The trouble with the A23
If you were designing London for 21st century traffic you probably wouldn’t build the A23. It’s only 53 miles long but because it starts at Waterloo Bridge and finishes in Brighton it’s got five different owners. In the 17 miles from Waterloo Bridge to the M25 it snakes through Kennington, Brixton, Streatham, Norbury, Thornton Heath, Croydon, Purley and Coulsdon.
So it’s hemmed in by residential property but it’s also the main artery for the ‘out of town’ shopping along the Purley Way and it’s the route to and from Gatwick. When Christine and I moved from Brixton we inched along it from A to B and back to A again (more than once). There were several pinch points in that journey but one of the ones we didn’t have to deal with is just to our south at Fiveways.
Transport for London sent us a leaflet the other day telling us they’re planning to do something about Fiveways. I don’t blame them.
There are two proposals – one involves a new road on a new bridge over the railway line, and the other involves widening an existing bridge and an existing road. But both of them suggest that the answer to all of that north-south traffic is to reroute the west-east traffic at the junction between the A23 and the A232 on the opposite side of the railway to Fiveways.
It’s counter intuitive to me that easing west-east traffic will help north-south congestion but then I’m no expert in transport infrastructure so have to reach a decision based on the evidence available.
And that evidence points to one scenario where a bridge blights the houses on our street (and others). We’re probably far enough down the road that we would escape the worst of the impact but that’s not the case for our neighbours further up the road or on Duppas Hill Road for whom this is very bad news.
But much of that is guesswork – the information shared by TFL is so vague as to be entirely useless and means people can only make emotive, rather than informed, responses.
Happily TFL have hosted a series of public events so I went along in the hope of finding out some more.
Consult early, but only if you’re going to consult often
We’re all experienced in being invited to participate in consultation exercises where the ‘best’ course of action has been agreed and the only option for the public is binary: to accept, or to object. In this instance TFL are claiming that these proposals are being made public before they’re so far in any process that there is no turning back. That’s good but what became quite clear, quite quickly was that TFL are out of their comfort zone in sharing something so early.
Having spent the last couple of years working on GOV.UK I know we’re genuine in our commitment to continually making it better but I can completely understand that’s not what people expect – newly launched things are understood to be entirely polished solutions that are what they are and won’t change.
With a website we have the freedom to change things after they’re launched, massive infrastructure is very different: once a bridge is built or a road widened that’s going to be there for a long time. So TFL should be applauded for finding ways to test assumptions and alter their intended direction by seeing what the public think.
Unfortunately, no matter how well intentioned this early visibility of their thinking TFL can’t quite shake off the impression that they know more than they’re letting on. One of the reasons is the consultation timetable – we have six weeks to respond to the proposals and then in the autumn they will announce their decision in the form of the planning application. And at that point the only recourse will be to derail the planning process.
The idealist in me says that could happen but the cynic says that by the time TFL, the Mayor of London and Croydon Borough Council have got a scheme on the table at planning (which would benefit the Hammersfield development) there’s very little that residents would be able to achieve.
Make things open, it really does make things better
Nobody wants a derailed planning process – the cost to the public purse of aborted infrastructure projects is massive and the time sink and emotional drain for local residents is equally unpalatable.
And so it’s a huge shame that TFL have not provided the depth of information alongside this early consultation and it’s equally disappointing that they’re unwilling to be open about their thinking until the next round of consultation (at which point it will be something of a fait accompli).
I’ve been on the other side of consultations and I know it’s a challenge to get the level of detail right (and signed off) but I’m afraid TFL have ended up at the patronising end of simple. I’m not sure why they’ve done that.
Maybe it’s fear of sharing something that might eventually be wrong, or perhaps it is just the classic, well intentioned, office bound, assumptions about knowing what actual people want. Either way, the decisions have obviously been taken in isolation from local residents: talking to us and then producing the consultation materials would have helped go some way to making sure that obvious questions were answered and reduced the pain (for everyone) of this exercise.
