Question for Short Debate
My Lords, it is with mixed feelings that I rise to open this debate. It is an important debate but it is a debate that we should not need to have. Shared space is a completely artificially created problem which should never have come across our urban landscape. It is a debate we should not need to have because five years ago the noble Lord, Lord Low, stood up in this Chamber and warned local authorities about the dangers of shared space. Yet, five years on, if not quite an epidemic, shared space has swept the United Kingdom like a pernicious class A drug.
What is shared space? Quite simply, it is this: taking away traffic signals, pedestrian crossings, road markings and pavements and having everybody in that shared space—toddlers and tankers, buses and blind people in the same shared space—with the belief that as a result of this everybody will behave better and have a more inclusive shared experience. As I hope this debate will clearly and emphatically point out, that is not the experience for millions of people up and down this nation.
The proponents of shared space say, “Of course blind people are at a disadvantage. They are at a disadvantage in everything in life. Plus ça change. Quelle domage”. We should mind because that kind of logic in urban design is completely unacceptable. That was the reason why I launched my report, Accidents by Design, which I published in July. I surveyed more than 600 people and the findings were stark. They demonstrated that whether you were blind or fully sighted, disabled or non-disabled, a cyclist, a motorist or a parent with young children, your experience of shared space was unremittingly negative. Almost two-thirds of people said they had a negative experience of shared space. Perhaps even more concerning, 35% of people said they actively avoided shared space. That is over a third of the population effectively planned out of their local area.
Those are the statistics but I wanted the report to speak with the voices of the respondents. I wanted their experiences to come through, to gain those narratives, those qualitative data, to sit alongside the quantitative statistics. Let us hear some of those voices. A pedestrian described her local shared space scheme as “lethally dangerous”. A motorist said his local scheme was an “absolute nightmare” that he sought to avoid. That point is interesting because if proponents of shared space are actively using it, if their primary purpose is to create traffic-free areas, they should be honest and open and have the debate on those grounds, rather than using unconsenting pedestrians as human shields for their plan.
For cyclists, shared space is a promise that simply does not deliver. Many people talk about feelings of danger, of being intimidated and feeling terrified. Is this what we want to create for our local communities—our townscapes—in 21st-century Britain? The report was widely received and yet the proponents of shared space sought to push it to one side, suggesting again that it was an issue only for blind people. It is clear that it is an issue for the entire population, up and down the country, yet hundreds of schemes are still in the planning process right across the country.
The scheme as a concept came out of the Netherlands, so, presumably, it is working incredibly well there. In fact, it is not. The scheme is fundamentally flawed and cannot possibly deliver on the promise set out in the government guidance: that this will lead to pedestrians being able to move with more comfort and ease, and enable everybody to share the space better. With whichever design or method, it simply fails if you believe that traffic signals, pedestrian crossings and kerbs can be removed and everybody can share one open space.
What happens when the problems of these schemes are discovered? There is U-turn after U-turn, up and down the country, with the reinstatement of pedestrian crossings or traffic lights in Hackbridge, Warwick and tens of other schemes. Even better is where these schemes are abandoned before they get off the ground once the consultation gives that clear steer from the local community that they do not work, as was the case most recently with the proposed scheme for the Isle of Man. But schemes still remain on plan, as I have said, up and down the country. If this debate can do anything, I want it to raise awareness across the population. Do they want their taxes to be spent on schemes that exclude, are dangerous and terrify? I ask my noble friend the Minister these questions and I urge the Government to strongly consider an immediate moratorium on all future shared space until a thorough analysis can be done of the impact on the local community.
Similarly, I urge the Government to classify so-called courtesy crossings. These are non-crossings where pedestrians have to take their lives in their hands to try to get across the road and where nobody has right of way. These crossings need to be classified so that accident data can be reported and centrally recorded, and so that we can know the truth about shared space where, at the moment, so much smoke and mirrors exists. The reality is, as my report evidenced, a massive underreporting of accidents, serious incidents and, sadly, sometimes fatalities in these shared spaces.
I ask the Minister to review the Department for Transport guidance to enable it to better support local authorities, which are being hoodwinked into believing the bogus benefits of these schemes. Do the Government believe that these schemes prove value for money when, all too often, they have to be refitted or retrofitted with lights and signals, and kerbs reinstated? Is this value for money at a time of incredible pressure on local authority finance? Finally, do the Government believe that so-called shared space delivers on the equality legislation and the public sector equality duty?
To local authorities, I say: tread carefully if you are thinking of walking down the road to shared space. It will exclude; it will intimidate. You will be sacrificing safety on the altar of architectural conceit, planning folly and a scheme which is all about form over function. This will cost, and the cost is measured in so many ways. There is the financial cost of reinstallation and the potential legal cost: currently, three local authorities are on the end of legal action by residents who believe that they have been discriminated against under the Equality Act. The councils have instructed a top London QC. To the residents, I say: is this what you believe your tax should be spent on, rather than having planning which includes everyone from the outset?
That is just the financial cost. What of the human cost? As I mentioned, 35% of people are actively avoiding shared space—a third of people excluded from their local communities. There are accidents, incidents and, in Coventry, Leek and other locations, people have been tragically killed in shared space. My thoughts go out to their families.
In conclusion, I hope that all local authorities take note of this debate, read it and think very seriously before embarking on any shared space scheme. It will cost; it will exclude; it will not be safe. You may well find yourself in court as a result.
My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, on obtaining this debate and on the work that he has done in the whole area of disability and shared space. The noble Lord, Lord Low, has also been extremely active in this area, as have the national charities: the RNIB, Guide Dogs, and the National Federation of Blind People. Today, an issue of great significance is being brought before this House.
