How do we tackle speeding traffic and Marlborough villages cut in half by busy roads? This was the question for which over 80 local people wanted an answer at yesterday's seminar (Tuesday, March 13), Traffic Planning for Rural Villages at Kennet Valley Hall, Lockeridge.
Ben Hamilton-Baillie, renowned traffic consultant, looked at how parish councils might reduce speed, handle parking problems and better manage their traffic.
Anyone expecting suggestions of more road signage, more road markings and lots of unfriendly warnings to motorists were in for a surprise; quite the opposite.
Ben showed how removing the usual highway furniture and markings could not only enhance the appearance of a village, create more tourism and improve the viability of pubs but also see a reduction in speed and a more considerate motorist.
With the aid of some revealing real-life pictures and inventive use of Photoshop enhancements, Ben gave rise to excited murmurings by demonstrating how appealing to the subconscious mind could be a more powerful behaviour changer than marking a road with the word 'SLOW'.
He showed how one village had counteracted their large and obvious 30mph sign and command to 'slow' with the continuation of the central white line and a chevron bend warning. “You are telling motorists to drive slowly,” he said, “but then helping them to speed as quickly as possible through the village.”
The key in villages and towns was to give signals that drivers were entering a community, rather than the continuation of the highway. Standard highway signage and markings encourage drivers to feel the village road is their territory. Take this away, create a village space, and ownership is given back to the community and drivers become well behaved guests rather than unthinking road users.
Removing standardised signs forces drivers to think. This makes them drive more slowly and more carefully. Controversially he suggested that: “The only way to make a place safe is to make it dangerous.” In other words, to make it safer for pedestrians, you have to put more hazards in the way of drivers to make them engage their brains and consider the world around them.
Ben was also keen to highlight important features of the community: a paved area outside a pub, a road design that drew the eye to a village pond, a courtesy crossing outside a church. Traffic would still drive over these places but with more respect and awareness of their surroundings. Motorists are funnelled into the pub car park rather than past it, and admire the church rather than it being a building on the side of the road.
Pie in the sky? Ben had plenty of examples both locally and in Europe where this had worked a treat.
West Meon in Hampshire on a busy commuter route had seen traffic speeds fall by three to four miles an hour by removing white lines, changing the design of the road and highlighting village features.
Seven Dials in Convent Garden London, a busy junction of seven roads, saw the transformation of driver behaviour by the replacement of a traditional roundabout with a sundial pillar complete with seating. The junction has became a place where people sit and socialise, successfully encouraging motorists to drive slowly and more considerately.
Amazingly, the reduced speed and relaxed driving also meant traffic flowed more smoothly.
Ben cautioned that villages needed to take responsibility for their own 'design speed'. Increasingly, he said, county council highways will have neither the resources or the knowledge to effectively manage traffic through villages.
And the parish councillors present, unanimously agreed. There was broad and enthusiastic agreement to work with Ben to reclaim our villages back from the roads. Henry Oliver, director of the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, also voiced his support.
A host of good ideas for the future came from members of the public who attended last week’s open meeting of the Friends of the Railway Path held the Calley Memorial Hall, Chiseldon, reports chairman Dick Millard.
The aim of the meeting was to discuss how the path could be made better and more enjoyable for users. Some of those taking part were cyclists, some walkers and some were horse riders.
And all of them knew about and used the path.
Among the many suggestions made were calls to:
1. Provide better signing, particularly through Chiseldon, and in Marlborough.
2. Develop better access for a variety of users, especially at the Marlborough end of the path.
3. Identify parking areas for horse boxes.
4. Give better views of the surrounding countryside while preserving the habitat value of hedges and trees.
5. Make much more information available on the history of the path and the landscape which it traverses.
6. Create more things to look at and do on the way.
The committee of the Friends of the Railway Path will now start to develop a plan for what to do, and start to find suitable sources of funding.
Is there a housing crisis in Britain - or is it a planning policy crisis? With the number of new homes being built falling ever lower and the coalition government’s new planning policy still in its final planning stages, fears have been raised that there is about to be a free-for-all which will see great parts of the countryside covered with new homes.
The first round of consultation on Wiltshire’s ‘core strategy’ plan for the next fifteen years of development has now ended. It has raised some fury. The draft plan calls for 37,000 new homes across the county by 2026 – with 20,000 of them concentrated in north and west Wiltshire.
Vociferous protest movements in Devizes and Chippenham have been joined by the twenty-five organisations, including the Wiltshire branch of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, which have written a joint letter to the council.
Under the draft plan the Marlborough area is expected to take 4,500 new homes between 2006 and 2026 (of which 895 have already been completed.) All but 500 of those would be in the town itself. That means that from the end of 2010 until 2026 the town needs to have 3,215 new houses built – with 385 beyond the town boundary in the community area.
Area plans are one thing, national planning policy may allow something quite different. And the government is changing the planning system to insist on a presumption in favour of sustainable development – planning becomes solely a tool of economic growth.
On top of that the government has instructed local authorities to increase their building targets by twenty per cent. So when the Wiltshire plan comes back for final consultation in a few months’ time, the number of houses to be built in the Marlborough area may have gone up not down.
A very experienced local planning expert has become involved in the national debate over these policies. Graham Warren who lives near Marlborough, was a partner in the Swindon-based planning consultancy Chapman Warren which had offices around the country. He is now a freelance consultant.
Graham Warren wrote to The Times to calm anxieties that the government’s plans would lead to a development free-for-all. He believes that the localism legislation will give new power to local communities to decide how much development they do and don’t want in their area.
And he points out that the government’s new planning framework is a policy not a law, so existing planning laws still hold good.
There is no doubt that the planning system is creaking and needs reform. As Mr Warren pointed out to Marlborough News Online, the costs of obtaining planning permission can be excessive – up half a million pounds for a major development of 2,000 houses.
And council departments, already struggling with the load of planning applications, are now faced with staff cuts and the employment of cheaper, less qualified people.
Right now, Graham Warren says, there is inertia in the building industry, what he calls an ‘interregnum’ while the government’s new planning system squares up to localism: “The schism between localism and the planning system - whatever that’s going to be - is a huge unknown.”
As he put it in his letter to The Times: “The government wishes to see more houses built, but has set out with a localism agenda that will have precisely the opposite effect.”
One of the factors in the ‘unknown’ will be the government’s New Homes Bonus. This has been developed to reward councils that permit new building and to counter what was feared would be a major epidemic of nimby-ism brought on by the localism legislation. One LibDem MP has described the Bonus payments as "bribes".
In the unlovely language of government, this Bonus will be “unring-fenced”. So the money can be used by councils to make improvements to the infrastructure that new homes need or it can be used to re-decorate county hall.
Whatever happens nationally, how will Wiltshire council balance the government’s ‘wants’ with the legally backed localism agenda? On the evidence so far localism does not seem to be winning in Wiltshire.
It is widely known that the council’s Tory majority incurred the wrath of senior party spokesmen who, while they were preparing their localism policies in opposition, argued against Wiltshire becoming a unitary authority. The demise of the district councils was seen as a blow against the party's localism agenda.
More recently, the Council put costs and economies of scale ahead of localism when they disregarded the work of local charities and volunteers and awarded contracts to run all but three of the county’s thirty Sure Start centres to national rather than local organisations. Following that precedent, the New Homes Bonus will be a tempting financial incentive to bypass local opposition to housing developments.
So watch out for the council’s response both to the local protests at their draft plan and to the government’s planning policy.