HC Deb 11 February 1998 vol 306 cc336-43 12.59 pm
Mr. Fabian Hamilton (Leeds, North-East)

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I want you to imagine a long terraced street in Leeds built in the early part of the century, normally cobbled, but now covered in grassy turf. There are no cars, and children are playing in the street as if it were a park. That is exactly what the residents of a group of streets in Chapel Allerton in Leeds, known as the Methleys, did in the summer of 1996, just for a weekend.

The residents grassed over the street to make a point: that those streets are for people—for children, not for vehicles. The weekend was fun, but more than that, the residents worked together for a common purpose—to give their children a safe play area.

The Methleys were built in 1903 as housing for workers. I understand that the developers were subsidised by the then Conservative Government. They consist of solid terraced houses, like so many others throughout the country. Some of the houses have small gardens, but there are few green spaces. Once, the 300 or so houses held an homogenous group of people all of whom worked in the same place. Now they are home to a diverse group of about 650 people from many different backgrounds and cultures.

It all started in the early autumn of 1994. Rita King, who has lived in the Methleys all her life, wanted to start a play scheme in the nearby primary school, to get the children off the streets over the summer holiday. Having failed to get the play scheme going before the end of the holiday, she realised that something more was necessary, so she organised a public meeting.

The meeting was well advertised and unusually well attended, and the focus was on children. Steven Renee from Leeds Metropolitan university came to talk about what could be done locally, and the people there set up Methley Neighbourhood Action and applied for a Royal Institute of British Architects community fund grant for a feasibility study, which was carried out by a local architect, Edward Walker.

In August 1995, one of the gable-end walls was painted white and made into a cinema screen on which films were projected. That was one of the first "on the streets" events. The first film shown was Alan Parker's "The Commitments", which had an audience of more than 300 people, sitting on living room sofas brought out into the street, with the aid of, as The Times put it: four local girls who acted as usherettes complete with torches and name badges, handing out free popcorn"— a different sort of cinema indeed.

What brought the Methleys to national prominence was the brave decision to turf the entire length of Methley terrace for the weekend of 17 August 1996. Methley Neighbourhood Action hired a firm called Inturf. Its sister company had done the same thing in the Champs Elysées in Paris—slightly grander than the Methleys—but that was the first time that such a scheme had been carried out in this country.

The effect was to create a sort of village green, which allowed the local children to play safely outside on a clear summer day. The £1,500 cost of the turf was met by Leeds city council, Shell's "Better Britain" project and Transport 2000, and the grass was kept fresh by the children using watering cans as, thanks to Yorkshire Water, there was a hosepipe ban at the time. Most of the time the children just ended up watering each other.

The police, I am glad to say, were helpful, and I understand that the council highways department "looked the other way" from the temporary road closure. On 17 August 1996 The Guardian said: Methley Terrace (100 yards long, 10 degree slope, houses on the left, school on the right) was covered in green turf. It looked like a pathway to heaven".

Because few of the houses in the Methleys have gardens, the street is the only public space available. The aim of the weekend turfing was to show just how effective simple changes in street design can be. It was the idea of Adrian Sinclair, a theatre director and teacher who lives in the Methleys with his partner, Linda Strudwick, and their two small children.

Of course it could not last, although one resident who had lived in Methley Terrace for 38 years, and who had been rather dubious about the plan beforehand, said: I'd like this grass to be permanent. We thought this road plan would be impossible, a bit of a ridiculous thing to do, but they've proved us wrong. They've done a good job". By Monday, Methley terrace was back to normal and the turf was sold at 70p a square metre to residents lucky enough to have gardens.

In 1995, Methley Neighbourhood Action had carried out a survey of the residents to find out what their main concerns were. It revealed that four issues were uppermost in their minds: traffic, the environment—including dog mess—crime, and play for children. Since that survey, those four issues have been concentrated upon.