I am not a particular fan of shared space, but the Armageddon picture that has just been painted may not fully reflect the experience up and down the country. There are definitely supporters of shared space and many who look at schemes and explain that they work reasonably for all members of a particular community. That does not mean that there are not many significant issues. I very much support the specific recommendations made by the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, which seem to me to make a great deal of sense.
When I was in the department for 18 months, disability was within my portfolio. We made some significant progress in that area. To my mind, it is crucial that people who have a disability are accepted as a normal part of our society, needing all the opportunities and access that any normal person requires. In those areas where the department had complete control, I think that we made significant progress—for example, on accessible stations—and the industry began to change. The transport industry is culturally beginning to shift in its understanding that, as it plans and moves forward, it must see disabled people as a normal part of its user group, not as an afterthought, an added extra or an amendment to a plan. That is a really significant change.
However, when we tried to make progress on quite a number of issues, we were thwarted on two grounds which I am concerned remain in play. First was the group I call the “anti-red tape Red Guards”. They existed in government when I was there: Ministers for whom every regulation was by definition bad and had to be halted no matter what the benefits. Frankly, to provide opportunity and access for disabled people there is frequently a role for sensible, smart and appropriate regulation, and it is often very difficult to tackle a problem—shared space is a good example of this—when that is ruled off the table. I do not know whether that has changed—I hope it has—but it was a definite and complete obstacle. The number of times we got overturned still makes me frustrated to this day.
The other area where we had great challenges was whenever we tried to work in an area that also fell into the purview of DCLG. Of all the government departments that I dealt with, DCLG was the least sympathetic to disability. One reason we did not go ahead and attempt to revise the guidance is that we were very concerned it could end up worse at the end of that process because of the view DCLG took on that. Many of the people there have now changed and I hope that perhaps as we have a different Secretary of State there might be a different environment and a review of guidance could go ahead.
We provided to all relevant parties the charter and advice on shared space developed by the National Federation of the Blind in co-operation with all the other disability groups. I must say that local authorities who were sensitive to these issues immediately understood why they were being provided with that, and we created a link through to it from the department’s web page. They saw that they needed to broaden their views and to understand the implications if they looked at shared space opportunities. Of course, that does not deal with those local authorities that are simply insensitive to these issues and, frankly, probably to guidance on any front. So I hope that there is a real opportunity now to relook at that guidance.
Every time this issue was raised it would be pointed out to me by those who did not want to see change and were proponents of shared space that one disability group is in conflict with another. They would look at people in wheelchairs and with mobility issues for whom kerbs are an endless problem and say, “Look, that group benefits from accessibility when we have shared space, and you must keep those issues in consideration as well”. I am delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, is here because I believe that all disability groups understand each other’s problems and the constraints that they have to live with. I want to see the whole disability community, whether that disability is around mobility, vision or hearing, come together to develop a common platform on this issue. That is the way to get past the constant obstacle put forward to re-examining and finding better ways to tackle this problem.
It is important to bring in the motoring community, which has been quite a strong proponent of shared space, and also the cycling community. Again, that is a potentially sympathetic community. However, so often when meeting cycling groups, they have not understood what it is like to be someone who depends on other people avoiding you as you try to cross a street, or to become disoriented because there is an absence of appropriate markers and to have to turn to other people and become dependent in order to move around. Engaging with the cycling community is absolutely key around this issue. That has not happened anything like enough.
Before I left government, the noble Lord, Lord Low, came to my office—I believe the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, was there as well. We agreed that the time had come to have what I would call a summit: essentially a gathering of all relevant parties—from the local authorities to the various voices from the disability community and the engineering, design and planning community—to start to really discuss these issues in great detail and come to a common platform and consensus.
It seems to me that something like that becomes the basis for guidance in the future, driven not just by a consultation by DfT which is then rewritten by DCLG. It offers a path forward—and not only on this issue: hopefully it also creates that ongoing dialogue. All the groups that we are talking about meet and cross each other in so many different environments. If we could get that common understanding, that communication and that exchange of ideas, we could craft a way forward. I hope very much that the Minister will be able to achieve it.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, on securing this debate and bringing this matter again to your Lordships’ attention. I say “again” because, as he observed, I introduced a QSD in remarkably similar terms about five and a half years ago, but to very little effect. The Minister, whom I knew to be a very sensible man, asked me in advance what I hoped to get out of the debate, but then went on to comprehensively shaft me in his wind-up speech. Sensible or not, he had simply swallowed his departmental brief whole. Afterwards, Lord Jenkin, who is also a very sensible man, said to me that he had learnt two things in life: one was to keep pegging away and the other was that it always pays to make a fuss. I intend to make a fuss.
The noble Lord, Lord Holmes, has done us all a signal service by putting his effort where his mouth is and carrying out some actual research on the matter, which he has written up into a report with the singularly apposite title Accidents by Design. This has been hailed by a member of the National Federation of the Blind in the following terms:
“This damning blitz on a pet concept for professional streetscapers to impose on the public realm has been shown up as unpopular with people, impractical for our high streets and even mis-reported on by the media … The eloquence and focus of the Holmes Report must read like a breath of fresh air, not only to blind and partially sighted people but, indeed, to a third of the public, whom the Report found actively avoid shared space”.
As we have heard, the idea behind shared space schemes is that, if you remove the traditional demarcators of separate space for pedestrians and motorists, such as kerbs, railings and controlled crossings and, as Ben Hamilton-Baillie, the arch-evangelist for shared space, has put it, fully integrate traffic into urban design so that pedestrians are expected to mingle interchangeably with cyclists, cars, buses and 10-tonne lorries, a “more ambiguous environment” will be created—you can say that again—which, being difficult to interpret and with the risk that pedestrians may be sharing the same space, encourages motorists to drive more cautiously and courteously.
