Planter on Maidenstone Hill
Ambulance bosses said they did not want planters used in anti-ratrunning schemes

The London Ambulance Service called for Greenwich Council to use cameras rather than planters for its low-traffic neighbourhood in some of the borough’s most affluent streets, correspondence between the two bodies reveals.

Documents revealed under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that neither the ambulance service nor the London Fire Brigade objected to the closure of Crooms Hill and streets around Royal Hill – despite claims on a closed Facebook group for opponents of the schemes.

Both the London Ambulance Service and London Fire Brigade have confirmed to 853 that they did not object to the plans. But ambulance bosses cautioned against the use of bollards, barriers or planters, fearing that they would impede crews attending emergencies.

The closures – with planters – were put in place in August, as London’s streets began to be overwhelmed with traffic after the first coronavirus lockdown ended. Residents east of Greenwich Park are likely to see their own scheme put in place after enduring traffic jams around Maze Hill; those who live near Blackheath Hill have also complained of worse traffic.

853 understands the council is talking to the ambulance service about the Hills and Vales scheme around Crooms Hill.

Low-traffic neighbourhoods – aimed at making it easier to walk and cycle while use of public transport is discouraged – have sparked a bitter and divisive debate, with opponents insisting that they have directly led to stubborn traffic jams elsewhere. However, road use in general has hugely increased compared with last year – meaning that removing the low-traffic neighbourhoods may do little to prevent the jams.

With urban roadbuilding usually seen as politically toxic, and politicians nervous about a backlash from introducing road pricing, making short journeys or rat-running inconvenient is also seen as a way to nudge people away from making car journeys that could be made on foot or by bike to reduce the pressure on an overwhelmed road network.

Planters on Maidenstone Hill
Planters have been endorsed by Transport for London as a quick and easy method to take traffic off residential streets Credit: The Greenwich Wire

In general, the schemes have been backed by health professionals – a charity linked to Guys and St Thomas’ NHS Trust has paid for planters to be placed in back streets in Camberwell to cut pollution there, while more than 120 doctors and nurses wrote to Sadiq Khan last month to support making walking and cycling easier.

But some schemes have been criticised for protecting relatively well-off areas from traffic at the expense of poorer ones – a charge levelled at both the Greenwich scheme and Lewisham’s scheme in Lee Green and Hither Green. In Greenwich, TfL’s own analysis suggested prioritising parts of Charlton and Woolwich for a low-traffic neighbourhood, on the grounds of low car ownership and higher levels of deprivation.

What the emergency services said

One anti-LTN campaigner asked both Greenwich and Lewisham councils for their correspondence with fire and ambulance services regarding the schemes. Lewisham is yet to respond – a breach of freedom of information laws.

But Greenwich did respond, sending a handful of emails between Woolwich Town Hall and the two services. It revealed that the London Ambulance Service said it “cannot support any scheme that involves the closure of a road to traffic using static bollards, lockable bollards, coffin bollards, gates or physical barriers like planters”.

“Existing schemes already cause us problems and gates and bollards are generally not routinely maintained pan-London and are difficult to unlock anyway,” it said.

“The use of ANPR [automatic number-plate recognition] is the best way schemes can be enforced as it allows roads to remain open to emergency services at all times,” it adds. “Although costly, life, as you would agree, is more important.”

The ambulance service said it wanted cameras to be used to close roads, such as this example in Lee

The response concludes by saying that physical closures of the road could breach the Emergency Workers (Obstruction) Act 2006 which could lead to a fine of up to £5,000.

The London Fire Brigade said it did not have enough detail on Greenwich’s plans to comment, but said “any other type of barrier [than ANPR] is likely to cause delay”.

Despite the ambulance service’s objections, planters are frequently touted by advocates of cutting rat-running as a cheap, easy and flexible way to stop rat-running.

While ANPR systems cost more to install, they allow emergency services and buses to pass through, as well as other vehicles whose drivers or passengers need to use that route. They also have an advantage for councils in that they can generate income through fines – Lewisham’s ANPR systems in Lee Green and Hither Green netted £3m earlier this year, which will go back into the cash-strapped borough’s transport budget, although its scheme was partly rolled back last month to ease pressure on the South Circular Road. Greenwich currently does not use cameras.

‘We will continue to discuss these issues’

A London Ambulance Service spokesperson told 853: “As the busiest ambulance service in the country, our focus is on achieving the best outcomes for ill and injured patients and ensuring we reach them in response times set by the government.

“Changes to road layouts, traffic management schemes, and road closures all have the potential to impede our response to the most critically ill people and could delay life-saving treatments or conveyance to the nearest emergency department.

“This is why we continue to work with Transport for London and local authorities including Greenwich to ensure emergency vehicle access is properly considered, and the impact of any changes monitored.

Crooms Hill
Crooms Hill has been closed to motor traffic at Stockwell Street since August

“We will continue to discuss these issues at the emergency services group, made up of local authority traffic teams and TfL, as well as make representations at a local level where necessary.”

The London Fire Brigade, whose Greenwich fire station lies at the edge of the Hills and Vales scheme, told 853: “We assess each scheme individually. In some cases, our feedback to local authorities has been that we have identified the use of camera enforced closures would be preferable to physical barriers. The Brigade did not raise any concerns about this specific scheme and we are continually monitoring the impact it is having on our crews.

A spokesperson added: “Our attendance targets are to get the first fire engine to an incident within a London wide average of six minutes and a second fire engine within a London wide average of eight minutes. We have continued to meet these targets successfully throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and we will carry on monitoring our performance closely.

“We work closely with our local authority partners when there are any road closure proposals, and if we have any concerns that any changes may impact our response times, we will raise these and work with the local authority to find the best solution.”

The response to the Freedom of Information answer also highlights the level of misleading information surrounding the discussion about low-traffic neighbourhoods. More than 1,800 people are in a closed Facebook group called Greenwich Road Closures, which cautions on its front page “what’s shared in the group should stay in the group”.

A screen grab of Greenwich’s response to the Freedom of Information request was shared to the group with the message: “It seems Ambulance service were dead against LTNs!!!” – something which was not true.

Screengrab of Greenwich Traffic Closures group
The Greenwich Traffic Closures group has 1,800 members

“The BBC won’t cover this!,” responded one member of the group.

However, as with all deeply divisive issues, there has also been misleading information on the other side. A Guardian “mythbusters” feature last month came up with its own myth – “there has been almost no pushback from emergency services” – something we now know to be untrue.

Greenwich town centre changes to come

Close to Crooms Hill, Greenwich Council has confirmed it has obtained funding from Transport for London for work in Greenwich town centre to make life easier for pedestrians and cyclists. The council has long-term ambitions to remove the one-way system around Greenwich Market, while current plans for Cycleway 4 have a gap between Deptford Creek Bridge and the Old Royal Naval College.

A council spokesperson told 853: “We were also allocated Liveable Neighbourhoods funding to progress the Greenwich Town Centre project. We are working closely with TfL to establish the scope of work we can deliver over the short funding period – to March 2021 only. We look forward to sharing more on this as soon as we can.”

The council has also received further funding for cycle routes between Eltham and Greenwich Park and Shooters Hill Road and Greenwich Park; the latter of which is already partly in place. However, this money is to “cover scheme development and engagement”, with more funds to build the routes due later.

“We expect final confirmation of the details of our funding from TfL in the coming weeks and will start engagement on these schemes as soon as soon as possible after that,” the spokesperson added.

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