The nature of the neighbourhood has changed a little, of course, since the properties were built in 1903. There is now a much greater diversity of people living in those streets, including residents of Polish, Asian and Afro-Caribbean origin. The range of jobs—and the lack of them—is also far greater than in 1903, so one of the aims of the home zones idea is to bring local people together and to re-establish a sense of community and identity. That has been successful, and has been greatly helped by Transport 2000's "Streets for People" campaign.

Last December, the Children's Play Council held a meeting in the House of Commons, hosted by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton). At that meeting, 12 children and four adults from the Methleys told us about what they had done in that small group of city streets. They were so enthusiastic that my hon. Friend decided to introduce a ten-minute Bill, which she did on 27 January.

In her introductory speech, my hon. Friend told the House: A home zone is a street or group of streets where pedestrians and cyclists have priority and cars travel at a top speed of 10 mph. Drivers have to give way to pedestrians and cyclists and are normally responsible for any injury caused to them. The change in the status of the road is clearly indicated through signing, traffic calming measures and landscaping features such as seating, other street furniture and plants."—[Official Report, 27 January 1998; Vol. 305, c. 149.]

My hon. Friend went on to say that research conducted by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 1996 had found that estates with traffic calming measures and good space in the front street provided the best environment for children. Nearly one child in four engaged in all kinds of healthy activity in such areas—three times the level in poorly designed estates. My hon. Friend quoted the authors of the report as saying that streets in such estates should have a speed limit of 10 mph.

When children can play in their local streets within sight of their own homes, the activity is enriched in two ways. They enjoy the experience of open public territory with all the challenges offered by street life, similar to the communal play often described by their grandparents. They are also observed by friendly adults—not policed, not made part of the institutional framework provided by the school or youth group, but none the less sheltered by their own community.

It is especially opportune that I have the chance to raise the issue now, because the Children's Society has designated February as the country's first ever children's planning and environment month. The society feels that children need to be involved in planning issues if we are to make our cities, towns and villages safe for children and young people to thrive in.

For several years, the Children's Society has promoted the views of children and young people in planning. Apparently, the issues about which children often express concern include the danger of traffic; pollution; the need for safe places to play and for after-school meeting places free from alcohol and drugs; and poor street lighting.

Ian Sparks, chief executive of the Children's Society, has said that there is a perception that cities are in danger of becoming no-go areas for children. We want to reclaim our communities for children", he said—and that is exactly what Methley Neighbourhood Action is trying to achieve.

Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey)

Does my hon. Friend agree that, far from being traffic-management measures only, home zones have enormous potential? They will make more secure and stable those areas that face the problems that he describes, and they may also reduce the demand for, and drift to, the development of green-field and green-belt sites.

Mr. Hamilton

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Home zones are not about traffic management only. They have a whole range of social effects on the communities, as I hope I have begun to describe.

No home zones have yet been established in the United Kingdom, but what happened in the Methleys has shown us what is possible. That is a tribute to all those who have worked to organise the community, particularly Adrian Sinclair, Thalia Savva, Tim David, Linda Strudwick, Steve Hodson and Rita King, to name but a few.

There is nothing unique about the Methleys, which shatters the myth that there is no longer any such thing as a community. Methley Neighbourhood Action has brought together and given a common purpose to a culturally and socially mixed group of people.

What are plans does Methley Neighbourhood Action have? Edward Walker's report, published in November 1995, gives some ideas for plans for the millennium. He suggests that non-local traffic should be kept out of the area and emphasis put on the fact that the Methleys are a distinct and special housing neighbourhood. Moreover, he recommends that all entries to the area should be marked by gateway features, and that the character of the streets should be changed to ensure pedestrian priority over all vehicles in all the streets.

The residents of the Methleys now feel that they have the responsibility for keeping their own streets clean. They are not letting the council off the hook, of course, but they believe that things can be done jointly. For example, a community clear-up was held last Saturday, and when I visited the area last week it was far cleaner than most other parts of the city.