That is not how it appeared to me when I went to see it in action outside Sloane Square tube station with the then chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Eye Health and Visual Impairment. All went well for a while, but—sadly, just after she left—a car came charging through the shared space area, obviously oblivious to the fact that it was a shared space, and went slap into another car, with a great deal of effing and blinding in consequence. Mr Hamilton-Baillie tells us that shared space has now become,
“an accepted approach to street design in many countries”,
and that the UK, having started very late, is now beginning to take the lead.
As we have heard, it is expected that priority in the shared space area is negotiated, primarily through eye contact. This obviously puts blind people at a severe disadvantage, but the lack of delineation can make the street more difficult to understand for people with learning difficulties, and the disabled are not the only people affected. A shared surface environment is likely to be much more frightening for elderly people. Small children are told to stop at the kerb’s edge and to look and listen before crossing the road. How can they do that if there is no kerb?
This whole idea is self-evidently barmy. We are indebted to the noble Lord for documenting this in detail. People’s experiences of shared space schemes are overwhelmingly negative: 63% of those who have used shared surface schemes rated their experience as poor, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, told us, more than one-third of people actively avoid them altogether. This pattern of response was reflected across most choices of travel, with 66% of drivers, 64% of pedestrians and nearly half of cyclists—48%—reporting their experience as poor. Yet overzealous councils continue risking public safety with fashionable simplified street design.
In January 2013, a partially sighted pensioner was killed in Coventry after being hit by a bus on a shared space scheme in an area that previously had a pedestrian-controlled crossing. The court ruled that the bus driver was not responsible for the death after hearing a statement that the shared surface was so confusing as to make an accident inevitable. Yet the noble Lord’s report tells us that there is significant underreporting of accidents in shared spaces areas.
People constantly referred to finding schemes frightening, intimidating and dangerous and to never feeling safe. People commented on poor visibility when trying to cross roads, often due to parked cars and to vehicles not stopping to allow them to cross. One respondent summed up the shared space they used as,
“lethally dangerous. In poor light or glare or shadow, drivers cannot see pedestrians. Disabled people and those with poor sight or mobility cannot protect themselves. The idea behind such spaces depends on every user being 100 per cent able and 100 per cent alert at all times, which just doesn't happen in real life. I consider this whole idea to be completely (and criminally) insane”.
One blind user unable to access a local shared space independently said that,
“for people with no sight like myself they are a death trap. I cannot express how terrible they are and how they make me feel so angry; to think all the people responsible for them expect us to use it when we cannot see. I use the one in Leek with my husband and never on my own”.
In promoting these schemes, local authorities are not meeting the public sector equality duty. Under the public sector equality duty, public bodies must have due regard to advancing equality through removing or minimising disadvantages suffered by people due to their protected characteristics, taking steps to meet the needs of people from protected groups where these are different from the needs of other people and encouraging people from protected groups to participate in public life or in other activities where their participation is disproportionately low. By authorising shared space schemes, local authorities are not removing or minimising disadvantages suffered by disabled people but are doing the exact opposite. By failing to install kerbs or adequate alternative tactile delineation and controlled crossings, they are not taking steps to meet the needs of people with sight loss, which are different from the needs of other people.
The noble Lord, Lord Holmes, calls for a moratorium until proper impact assessments have been carried out. Guide Dogs also calls for a moratorium pending the production of proper statutory guidance. I see the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, as a friend and commend her on the work she did while at the department, but I fear I remain a subscriber to the Armageddon scenario. We know enough about shared space schemes to know about the harm that they cause and the lack of evidence that they do any good. I spoke to someone the other day who told me he had been talking to a planner, who told him that the main value of shared space schemes was aesthetic. I do not think we need a moratorium; I think they should be banned.
My Lords, I must confess at the outset that I myself have not had a great deal of experience of shared space, but when I have encountered one on foot I have liked the general ambience, the absence of kerbs and the lack of nose-to-tail traffic. However, I can see that there is nothing to commend them to blind and vision-impaired people, or to many severely mobility-impaired people, unless there is no traffic at all. The noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, has rightly highlighted this problem as one that must be addressed urgently, and I congratulate him on securing this debate.
First, we must all ensure that we are talking about the same thing. I am grateful to Living Streets for providing me with a glossary of terms in its brief, explaining that shared space, shared surface and shared use are all a bit different. The noble Lord’s Question is about shared spaces—in other words:
“a street or public space where vehicle movement and other activities are combined through informal social protocols, negotiation and design solutions rather than through formal regulations and controls”.
I have read the guidance, which I think is in Local Transport Note 1/11, and was concerned to read the rather complacent sentence under “Visual impairment”. It said:
“If the context and objectives of a shared space scheme proposal indicates that a kerb-free design is desirable, mitigating measures may be required”.
Is that really good enough?
The conventional view is of course that a shared space is a welcoming and friendly environment that enhances everyone’s experience in using it, whether for shopping, sightseeing, meeting people or whatever, where pedestrians, cyclists and drivers all have to watch out for each other as no one group has priority over using the space. However, if just one important group of people—namely, blind and vision-impaired people—have an overwhelmingly negative experience, the shared space is not working and should be altered, not least because the local authority is failing in its public sector equality duty under the Equality Act 2010, which the noble Lord, Lord Low, has just mentioned. It is very important to mention that duty because it is being used less and less now as we move away from the Equality Act 2010.