Too many times someone from TFL threw up an excuse for not being able to provide the clarity that local residents deserve because it was an early consultation, or because there hadn’t been enough time or because there were still too many unknowns or because for TFL everything is secondary to the flow of traffic.
We are not stupid – if someone presents two options for major infrastructure works (irrespective of how preliminary they might be) we know it’s taken a lot of work to get to the stage they’re at. The level of detail provided to us falls far short of what TFL are using internally, and when six people spend several hours talking to the public and at no point make a note of anything anyone said, asked or suggested the whole thing looks entirely fake.
I am none the wiser as to whether or not the bridge is going to be in my back garden, or as to whether it’s really going to improve the Fiveways junction or even how TFL are going to make a decision on (some version of) the two proposals they’re putting forward. I want to make a considered response to these options and understand why they’re on the table.
Unfortunately the level of information provided by TFL is unacceptable and demonstrates little respect for local residents. And so I’m left with little alternative than to be an emotive NIMBY, not necessarily on my own behalf, but certainly for the people I met who live on our street and for whom the bridge will literally be in their back yard.
Bonus information, not available in the consultation materials
(of limited interest to the casual observer)
- TFL have been considering plans for the Purley Way/Croydon Road/Waddon Goods station junction since 2008 (but timeframes made it impossible to do more detailed consultation materials)
- there are six possible variations of proposal 1 and at least two possible options for proposal 2; that does suggest that they’re still trying to work out what they think and that the decision is not settled
- the artist’s impressions don’t necessarily match what TFL are considering – two people said contradictory things about where the bridge will actually sit in relation to some of the buildings shown in the pictures
- the bridge was claimed to be turning at the end of the Waddon train station platforms. This contradicts the artist’s impressions and doesn’t make sense when I look at the lie of Duppas Hill (which would suggest the bridge has to turn above the platforms)
- the current two lane road (Duppas Hill Road) will become the service road to Glen Gardens. The bridge will join its two lanes and two/four lane sliproads halfway up the hill (those 6/8 extra lanes of tarmac will claim a considerable chunk of Duppas Hill Park)
- it’s unclear how high the bridge will be but it will need to be 5.1 metres above the track and have 1.8 metres of barrier on top to prevent people jumping onto the railway line. This seems to put it at about the height of the existing streetlights on Stafford Road
- both schemes will cost the same (largely due to the cost implications of having to close the railway for an extended period) and take the same length of time. Whilst TFL staff know those figures they would not be drawn on the scale of the project
- there is significant impact on several commercial businesses with McDonalds/Pets at Home and 99p Stores possibly not featuring were the bridge to be built although there is apparently a large commercial liability in forcing them to close
- although one person said the conversations with the businesses were commercially sensitive and couldn’t be discussed, another said no two tier consultation process is in progress and all commercial businesses have the same access to information as the public
- the second proposal (for widening the road and the existing bridge) will heavily disrupt rail traffic to and from Epsom and Sutton and north, south, east and west road traffic too
- the second proposal could create a new bottleneck by widening Epsom Road to 4 lanes at one end and keeping two at the other. If it was 4 lanes at both ends then the Waddon Hotel could not stay in place
- TFL are not enthusiastic about building significant new infrastructure
- the traffic patterns are modelled solely on forecasts identifying increased traffic going into Croydon to shop at (the as-yet-unstarted) Westfield; this does nothing for existing traffic flows on the A23.
- Croydon Council had previously considered, and then abandoned, plans for a Park and Ride serving the centre. TFL do not do Park and Ride so it could be that this was abandoned on the basis that the council would not have been able to draw on TFL funding or infrastructure (it wouldn’t have been part of the Oyster network)
- TFL haven’t built a new bridge of this sort in a very long time so there is no comparable information about air/noise/light pollution
- lots of the electricity for Croydon is running through cabling under and around the railway (because there are no pylons) which would pose significant challenges to both proposals
- very few of the TFL people present at the consultation had enough knowledge about the proposals to answer the straightforward questions of the public and none of the TFL people made any notes. At all.
- Councillor Joy Prince was there and as I left saw her documenting some of the concerns expressed by residents.