‘People-friendly streets’: Ambulance chiefs voice safety concerns over Islington Council blocking roads with bollards

London Ambulance Service chiefs have expressed concerns about Islington Council's people friendy str

London Ambulance Service chiefs have expressed concerns about Islington Council's people friendy streets scheme. Picture: Steve Parsons/ PA - Credit: PA

Despite a potential safety risk, Islington Council has rejected calls from Ambulance chiefs to enforce its “people-friendly streets” road closures entirely with cameras, instead of bollards, “because of the cost”.

Protesters against Islington Council's "people friendly streets" scheme block the junction at Angel.

Protesters against Islington Council's "people friendly streets" scheme block the junction at Angel. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

Bosses at the London Ambulance Service (LAS) NHS Trust have said the scheme is “OK and manageable”, but they would “never be able to fully support” schemes with bollard closures because they don’t carry keys, and “any delay can be detrimental to patient safety”.

The bollards that have been fitted to block off streets to public traffic in St Peter’s and Canonbury East must be unlocked using a key to allow emergency service vehicles to pass through, and keys are only held by the LFB, meaning ambulance and police services are forced to take diversions.

In response to the LAS, Keith Townsend, the council’s corporate director of environment and regeneration, outlined how a camera-enforced filter is “roughly 150 times more expensive than a filter with bollards”, and how installing a camera at every traffic filter would “therefore constrain our ambition to install low traffic neighbourhoods across the borough”.

The council introduced “people friendly streets” schemes to St Peters on July 6 and Canonbury East on July 27 to discourage car use and prevent rat running through traffic filter measures like bollards, banned turns and enforcement cameras.

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It plans to roll out the concept to Amwell Street, Canonbury West, Clerkenwell and Highbury over the next few months.

Hundreds of people turned out for two protests in Upper Street this month against the plans, complaining traffic has got worse, about the lack of consultation and expressing concerns emergency service vehicles could be impeded.

Last month council leader Richard Watts claimed “emergency services have all been consulted and are on board”.

Yet emails obtained from the council by the Gazette now reveal that both the London Ambulance Service and London Fire Brigade (LFB) still have concerns over the potential for increased response times, six weeks after the first scheme was introduced.

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At a zoom meeting just last week a LAS official pointed out to council staff that: “The chief coroner doesn’t look favourably on any delays from traffic management, and physical closures would cause delay, therefore cannot be supported.”

The LAS NHS Trust has said they would “always push for all entry points to be camera enforced, until a resolution for locked bollards, gates or barriers is reached on a pan-London level”. “I appreciate it is difficult to manage these schemes but patient safety is our ultimate concern and traffic management schemes cannot be at the detriment to the population living in these areas that need a timely ambulance response,” said a spokesperson consulted on their view ahead of the scheme being launched.

In response, a council official, whose name has been removed from the disclosed document, insisted that “camera enforcement at every location is not something that would be feasible due to the associated cost implications”.

“This is the only reason why we have had to include the use of removable bollards at some of the locations to ensure the wider scheme is workable,” they said.

“Again, unfortunately it wouldn’t be possible to leave bollard closures unlocked as it would present a number of new rat-running issues in the residential areas,” they added.

Similar sentiment has been echoed by LFB, which told the council they are “concerned that some changes to road layouts may impede our operational response”.

Even though they have the keys, each bollard can add up to a two minute delay to their response – a third of the LFB’s six minute target attendance time for the first vehicle to arrive at each incident.

To mitigate, the council notified Satnav operators like Google, Waze and Tom Tom of the changes before the “go-live” dates, so they could update their platforms.

But the LFB does not use sat navs, relying instead on their own knowledge of the roads, and new routes have to be memorised.

Although any route changes are communicated to staff in Islington, sometimes drivers from other boroughs are drafted in and may be unaware of them.

LFB’s station commander from Upper Street told the council: “It is crucial for us to be able to maintain our arrival times as every minute delayed by a traffic restriction is a minute lost dealing with an emergency.

“On an incident recently a fire appliance from Hackney which was attending an incident in Islington was delayed by about four minutes trying to remove a physical barrier (two removable bollards) which is not acceptable.”

The council has however been responsive to many of the concerns flagged by emergency services and has removed bollards at Wharf Road - which is part of a commonly used route for teams in Islington and Shoreditch to cross into the St Peters area.

This was previously the LFB’s “biggest concern” about road closures within the scheme.

Bollards at Danbury Street were also flagged up as a potential problem, as it is used to access Graham Street. Following further discussion a decision was made to retain them for the moment however, and a “short diversion route will add around one minute to attendance times” according to the council.

The council has also changed “no entry” signs on many roads to “no motor vehicle” signs at the request of the Met, allowing emergency vehicles to legally access the roads.

In an email to the council on June 26 the Met made it clear that they “have no objections to the scheme at this stage” since they believed there to be “adequate access [to roads] for the emergency services”.

Corporate director, Mr Townsend, has outlined how public health benefits, like an increase in road safety and a reduction of air and noise pollution are “more pronounced if there are physical filters rather than only camera enforced filters”.

“Physical measures are preferred because they have close to 100 per cent compliance, which we do not see at camera enforced closure points, as some cars will still drive through the filters even though it is only for emergency vehicle and sometimes bus access,” he said.

“A physical closure is also more visibly legible to drivers, cyclists and pedestrians meaning that people walking and cycling are more protected from traffic and feel safer.”

Cllr Rowena Champion, Islington Council’s executive member for environment and transport, said People-friendly streets will help to create a “safer, greener, healthier borough that local people have long been calling for”.

She said: “The safety of our residents is an absolute priority, which is why we have been working closely with the emergency services before the implementation of each People-Friendly Streets scheme to ensure that they can access every street in the borough, and to make sure crews are aware of the changes.

“Our camera-enforced traffic filters retain quick and easy access for emergency services, and we have demonstrated our commitment to making changes if they are necessary following implementation through rapid action at Wharf Road in response to emergency service feedback.

“The council has a good working relationship with the emergency services, and we continue to communicate with them after schemes have been implemented to monitor the impact of the changes. We listen carefully to the feedback that we receive from emergency services, and, where necessary, make changes based on what they tell us.”

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