All shared spaces are different, and it is the responsibility of the local authority to make it possible for society as a whole to use a shared space. One study done in Hereford, to which I will refer later, said that participants liked the principle of shared spaces more than the practice. As I said at the outset, as someone with mobility problems, I like the absence of kerbs because steep kerbs are impossible for me to navigate, and there are many roads where you have to go for a long distance to find a dropped kerb; they are not as prevalent as they should be in this country. For someone with a visual impairment, though, the lack of kerbs makes it equally impossible for them to get their bearings. Some of the reasoning by planners, such as the eye-contact rule, also highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Low, shows this up. When I asked Keith Hatter, the chair of Winchester Area Access for All, for his views as someone with a visual impairment, he said:
“The idea that ‘eye contact’ should be a means of interaction between motorists and pedestrians is an irresponsible one, not only for visually impaired people but also for those, such as wheelchair users, whose eye level may be different from that of most pedestrians”.
Mr Hatter is forthright about priorities, stating that he believes the ethos of a shared space must be that pedestrians have priority and that motorists should give way. He is surely right to say there should be a clearly marked route without traffic around the perimeter of any shared space so that vulnerable pedestrians and wheelchair users know they will be safe there. For this to be a reliable space, it must be kept free from restaurant tables and chairs, A-boards and so on. To some people this might seem to negate the whole idea of a shared space. However, this is the minimum requirement of a reasonable adjustment which society must make to stop anyone feeling excluded because of a disability.
The question of kerbs is a difficult one. Mr Hatter makes the point that the use of little kerbs is problematic because they are a real trip hazard. He advocates the installation of kerbs of at least 80 millimetres in depth with strategically placed dropped kerbs, because he says that a guide dog would then recognise it as a point at which to stop to await further instructions.
A few years ago an interesting study was done in Hereford, which I mentioned earlier, about a shared space in Widemarsh Street, which is open to traffic only at certain times of day. There is a blind college in Hereford, which I believe had insisted on the installation of little kerbs. However, the kerbs caused a lot of people to trip, and those who did the study concluded that a tactile edge was a much better compromise than a kerb. This brings me back to my main point, which is that for shared spaces to work successfully, they have to be thought through very carefully, with full consultation with as many users as possible, particularly with vulnerable users. Contrastingly coloured paving must surely be used, as well as tactile marking.
Bus routes should not be considered for proper shared spaces. In my limited experience, bus drivers will always think they take priority, whatever the original concept of all users being equal might be. Going back to the guidance, I was alarmed to read on page 46 the following sentence:
“There is anecdotal evidence of buses and taxis sometimes travelling at inappropriate speed in certain shared space streets. It might therefore be worthwhile contacting bus operators and local taxi companies to ensure their drivers are aware of what is required of them when passing through these areas”.
Again, I ask whether that vague suggestion is anywhere near good enough.
The Hammond and Musselwhite Hereford study ended thus:
“It can be concluded perhaps that context … is crucially important and that different areas require different urban form or infrastructure changes”.
Shared space, it said, is not a singular concept but,
“a term that encapsulates many different designs bespoke for the relevant context”.
I agree with the conclusion that each shared space plan must be bespoke, with everybody’s needs rigorously taken into account; and, most importantly, that there must be post-scheme monitoring. I add my voice to those of others who have asked the Minister what action the Government will now take.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, who has provided a lot of very practical ideas in this debate. However, I, too, am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, for initiating this debate, which is of interest to thousands of people, but especially blind and vision-impaired citizens up and down the country, and this is a great way to raise awareness. I pay tribute to the work he has done on shared spaces and to his excellent report, and I also pay tribute to the work of the noble Lord, Lord Low.
My own interest in this issue comes from my association with an excellent small charity in the Forest of Dean, Forest Sensory Services, of which I am patron. It provides invaluable support to people with audio or visual impairment, who too often are isolated and sometimes in despair when first diagnosed. One of our great supporters and users is Bill Waddell. He spoke to me of his concerns about shared spaces many months ago and introduced me to the brilliant campaigner, Sarah Gayton, who has done so much to raise awareness of the problems.
The noble Lord, Lord Holmes, has provided a real public service by taking the time to write an honest, tough report. It is eye-opening in so many ways, as he speaks, as he said, with the voice of those most affected. I wholeheartedly endorse the three recommendations, about which he has questioned the Minister this afternoon.
When so much concern has been expressed by such a wide range of our population—from blind people and cyclists to the chief executive officer of the Institute of Highway Engineers and the House of Commons Transport Committee—and when there are frequent, often serious, accidents, I simply do not understand why the Government have not introduced a moratorium on shared space schemes while impact assessments are conducted, let alone why they have not updated their guidance so that local authorities better understand their responsibilities under the Equality Act. The view of the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, on the reason for the delay in updating the guidance is indeed illuminating, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s views on that.
According to Guide Dogs, which I must thank for a very useful briefing, current estimates suggest that there are 2 million people with sight loss in the UK, of which around 360,000 are registered as blind or partially sighted. As noble Lords have said, it is essential that local authorities meet their obligations to them under the public sector equality duty. However, by authorising shared surface schemes, local authorities are doing the opposite and turning city centres into no-go areas. The noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, when Minister for Transport, wrote to all local authorities to remind them of the current guidance and duties under the Equality Act. She said:
“The Government expects highway authorities to work towards high-quality, attractive and inclusive streets that work for people of all abilities”.
Sadly, this has had absolutely no effect, so action is now needed.
In my own city of Gloucester, we had a shared spaced at Kimbrose Triangle. As with every other shared space, this was a nightmare for visually impaired people. I can say from experience that it was not comfortable for drivers and sighted pedestrians, let alone for mums and dads with small children, the elderly or people with other disabilities. Bill Waddell and others made representations to the councils and said that the shared space should be replaced by a puffin crossing, which I understand is best for blind people. However, in their wisdom, the authorities continue with a courtesy crossing, which not only is inappropriate and dangerous for visually impaired people, and a headache for cyclists, but has led to a congestion problem, about which drivers, including taxi drivers, are understandably concerned.