The Countryside Commission millennium green fund, together with Leeds city council, has agreed to finance a community garden, which will be constructed at the end of a road that will be closed. It will be a genuinely public area and project. Partly financed by the local authority, it will be created by the residents and is due for completion by the end of next year.

I conclude with the words of John Hodson, one of the Methley residents who came, with 12 children and four adults, to London in December. These are his views of that day in Westminster: I was excited about being able to go in front of MPs and talk about something that if they gave the power to the local council would be able to help lots of people with the problem of cars going too fast. The most memorable part of the whole trip was when we were actually in the Houses of Parliament, in the Jubilee Room, talking about Home Zones, why we should have them and what they would be to people who live in areas where there are too few places for children to play and too many cars travelling too fast. The worst part of the trip was when the camera crew"— from Yorkshire Television— kept us standing in the rain so they could film us meeting Fabian Hamilton … Overall the day went brilliantly and was a memorable day and a great experience".

1.13 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Glenda Jackson)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Hamilton) on reintroducing to the House the issue of home zones only two weeks after my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton) raised the subject through a ten-minute Bill—I am happy to see that she is here today. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generosity in allowing our hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) to contribute; in his comparatively short intervention, he detailed with clarity some of the benefits that are inherent to home zones.

The issue seems to be coming at us from every direction. The Children's Play Council recently published a brochure entitled "Home Zones", which featured the Methleys area of Leeds on its cover. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East said, the Children's Society attaches much importance to the concept; in declaring February a month dedicated to children and their play, it underlined the fact that—as everyone who is interested in the social and educational development of children has known for a long time—play in safety and with others is a great teaching tool.

One of the proposals for the creation of home zones is that pedestrians and cyclists should be given priority over vehicles. Pedestrians currently have statutory priority when crossing the road at zebra and light-controlled crossings. Rule 68 of the highway code requires drivers who are turning into side streets to give priority to those pedestrians who are already crossing. Elsewhere on the carriageway, however, all types of traffic have equal entitlement to pass and re-pass, so new legislation would be required.

Other proposals include 10 mph speed limits, traffic calming and changes to the appearance of the street. I would love to have been sitting on one of the sofas when the film was shown in the street that had temporarily been transformed into a cinema, although I regret that only popcorn, and no ice cream, was available.

It may help the House if I explain what is already available to local authorities to make the streets safer and more pleasant—for residents and their children, for walkers and for cyclists—and perhaps to restore that sense of community to which my hon. Friend so tellingly referred. The Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 contains powers for traffic authorities to make orders regulating, restricting or prohibiting the use of specified roads by traffic or by specified types of traffic. The grounds on which orders can be made include maintaining and enhancing local amenity, and preventing use of a road by traffic that is deemed unsuitable. Orders can be used, for example, to keep long or heavy vehicles out of purely residential areas.

One of the aims of establishing home zones is to create an environment in which children can play safely in their streets, as my hon. Friend said. I am old enough to remember a time when the street was the only place where we could play.

Section 29 of the 1984 Act contains a specific power providing that traffic authorities may make orders prohibiting or restricting the use of a road by traffic, or specific types of traffic, to enable the road to be used as a playground for children. Such orders are expected to make provision for reasonable access to premises on, or adjacent to, the road.

Those powers have been used by some local authorities, but the Act is explicit about the purposes for which such orders can be made. An authority that wanted to use the powers to provide more general benefits to the local community could be liable to challenge. Indeed, some residents might be uneasy about the prospect of their street being specifically designated as a children's play area.

My Department's guidance on the use of this order-making power advises that the roads that are chosen should neither be of value to through traffic nor lead directly into very busy roads. That guards against the danger of children—who can lose all sense of time and place when they are most engaged in play—running on to busy roads.

The advice is that, in deciding whether to designate a road as a playground, authorities should look critically at the availability of public open space in the vicinity that could provide a suitable alternative play site. It also suggests that it is preferable, where possible, to designate a group of streets rather than one street.

