It’s hard to believe there could be disputes over plans to make Congleton town centre nicer but the scheme to create a “shared space” has caused something of a drama — and with good reason, it transpires.
“Shared space” is that modern street design where cars and pedestrians mingle freely, the basic idea being that drivers worry about mowing someone down, and pedestrians worry about being mown down. (If you want to be more positive, the schemes create lower traffic speeds, meaning more freedom for pedestrians and more caution from motorists).
The design minimises segregation by removing kerbs, signs and road markings and the like. Everyone is more careful because they have to concentrate — as long as they can see, of course.
As we have reported, many blind and visually impaired people, who rely on controlled crossings and kerbs, have criticised the model for making areas too dangerous for them to use.
In Leek where, shared space already exists, campaigners say blind and partially-sighted people have suffered since their introduction.
As part of their campaign, they went to see Lord Chris Holmes, the Paralympic athlete and solicitor, who has been blind since the age of 14. He says (see below) that shared space guidance is “not fit for purpose” and leaves local authorities vulnerable to prosecution under the Equalities Act.
We do have another local example of shared space — Poynton — but that seems to be an anomaly, the rare example that has worked well. Sustrans has praised Poynton as a best practice example of infrastructure, and a local councillor has said it helped revive the town.
Now reader Dave Horner has directed us to a report by Bryan Matthews, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Transport Studies at the University of Leeds.
Mr Matthews said that shared space had “proved persuasive” for many UK local authorities since the Department for Transport published guidance on the subject.
He singled out Poynton as a success, having reduced traffic speed and increased pedestrian safety — we are perhaps unusual in having one of the country’s most successful shared space projects down the road, but its success seems equally unusual.
Mr Matthews points out that shared spaces were first used in residential areas in the Netherlands in the 1970s (readers who visited Oosterhout as child will doubtless remember this) but he said more recent reports from Groningen and Amsterdam had expressed “serious concerns” about the impacts of shared space on vulnerable pedestrians. Obviously, the needs of the disabled were less considered in the 70s.
He, too, cited Paralympian Lord Holmes and his research on people’s experiences of using shared space.
You can tell where Lord Holmes is going from the title of his research paper, published as Accidents by Design.
It found that 63% of 523 respondents with experience of using a shared space rated that experience as having been “poor”. A third of respondents actively avoided shared spaces. Lord Holmes also found that “a significant number” of accidents in shared spaces went unreported.
He commented: “This type of totalitarian planning would make even an old style Soviet feel some shame.”
So while we are sure that Congleton Town Council has only the best interests of the town and all its residents at heart, it perhaps needs to take more note of the naysayers in Leek than the pro-scheme pedestrians in Poynton, and bear in mind Lord Holmes’s comments that shared space is an “architectural conceit” and “planning folly”, with its removal of kerbs and road markings.
The best thing the town council — any other towns planning shared spaces — can do is listen to what people are saying, as Mr Matthews said: “Where an open and collaborative partnership between the public authorities and vulnerable pedestrians has been forged, such as in Auckland, New Zealand and in Leeds, it seems that it has been possible to design a more inclusive kind of shared space, but one fears that these are exceptional cases.”