I realise that that is a parochial concern and I would not expect the Minister to comment on the specifics, but it is an example of local authorities’ unwillingness to listen and, I would add, to take seriously their responsibilities under the Equality Act—an Act that I am particularly attached to, as I took it through this House.
There is evidence throughout the country that shared spaces are not working; quite the contrary, they are dangerous and some have even called their proliferation,
“the largest systematic institutionalised discrimination against blind people the UK has ever seen”.
Therefore, does the Minister agree that there is an urgent need to assess the reality of what is happening in respect of these schemes so that there is a real evidence base? I noted in the noble Lord’s report that a DfT spokesperson said that it is for local authorities to assess the suitability of introducing a shared space scheme on their roads, and I fear that the Government may therefore refuse to take any action at a national level. But, as with so many issues, this devolution of responsibility simply is not good enough. This is a question of safety, and central government should make a national assessment.
This problem is not limited to the UK. As the noble Lord himself said, schemes are being developed in many European countries. One was introduced in the Netherlands but they have now also been introduced in Austria, Germany and other countries. They are having a terrible impact on the lives and mobility of blind people, as well as causing accidents, so I wonder whether we should be looking at this from a European perspective. Whatever one thinks about the principle of freedom of movement—and I strongly support it—the truth is that because of the growth of shared spaces, the freedom of blind people to move independently in this country and in other parts of the European Union is being impaired.
On the issue of Europe, can the Minister confirm that European funds are being used to build shared spaces in Coventry, Stoke, Blackpool and Wakefield? If they are, I am not sure that proper account has been taken of the European regulations, which state that accessibility for persons with disabilities must be taken into consideration when programmes are prepared and implemented.
I also take this opportunity to highlight an issue which I am sure leads to some headaches in the Department for Transport: the potential conflict between the pursuit of green transport policies and the needs of blind people. For example, the removal of traffic lights to ease congestion makes it difficult, at times impossible, for blind people to cross the road. If you put together the removal of standard crossings with the welcome growth of electric and hybrid cars, which are often very quiet, you create an immense problem for people who are visually impaired. One solution would be to ensure that all new cars are required to make a noise, and I wonder if that is now mandatory.
Thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, this has been an excellent debate and I trust that the Minister will now ensure that words are turned into action. This is important for all citizens, but especially for blind people. I remind him that 3 December is UN international day for persons with disabilities. The theme for 2015 is access and empowerment for people of all abilities, and one of the sub-themes is making cities inclusive and accessible to all. The Minister now has seven weeks to act so that blind and vision-impaired people can have a real celebration on that day.
My Lords, I, too, join all others in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, on securing this debate. I particularly want to pay tribute to him for his persistence in raising and highlighting this issue, and to that of the noble Lord, Lord Low, in previous years. I do not actually believe, speaking as a former councillor for 40 years, that most local authorities deliberately set out to make life difficult for people. It might often feel like that, but I do not think that that is actually the reality. The service that the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, has given to us has been to highlight the important issues that local authorities simply have not thought about as much as they should have—in particular, the attention that should be given to the public sector equality duty when considering traffic schemes. We do so in so many other ways, but so often, in my experience anyway, when looking at a traffic scheme it is not properly considered, or if it is, it is only in relation to those with mobility difficulties as distinct from sensory ones.
I wanted to contribute today with some local experience. The noble Lord, Lord Holmes, in introducing the debate, made a passing reference to Hackbridge. Hackbridge is in the London Borough of Sutton, where I was a councillor for 40 years until last year. It is very close to the London Borough of Merton, where the Minister was a councillor for a rather lesser period, but it may well be that he knows personally the area to which I am going to refer. My attention was first drawn to this debate by my former colleagues in Sutton; they had been informed about it at a very early stage by Sutton Vision, and in particular by its vice-chair, Michael Parsons, and by Tracey Collins, who also lives in Hackbridge, from whom my colleagues had received huge help in the area of Hackbridge.
The ambition is to make Hackbridge a sustainable suburb, probably the first in the UK, by the year 2020. Much work is being done with the local community towards this aim. As part of this, last year a scheme was completed, investing £1.4 million in the area to make it more accessible and more attractive. This scheme included the new road layout and the provision of a number of what are called “informal crossings”, particularly around a busy road junction and by a local primary school.
A subsequent independent user survey found that 83% of those surveyed believed that the scheme had improved their perception of the area; 80% said that it had made the area more attractive and appealing; and 68% said that it had enhanced their satisfaction with the local shopping area. Even the local shopkeepers were happy. There is no doubt that the area is now more visually attractive, but—and it is an important “but”—that is of no benefit to those who cannot see it. The provision of so many informal crossings, but no controlled crossings, on busy roads means that the visually impaired no longer feel safe crossing those roads.
Michael Parsons, to whom I referred earlier, who lives in the area and uses a guide dog, no longer feels able to use his local shopping centre, which he has used for many years, because he cannot cross the busy road. He and others like him cannot know whether all the vehicles coming from either direction have seen him and have stopped. He does not know for sure where the pavement ends and the highway begins, because there is no kerb. We have produced a visually attractive scheme which has had the effect of excluding a significant minority of the local community. This sums up the issues that we are debating today.
Needless to say, important lessons have been learned. Next month, Sutton Council will begin a wide public consultation on four options for tackling these issues. All the options have passed an independent safety audit, and all include a zebra crossing—in other words, a controlled crossing to replace the current informal crossing nearest the school—and provide other controlled crossings. The debate is primarily about where to locate such crossings. When this is all done and the work is carried out, I hope that Michael Parsons and others in his position will again feel safe crossing the road to use their local shopping centre.