Section 31 of the 1984 Act provides for traffic authorities to make byelaws in respect of roads designated as playgrounds. These may make provision with respect to the admission of children to the road; to the safety of children in the road and their protection from injury by vehicles using the road for access purposes; and generally to the proper management of the road. Such byelaws are subject to confirmation by the Secretary of State. My Department has not issued advice on what such byelaws might contain. The guidance simply observes that, in practice, councils scarcely ever find it necessary to make them, and that applications for confirmation would be treated on their individual merits.

The requirement for very low speed limits presents other difficulties. We do not have traffic-calming measures that could reduce speeds to 10 mph. Research has led to the design of road humps and other features which, although relying on discomfort, do not crete unreasonable discomfort. To achieve greater reductions in speed would require extreme discomfort being employed. Complaints have been received—for example, from groups representing disabled people—about the discomfort experienced from the present humps. Using more severe ones would severely disadvantage people with disabilities. Our current research has not investigated the use of road humps or other traffic-calming measures to achieve very low speeds, so it would be necessary to carry out further research to ensure that such devices are safe to use on public roads.

We know from extensive international research that, as vehicle speeds reduce to 20 mph, the risk of fatal or serious injuries to pedestrians decreases significantly, but further speed reductions do not bring about corresponding safety benefits. Twenty mph zones have proved to be very effective in reducing speeds, accidents and accident casualties—particularly those involving pedestrians and cyclists.

Monitoring of vehicle speeds shows that drivers are less likely to adhere to low speed limits. Therefore, the making of 20 mph speed limits is dependent on the local authorities introducing traffic-calming measures, thus forcing traffic to slow down. A system was devised that involved local highway authorities making such a speed limit order if average speeds could be reduced to 20 mph or less using self-enforcing traffic-calming measures. That established the concept of 20 mph zones. To date, over 300 have been put in place. They require the consent of the Secretary of State.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport has announced plans to make it easier for local authorities to create such zones. It is the intention to simplify the procedure, enabling local authorities to make greater use of such schemes in residential and other urban areas. The exact changes to the procedures are being developed and are expected to be in place later this year.

There is a need to make progress, and we support the broader objectives of home zones. There is much experience of 20 mph zones and traffic-calming measures generally. Those measures, in conjunction with existing legislation, can be used to establish safer and quieter streets in residential areas. It is clear that inappropriate speed is one of the main causes of accidents. The Department's "Kill Your Speed" publicity campaign emphasises the dangers. Traffic calming has proved remarkably successful in reducing pedestrian casualties; 20 mph zones can reduce child pedestrian casualties by 70 per cent.

Much can be done to change the road layout to help limit vehicle speeds and to improve the appearance of a calmed street so that it no longer looks like a traffic route. The road humps and chicanes—which are effective in reducing speeds—can be used in conjunction with other features to change the characteristic appearance of the highway. The relative widths of the carriageway and footway can be varied, and this may be helpful in establishing a gateway to low-speed areas. Appropriate signing, street furniture—possibly including sofas—and a carriageway surface that is better adapted to walking and cycling could feature and reinforce the message to drivers that they are entering a lower-speed, residential area.

My Department will be pleased to work with local authorities wishing to establish such low-speed zones on a trial basis. Trials would help determine how far 20 mph zones, traffic calming and the other measures would go towards achieving the home zone aims and how to reconcile potential conflicts between play areas and the residential environment. Home zones as they are deployed in other countries would require some fundamental changes in our legislation, but we should in any event first look at exploiting existing powers to the full.

The Government are committed to changing the current perceptions and attitudes towards transport and the environment, and towards car use in particular. Measures to realise better conditions for walking and cycling, to reduce pollution and to reduce the dominance of the motor car all relate closely to the home zones objectives. Surely our prime considerations should be our children, their safety and their ability to play in safety.