Local government watchdog says council failed to properly justify decisions
Council eventually abandoned restrictions on Turnham Green Terrace
The Local Government Ombudsman has produced a highly critical ruling on the restrictions imposed by Hounslow Council on Turnham Green Terrace and Devonshire Road.
The independent watchdog was responding to a complaint by a resident that suitable grounds for the measures, which were implemented under Experimental Traffic Orders during lockdown, were not provided. The stated aim of the council was to enable social distancing and encourage a move away from the use of private motor cars.
The resident, a man in his seventies, claims to be a keen cyclist but said he was reliant on his car to get his shopping home and that the closures had merely pushed traffic onto neighbouring roads.
In a 13 page report, the Ombudsman Michael King, agreed with the complainant that the council had failed to provide adequate evidence saying, “First, while I recognise the Council provided some reasons, I note these were general in nature, saying the closures were considered beneficial to pedestrians and cyclists. I do not consider these statements alone adequately explain the decision to close the roads in question to through traffic. l expected to see some evidence to show that officers considered the potential impact of these proposals. But there is no record of what consideration the Council gave to various factors which may have been relevant to its decision.”
It was concluded that officers had not considered how much vehicular or bicycle traffic was using these routes and why cyclists would benefit from these short stretches of road closed to most other traffic given they did not form part of any integrated bicycle corridor. There was no explanation given by the council as to why it was necessary to restrict traffic on the roads when the decision had already been taken to widened the pavements. The officers were also criticised for not considering what would happen to traffic redirected by the closures.
The ruling states, ” This is especially surprising in the case of Turnham Green Terrace which is a classified ‘B’ road and acknowledged a ‘major road’ by the Council. One of the stated aims of the Council’s policy was to prevent residential roads being used as ‘rat runs’ – a term understood to refer to residential roads being used as an alternative to major roads. So, to divert traffic from a major road on to other residential roads would appear contradictory.”
The council had stated in early May 2020 that its Streetscape policy would not involve the closure of major roads but Mr King pointed out that just three weeks later they went against this stated aim by closing Turnham Green Terrace without explaining the change in policy.
The Ombudsman concludes on the lack of evidence provided by the council, “I would still have expected the Council to keep some record of its thinking. I consider the lack of record keeping to explain how the Council decided to close these roads to through traffic justifies a finding of fault.”
The ruling also criticises the council for its inadequate analysis of impact on other road users with no record being kept of how the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) was considered in respect of each road closure.
The Ombudsman states, “It is evident from the October 2020 paper to Cabinet that its consideration of the PSED was general and cursory. While we would not have expected it necessarily to carry out a full PSED assessment, there is no record to suggest that it considered the potential impact of the closures on groups other than those with disability but who might have other protected characteristics, particularly that of age. This is a section of the population less likely to cycle or walk significant distances.
“It is also a section of the population more likely to be reliant on public transport yet also reluctant to use public transport during the pandemic. Again, I would expect to find some record that officers considered this section of the population in its decision making. But none has been provided. That too justifies a finding of fault.”
Mr King did not uphold the complaint about the way in which the changes were consulted upon despite agreeing that the online feedback system was biased in favour of the changes. He noted that the government had made it clear to councils that they should act quickly and gave limited advice on how to consult with residents.
The council has accepted the findings of the report and to apologise to the complainant within 20 working says of the decision. In addition it has agree to consider what lessons can be learnt from the finding and review its decision making and record keeping during the pandemic. A report into this review is due to be published next month and will be considered by the council Cabinet.
Cllr Sam Hearn, spokesperson on traffic and transport for the Hounslow Group of Conservative Councillors commented, "The response of the Ombudsman has confirmed what many of us have known for some time: When they were engaged in placing restrictions on access to Turnham Green Terrace and Devonshire Road the behaviour of those acting on behalf of Hounslow Council fell well below the standard that residents should reasonably expect from their local authority. We believe that this reflects, a systemic failure by the council to properly understand its responsibilities and duties, and in addition a blind unquestioning adherence to a policy that has been overwhelmingly rejected by residents. The complainant is to be congratulated on his persistence in holding the council to account."
In a statement, the One Chiswick group, which has campaigned against many of the council’s traffic measures said, “The Ombudsman’s Decision provides independent evidence that Hounslow Council, and its officers, felt they had the power to do whatever they wished with traffic on Turnham Green Terrace and Devonshire Road. This was clearly misplaced.
“What is emerging is that without recourse to adequate technical reasoning, without adequate consideration of the requirements of PSED and contrary to its own stated policy about closing major roads, the Council was determined to introduce measures to support cycling and walking, without regard for the consequences for the majority of residents and traders in Chiswick.”
The Leader of Hounslow Council Steve Curran accused One Chiswick group of mispresenting the report and that the concerns the Ombudsman had were only with record-keeping and equalities assessment, and not the decision to close roads to through traffic. He said, "Some people need to start to grow up. While the national and international news concerns itself with the very real crisis in the global climate, and we see the very real impacts of climate crisis all around us, including the appalling flooding recently in London, for some to be still tilting at windmills in this way is becoming embarrassing.
"Hounslow Council is preparing to lead for London Councils as part of the UK Cities Climate Investment Commission at COP26 in Glasgow. We have a significant range of activities planned locally and regionally. We are being recognised nationally for our leadership on Green issues, and - on the very subject of LTNs - Councillor Khan, the lead Cabinet member, has been personally invited to Downing Street to be thanked by the Prime Minister and Transport Secretary for the work we have done here.
"The Streetspace programme is all but concluded, after one of the biggest listening exercises we have ever undertaken, with over 10,000 people involved. Streetspace has a significant part to play in securing an improved environment, reducing traffic and air pollution levels, increasing cycling and walking and supporting wider climate change objectives which we share with London’s Mayor, the UK Government and internationally. That this hardcore rump feels it has to misrepresent a report in this way makes them look as desperate as they are irrelevant to the fight to secure the planet's future.
"It's time for them grow up, move on and stop misrepresenting the facts."
The closure of Turnham Green Terrace has since been scrapped and the hours of restrictions on Devonshire Road have been significantly reduced.
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October 14, 2021