I had not intended my contribution to be a debate about Hackbridge—I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, even for mentioning it—but I see it as a real example of the issues that we are debating today. Hackbridge had a scheme designed by experienced traffic engineers from the Greater London Authority and Sutton Council with a huge amount of local community involvement, all with the best of intentions, and it produced a high level of local satisfaction. But within a year, it has had to be redesigned simply because it did not pay enough attention to the needs of the visually impaired.
I have asked my Sutton colleagues what I should ask for in this debate. All of them, councillors and officers alike, said that the present guidance is woefully inadequate and sometimes contradictory, particularly in respect of the needs of visually impaired people. All of them said that there is an urgent need for the guidance to be reviewed and for new guidance to be produced. As is often the case, views differ on whether such guidance should be statutory—I would be interested in the Minister’s view on that—but in support of the need for it to be statutory I will repeat a comment made to me that, like economists, no two traffic engineers ever agree with each other. In my view, there is an added problem in that, unlike economists, every one of us, and certainly every driver, believes that we are an expert traffic engineer.
I learned from the excellent briefing from Guide Dogs that the previous Government committed to review and update their guidance by the end of 2012. That has still not happened. Are the present Government still committed to this review and, if so, by when? Or perhaps I could ask—a little cheekily—whether it was a commitment forced by the Liberal Democrat part of the coalition Government which has now been dropped by the new Conservative Government. I hope that that alone might prompt an answer from the Minister.
As has been said, the enthusiasm for shared space originates from the Netherlands, where it is quite widespread. I am not competent to talk about the success or otherwise of schemes there, but I again have some personal experience by association. My son lived and worked in Amsterdam for seven years where, as for so many others, a bicycle was his main mode of local transport—unlike the many years he spent living in the London Borough of Sutton. When he came back to the UK, he moved to Oxford, where he still lives. Oxford must be one of the British cities most used to cyclists, yet my son was astonished by the contrast between the attitudes of road users in Amsterdam and those in Oxford.
This is not a debate about cycling, but this contrast does illustrate why shared space may well work in the Netherlands, if it does, but not in the UK. It is not just about good design; it is just as much about road user culture and attitude. In the Netherlands, there is a much greater tolerance between different types of road user and a much better understanding and acceptance of their different needs and difficulties. Perhaps the Minister can say something about what the Government are doing to change attitudes and increase tolerance and understanding among British road users with regard to shared space, but until that is achieved, shared space will not work naturally, however attractive it may look to those who can see it. Regulation and good design, drawn from practical experience, will still be required. I very much endorse the call made by my noble friend Lady Kramer for a proper summit involving all interested parties before a consultation and before the revised guidance is produced.
Reference has also been made to the problem of silent vehicles. All of us will have experienced the problem of silent cyclists who regard the pavement or footpath as a shared space, often because they do not feel safe on the highway. That problem is now growing with the increase in the number of electric and hybrid vehicles that move silently up behind us all, so I hope that the Minister can also say whether the Government accept that as an issue that must be addressed in respect of shared space or more widely.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, for giving us this most interesting and important debate. We look forward to the Minister’s reply. I am quite sure that the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, will continue to persist as vigorously as he has done up to now.
As have other noble Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, for securing this debate and for his report on this issue which, as he said, was published three months ago shortly before the Recess. The noble Lord’s report is a much-needed reminder that what may seem an exciting and interesting development must be implemented with care and with the needs and requirements of all members of the community in mind.
Reference has already been made to the survey that the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, launched and its findings, with nearly two-thirds of the sample rating their experience of a shared space as poor, just under 20% as fair and 18% as good. Regarding those rating their experience as poor, this was in no way confined to those reporting a long-standing condition or disability, for whom the figure was 70%, since for those reporting no disability the figure was still 57%.
On the basis of my limited personal experience of shared spaces, I prefer using them as a pedestrian than as a motorist, but then, I do not have a disability. When using a shared space as a motorist, my concern is certainly not that I need to drive slowly, but that I may still be involved in a collision with a pedestrian due to factors referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, in his report and by other noble Lords in this debate.
The Department for Transport 2011 local transport note entitled Shared Space refers to the fact that the Equality Act 2010 introduced an equality duty that requires that,
“public bodies play their part in making society fairer by tackling discrimination and providing equality of opportunity for all”.
It goes on to say that:
“Authorities will need to consider how different people are likely to be affected by new scheme proposals and due regard should be given to the effect they might have on those protected by the Duty”.
We are talking not about a due regard that ought to be taken into account, but a due regard that is required to be taken into account. A clear failure to do so must ultimately leave any public sector bodies or authorities responsible potentially open to the prospect of some form of legal proceedings under the Equality Act 2010. It would be helpful if the Minister said whether the Government consider that a correct interpretation of the position and, if so, have any successful legal proceedings been taken on this point under the 2010 Act in relation to shared space schemes?
The Department for Transport document to which I referred states:
“Shared space is a design approach that seeks to change the way streets operate by reducing the dominance of motor vehicles, primarily through lower speeds and encouraging drivers to behave more accommodatingly towards pedestrians”.
What happens if there is a deficiency, and the issue of more accommodating behaviour is not then addressed? The document goes on to say:
“Improving pedestrian movement and comfort, as well as creating vibrant spaces, for example, are likely to be primary objectives, and a high level of sharing should only be considered an objective in its own right if it contributes to these higher-order ones”.
The document also stresses the importance of post-scheme monitoring to record user behaviour and to assess whether a scheme is operating as planned.
