. The daily problems that arise are clear from the next picture. A refuse collection vehicle has got stuck part-way along the road and a waiting Royal Mail van is unable to make any more deliveries until the problem is sorted out.

Representations have been made to Avon and then Bristol Council over more than 20 years, with prevarications and administrative changes alternating as reasons for not doing anything. In the current era Care Workers, who make multiple daily visits, are particularly badly affected by delays. They lose contact time with clients in Fosseway Court and elsewhere.

The Fosseway itself (see next illustration) was developed as a row of 8 semi-detached houses adjoining a new roadway in the second half of the 19th century to one side of Clifton graveyard. Most of the houses are now in multi-occupation, with 17 separate dwellings. Larger houses facing Victoria Square were built on the other side of the Fosseway, a little further away, with a high rear wall separating them from it.

In 1988 a new block of 31 retirement flats was built to the rear of The Fosseway’s houses, with a private driveway leading off the southern end of The Fosseway.

The old Chesterfield Hospital already had a gated emergency vehicle access onto The Fosseway (see picture below) before Fosseway Court was built.  It has since been demolished, but a new hospital is in the process of being built on the site, and the same gateway is designated in its planning conditions as being an emergency exit.

As early as 1993 it was clear that unchecked parking along the full length of both sides of The Fosseway was restricting vehicle access to Fosseway Court to a considerable degree and a series of representations were made to the Avon and Bristol local authorities to find a way of easing the situation. For the next decade changes to local authority structures and processes, and unfulfilled hopes that more general schemes might soon address The Fosseway’s problem meant that no action was taken at all. Many letters and three or four petitions sit in archives somewhere. I have read about 100 pages of notes and correspondence dating back to those years. There are no doubt many more in Council archives. They make for fairly depressing reading. Delays, uncertainty and procrastination are the main themes. The extract shown from a Council document here is typical, promising both “no action” and “future proposal”

Extract from notes on Planning Transport and Development (central) Area Sub-Committee meeting held 18/12/1996

By 2011 the problems had become worse and the failure of Bristol’s various local government bodies to act looked incomprehensible to anyone arriving (as I did) to see the situation for the first time. On top of the self evident difficulties that had been present from the outset, a number of wider changes had started to make conditions even worse.

For example, between 1994 and 2011 the number of cars on British roads went from 25 to 33 million. Data on all of the most popular models on UK roads at the end of each of those years suggest that the mean width of a motor car had increased from 1660 mm to 1903 mm over the period. In addition, student numbers at Bristol’s two universities (a good indicator of general activity in the Clifton area) went from 36,000 in 1995-96 to 50,000 in 2010-11. (data from Department for Transport, http://www.parkers.co.uk and Higher Education Statistics Agency respectively. Interpretations my own).

A point has been reached where the slight convenience of 25 free parking spaces for a few non-residents has to be looked at from a less cautious perspective than the one that seems to have prevailed over the years before the Localism Act. The daily access needs of services, care workers, family visitors, delivery and collection vehicles (not to mention emergency vehicles) need to be seen as more important. They reflect the urgent needs of a significant number of elderly people who live in Fosseway Court and they have an impact on the effectiveness of the services whose tasks elsewhere in the city are being disrupted by obstructions and delays along The Fosseway. The occasional free and convenient parking spaces for some have turned into a daily problem for residents who rely disproportionately on a single vehicle access to their homes for basic services.

Specific incidents have included a discharged hospital patient being pushed in a wheel chair for 200 yards on a cold rainy day because an ambulance could not negotiate the narrow gap. Fire Officers have had to stop and lift cars off the roadway to gain access to a (luckily) false alarm. Waste collections have been regularly missed on the due day for lack of access. A recent coach journey to a funeral had to be made in stages, with two smaller vans taking residents to the larger bus at the top of The Fosseway. Some residents have found that old friends no longer want to visit because of the difficulties of driving in and out. Even riding a bicycle past a car coming from the opposite direction is impossible. Some of the parked cars are left for weeks on end – presumably kept by students who keep them just for the journeys back home. Careless parking, well away from the curb, is common.

By way of contrast, the narrow Richmond Lane , very close to The Fosseway and also giving access to retirement flats, has been kept clear with double yellow lines on both sides.

Round the corner in Richmond Terrace there is a section with good access where double yellow lines have been put on one side.

Since I wrote the first draft of this blog Bristol has elected a City Mayor and central control of local traffic affairs has changed again. In theory both of these things will make it easier and more likely that The Fosseway will get the parking restriction it needs. Inevitably the change in regulation has created another delay as officers anticipate a chance to implement it at less cost if they wait for when the next new scheme is in operation.

The next public opportunity to press the case will be at a Clifton and Cabot Neighbourhood Partnership Meeting on Tuesday, 22nd January 2013. The Fosseway only needs restriction on one side. The current fifty spaces could be reduced without detriment to those who actually live in the street’s 17 dwellings and there would be a dramatic improvement to the lives of those who live at the end of it. The Fosseway can finally be made into a serviceable highway and stop being used as a rather awkward car park.

Today’s wider emergency vehicles should not be impeded unnecessarily.

Considerate Cycling 23: an email to city planners in Bristol

This morning I got an email from Steve Melia’s “Living Heart For Bristol” campaign. It was encouraging me to write to Bristol City Council about proposals to improve the part of Bristol that they call the Medieval Core. A lot of this part of the city was bombed in the Second World War, but the street plan and some of the buildings are still there. It’s a fascinating area to walk around, with all kinds of alley ways and hidden treasures.

The question at issue is the possibility that motorised traffic might be allowed to drive all the way through the centre of this wonderful area. An added ambiguity is a suggestion of some “shared space”, a phrase that I have had a go at elsewhere. Steve Melia’s response to the whole development is here.

I never like copying pre-prepared messages, so having looked though the consultation document. I wrote the following email:

Subject: Old City Consultation

To: citydesigngroup@bristol.gov.uk

Dear Planners

I have tried to have a good look at the pdf file (Old City Final Consolation Draft) outlining changes proposed for a renewed Old City. The first thing to say is that the pdf file is very unwieldy on my laptop screen and relatively low on detail so I might be making a point that is based on my misunderstanding of what is being suggested.

I am generally sympathetic to the descriptive analysis of the current situation and of the aspirations for improvement. Bristol has a splendid resource in these old streets and could do a lot more to make them more attractive, more accessible, more visible and therefore more valuable than they currently are.

The greatest concern I have with what I can guess from the consultation booklet is the long diagonal south west to north east corridor – including Corn Street. It looks as though that might be left open to through traffic, allowing cars and other vehicles to use some, or all, of it to drive through the area. This seems unnecessary and at odds with the character and purposes of that part. Arrangements to allow access and loading for some vehicles clearly need to be made – but these would best be tightly controlled and limited. Full pedestrianisation of the whole section would be the best solution, with adequate cycle parking at all access points. There seems little point in encouraging shared cycle/pedestrian space. This just makes life difficult for pedestrians and offers no great advantage to cyclists on longer journeys. (I cycle and walk in and around Bristol on a daily basis).

With this anxiety in mind, I wish you every success with the development – it should be a great boost to the commercial and cultural life of the City.

Yours sincerely

Sam Saunders

One thing I should emphasise is how HARD it was to read the consulation report – shuffling it around and flipping between magnification levels to try to move between text, image and street plan.