The extent to which post-scheme monitoring is actually taking place is not clear, and perhaps the Minister could tell us if the Government have any information on this point. In the light of what we have heard in this debate—and, indeed, in the report of the noble Lord, Lord Holmes—surely post-scheme monitoring, if it has been taking place objectively with all appropriate parties, must have thrown up some of the serious issues being discussed today.
The very helpful briefing pack for this debate prepared by the House of Lords Library includes a document from the National Federation of the Blind UK, dated January last year. Despite a Department for Transport document stating that, since shared surfaces can cause problems for some disabled people and that it was,
“important that shared surface schemes included an alternative means for visually-impaired people to navigate by … no DfT guidance is given on this matter, so in many Shared Spaces this instruction has not been implemented, resulting in people with little or no sight being frightened to use these areas”.
That was also the finding of the report of the noble Lord, Lord Holmes.
The document from the National Federation of the Blind UK sets out the general abilities and limitations of blind people and of trained guide dogs in order to provide assistance to planners and designers who are responsible for ensuring that streetscape layouts are fully inclusive and meet the requirements of the public sector equality duty. Can the Minister confirm the status of that document in the eyes of the DfT, since it indicates that it should be read in conjunction with DfT guidance documents?
The briefing we have had from the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association calls for the Government to issue clear, current statutory guidance for local authorities to use when developing streetscapes to ensure they are safe for people who are blind or partially sighted, and calls for a moratorium on local authorities commissioning shared surface schemes until up-to-date statutory guidance has been issued. I have no doubt that when he responds the Minister will say something about the Government’s response to the key recommendations in the report from the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, but could he also respond to the call from the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association for statutory guidance and for a moratorium until such up-to-date statutory guidance has been issued?
The noble Lord’s report also addressed the issue of accidents in shared spaces, the nature of some of those accidents, and the very low reporting of incidents to the police. Can the Minister provide us with any figures on the number of accidents in shared space schemes, the nature of those accidents, and whether the incidence is higher or lower, or much the same as in conventional streets? Likewise, will the Minister comment on the statement in the report about non-reporting of accidents or incidents in shared spaces, and whether the low level of reporting referred to in the noble Lord’s report differs from the level of reporting of accidents or incidents in conventional streets?
The report from the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, raises some very serious issues about the design of at least some existing shared space schemes, not just for their impact on and consequences for blind and vision-impaired people, but for people generally. Like other noble Lords, I await with interest the Minister’s response, in particular whether the Government agree with the basic findings of the report and, indeed, with the concerns on shared space schemes expressed by many noble Lords in the debate. If they do—and it is difficult to believe that either the report or the concerns expressed today can be that wide of the mark—what actions are the Government either considering or intending to take on shared space schemes to address the issues highlighted in the debate, particularly for blind and vision-impaired people? The DfT cannot issue guidance on shared spaces and then wash its hands of the matter when that guidance either results in some worrying consequences or is not being followed with appropriate rigour.
My Lords, first, let me say how grateful I am to all noble Lords who have spoken this afternoon and early evening, in particular to my noble friend Lord Holmes for tabling the debate. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the issues in more detail. Before I do so, I acknowledge the efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Low, who has been an avid and relentless campaigner on this important issue. I make it clear that the Government are committed to helping local authorities create more inclusive door-to-door journeys with accessible street environments, stations and transport interchanges, but, underlining the point made by several noble Lords, this is not to be done to the detriment of safety.
I speak with some experience; I have experienced shared spaces. It is something I have looked at before. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, talked of my time as a councillor. During that time I was also cabinet member for transport management and traffic management, among other things. One of the things I learned as a councillor in local government—it is not that different in central government; the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, talked about experiences as a Minister—is that one of the underlying principles when it came to traffic management was not just whether it looked or sounded good, but whether it made sense and was appropriate to the use of the local area and local residents.
The concept of shared spaces is also interesting. We have heard it defined clearly during the debate. Others might define shared space as my three year-old and my one year-old do—their mother and father’s bed at two in the morning. There are various challenges that we all face in different aspects of our life. Nevertheless, important points have been raised and I will seek to take forward many of the questions and answer them. If I am unable to, I shall write to noble Lords in this respect.
I think we all acknowledge that the Department for Transport and the UK in general have had a good record of addressing the travel needs of disabled people when we consider this concept globally. It is standard in the UK to provide accessibility features, such as tactile paving, dropped kerbs, and audible and tactile indicators at traffic lights, more so than in many other countries. I emphasise that shared space is just one option for local authorities to consider in designing streetscape and public realm schemes. It is a design approach that can help to create attractive places, as we have heard, that people want to spend time in without the dominance of motor traffic, a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tope. This is achieved through a range of measures, the aim of which is to encourage all types of road users to share the full width of a particular street. Shared space design is a spectrum, incorporating many design features. Courtesy crossings and level surfaces may feature, but they are not a requirement and, I emphasise and fully accept, are not suitable everywhere.
The Government’s position is set out in the guidance—Local Transport Note 1/11, published in 2011—which is backed up by extensive research, undertaken to inform its development. The Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, Guide Dogs, and the RNIB were all represented on the sounding board and the project board throughout the research. The DfT has also circulated more recent guidance produced by the NFBUK called Access for Blind People in Towns. In December 2013 this was sent to over 3,000 designers and practitioners in local authorities and consultants. It was also made available via the department’s website.
It is worth noting that shared space is not a new concept but has been used in residential areas for many years, such as Exeter High Street, which was redesigned as a shared space around 30 years ago. Many rural settlements and historic streets around the UK have always had the concept of a shared surface. However, all of these need to be considered in light of the safety of all users.
Local authorities are currently responsible for the design of streets in their care. But it is also good practice to monitor a scheme post implementation, to ensure that it is working as expected. We expect local authorities to monitor shared space schemes, as with any other design project, and to adjust the design if needed. Indeed, several noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Tope, talked about how schemes are reviewed after they have been implemented. This is not just the case—I emphasise—for shared spaces. Other traffic management measures are sometimes put in and then deemed inappropriate or inadequate for the original intent.
My noble friend Lord Holmes rightly referred to accident data. Although the department does collect accident statistics from local authorities, these do not detail whether a specific incident occurred at a courtesy crossing or in a shared space environment. I will return to that point in a moment.
Just briefly on the point of courtesy crossings, they really should do what it says on the tin. Courtesy crossings are supposed to be crossings where all people and all users extend courtesy. It is unfortunate that they are reliant on 100% adherence, and I fully accept that that is not the case.
Crossings are an important part of the street scene and are a means by which people can easily move around. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, talked about her experience in a wheelchair and I can assure noble Lords—coming back to my children—that having two pushchairs that have to be pulled round, over and above kerbs is not always the easiest. At the same time, that cannot be sacrificed for the safety and security of road crossings and I fully hear the points that noble Lords have made.
While accepting that courtesy crossings are an alternative to formal crossings such as zebra or puffin crossings, they do not, as several noble Lords pointed out, confer priority. They are sometimes used within a shared space but are not a requirement of shared space schemes per se. While this remains a matter for local authorities, the justification for courtesy crossings is that they lower traffic speed and reduce the dominance of motor traffic in shared spaces. However, I accept the well-made point by the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, that all users of such crossings need a dose of common sense. I also accept that they do not work everywhere and that their use needs to be carefully monitored and thought through. Formal crossings can still be provided within shared spaces, as can kerbs.
I am also aware that in some places where crossings have been removed, the local authority is now looking to reinstate them in some form. For example, in Kimbrose Triangle in Gloucester, I understand the council has now decided to put a zebra crossing in to address the local concerns that have been raised. From a DfT perspective, we strongly recommend that all crossings, formal or courtesy, are provided with tactile paving—the point which the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, raised—to ensure that those with visual impairments are helped to navigate them.
Of course, we all need to need to feel safe, but also to be safe. We understand how navigation can sometimes be a problem for visually impaired people in shared space streets. While our guidance does talk to this and stresses the importance of engaging with groups representing disabled people during the development of any shared space scheme, it also refers to the need for authorities to ensure that their designs are inclusive and reminds them of their duties under the Equality Act. This was a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, and the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, and I fully acknowledge the work done in this respect by my predecessor as Minister for Transport, the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, who indeed wrote to all local authorities in March this year to remind them of these duties. I sent up a Box note to ask what the response was. Noble Lords may not be surprised to learn that there was a nil return. That throws down the gauntlet and the challenge we face.
My noble friend Lord Holmes and the noble Lords, Lord Low and Lord Rosser, among others, asked about a moratorium and whether the Government will ask local authorities to refrain from implementing shared surface schemes until there is more evidence of the impacts. I assure noble Lords that we are not promoting or encouraging the use of shared space over any other design approach. Local authorities remain responsible for their roads and do not need to seek DfT approval for such schemes
It is also difficult to see how a ban on shared space could be achieved in practice, as there is no single design element we could point to that would allow us to say, “Do not install this”. We also acknowledge, as the noble Lord, Lord Tope, pointed out, that many residents find such schemes more attractive. The driver behind any such schemes should be improving the public realm environment. Somewhere with a great sense of place is important to most people in communities. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, talked about Hackbridge but also illustrated the other element—that this must be balanced with the safety of all concerned, including the visually impaired. That is an essential feature of any traffic scheme.
I will turn briefly to some of the questions. I have already alluded to post-scheme monitoring, which the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, raised, and I will come on to some of the steps we will be taking. I was asked about the status of the NFB documents. These have been circulated to local authorities and are available on our website. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, asked whether the DfT was still committed to revising the guidance on inclusive mobility. I will take this back. I am aware that work has been done but I will write to the noble Lord in this respect. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked for specific statistics on whether there were any legal cases pending relating to the equality scheme. Again, those are not readily available and I shall write to the noble Lord.
One of the things I have learned in my time as a Minister is to take note. But that also means looking at how we can move things forward. Noble Lords may be aware that the Government are currently working alongside the Chartered Institution of Highways & Transportation to produce guidance on shared streets to build on the department’s guidance in the local transport note. This guidance aims to use the practical experience gained from more recent schemes to build on the existing advice. It will identify good and bad practice and try to move away from the idea that shared space is somehow synonymous with a lack of definition between road and footway. I asked for a specific date in preparation for this debate and I understand that the CIHTs aims to complete this work by the summer of 2016. My own department is fully engaged in this work and is a key member of the project steering group. In addition, the National Federation of the Blind has been involved and attended a meeting on 30 September.
I understand that my noble friend Lord Holmes has been in contact with the CIHT and is due to meet it to discuss this work. I extend an invitation to all noble Lords concerned about this matter and I will be happy to facilitate a meeting with the CIHT to ensure that its report is well informed and that any other considerations we need to take into account are also fully considered. I also give the assurance that the conclusions from my noble friend’s report—the Holmes report, I shall call it—will be fully factored into the work currently being undertaken by the CIHT.
The Government fully understand why visually impaired people and others can find shared space schemes, especially those with shared surfaces, intimidating. We remain committed to working with all groups, and with those producing updated guidance, to ensure that schemes on the ground are attractive and accessible to all but also fully consider all safety considerations.
House adjourned at 7.04 pm.