By Grainne Cuffe, Local Democracy Reporter
A leading environmental campaigner whose daughter’s death may have been linked to air pollution said the surge in traffic by her home following traffic calming projects is “like a slap in the face”.
Rosamund Kissi-Debrah’s daughter Ella died in 2013 when she was just nine years old after suffering three years of seizures from severe asthma attacks as they lived yards from the South Circular Road in Forest Hill.
The mum-of-three successfully campaigned for a new inquest into her death – the High Court granted one last year after new evidence came to light. It is due to be held later this year.
The Lee Green LTN (low traffic neighbourhood), which was implemented at the end of June, aims to reduce rat-running, improve air quality, and encourage greener modes of transport.
It was already planned under Lewisham Council’s healthy neighbourhood programme, but is now covered by emergency transport measures in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The scheme involves 13 modal filters, physical and camera-enforced barriers that cut off roads to through-traffic.
Since the Lee Green scheme was put in , surrounding areas have experienced a surge in traffic and are concerned about an increase, rather than decrease, in air pollution.
The idea is that the displaced traffic will eventually dissipate as drivers get frustrated with longer waits, and more swap cars for cycling and walk.
But some argue that it doesn’t work like that – and that people will continue to drive because of their circumstances.
The changes have had many different reactions, positive and negative, while the majority of people are supportive of improving air quality and creating safer streets.
Some residents outside the LTN have seen a significant increase in traffic in their streets since June, and whether it will decrease remains to be seen – the scheme has not been fully rolled out, with cameras yet to be installed.
Ms Kissi-Debrah, who lives in Hither Green, an area experiencing a spike in traffic, said the scheme is “insane” and an example of “environmental racism”.
She added: “I find it unacceptable to push traffic from the other side of Hither Green to add to the traffic on the South Circular.
“The South Circular is never going to move so people on this side are always going to have the traffic from [it].
“Hither Green Lane (HGL) has now turned into a replica of the South Circular, and that’s putting it mildly.
“Whatever they have to do to stop Hither Green Lane being gridlocked, they have to do it.”
Residents in HGL have been reporting heavy traffic as early as 1.30pm that continues into the evening.
She added: “What I’m most annoyed about is councillors’ patronising responses, as if people on this side are stupid. For example ‘you need to give it time’. I need to give it time?
“Not only did they not consult us when they closed off roads – where did they think the traffic was going to go?”
Ms Kissi-Debrah said it was “unforgivable” to make the changes during a pandemic.
She said: “The numbers from the BAME community on this side are more than on the other side. The other side is more affluent.
“It’s environmental racism.
“I don’t blame people for wanting quieter roads, but they need to understand that they do not have the South Circular in the midst of their neighbourhood.
“People live on these main roads, and it’s the poorer people who live on them.
“Gloating that your children can now go out and play or cycle does not help things.
“Does that mean my children do not deserve to do that? These are questions people need to ask themselves.
“It is as if now that the traffic is not in their neighbourhood, they are not concerned where the traffic was.
“Because when I campaign, I don’t just campaign for my children, I campaign for all children. But some are more equal than others it appears.”
The hope for reducing the traffic build-up is that drivers will get frustrated and choose another route.
But she fears it will not have eased by the time school starts up again.
“By September this will be a disaster zone,” she added. “I see this as a slap in the face from the local council after all my hard work of campaigning over the last six years.
“I am always going to see this as a matter of life and death.
“I also wouldn’t be happier if they pushed traffic from the South Circular elsewhere because it’s other people’s children who that will affect […] their children mean as much to them as mine mean to me.
“We’re not against low traffic neighbourhoods, what we’re against is areas where the traffic isn’t as bad pushing their traffic onto this side.”
If Ella was still alive, she would soon be opening her GCSE results.
Her mum said: “The timing, you couldn’t even make this up, [along with] the response from those that implemented it and are now trying to defend it.
“You have to think about Ultra-Low Emission Zones (ULEZ) to reduce the traffic – I don’t see all the car schemes that have been put in place.
“You can’t just block off roads and give no other alternatives.”
Cllr Sophie McGeevor, cabinet member for environment and transport, said that a car-based recovery in the wake of the pandemic “would be a disaster”.
She added: “I have huge respect for Rosamund as an air quality campaigner, and her feelings and opinions are highly valued by myself and the council as an organisation.
“We share the same aims, to reduce traffic and improve air quality.
“Everyone has been clear that a car-based recovery to Covid-19 in London would be a disaster, leading to increased congestion and declining air quality.
“With 60 per cent of all car journeys being less than 2.5 miles in London there is a huge opportunity to reduce the number of car journeys on all of our roads.
“The measures we have put in place during COVID-19 are there to support people who want to or have no other option to walk or cycle, and are intended to support traffic reduction on all roads including in Hither Green.
“Air quality has significantly improved in Lewisham and on the south circular in recent years and we expect it to improve even further when the Ultra-Low Emission Zone is extended.
“We are monitoring this area for changes in air quality and we do expect with a reduction in overall traffic that there will be further improvements in air quality for all.”
The scheme’s supporters have urged residents to give it more time.
There are 13 modal filters that cut off roads to through-traffic, to create more space for cycling and walking.
Affected residents are reporting daily gridlocked streets and are concerned about increased air pollution, while others worry they will have to give up their jobs as a result of the longer journey times.
Others are concerned about local businesses being affected by either an increase or decrease in traffic.
The issue was raised at the latest overview and scrutiny business panel meeting, during which Lewisham Central ward Councillor Patrick Codd urged council bosses to “listen to residents”, many of whom are having different experiences of the measures.
The local democracy service spoke to supporters, who said that LTNs are a necessary part of a broader package of measures to tackle air pollution and want to reiterate that the schemes are still being rolled out.
Matthew Sparkes, 38, lives just below the LTN in Grove Park, and is a trustee of the London Cycling Campaign.
He stressed that the scheme is in its “really early days”, and people must be “patient” to see the benefits unfold.
“The paint is barely dry, but already you can see that there are safer ways to cycle from where I live through and on to central London – it’s absolutely great.
“[The area] has always been busy; there are thin, residential streets but now they’ve put these filters in you can plan a route on virtually empty roads. It makes it so much more viable as a way to get around.
“We all know that air pollution is a massive problem, it’s the root cause of an awful lot of illnesses and we all have to breathe this in all day, at work, at home.
“Something needs to be done, electric cars are part of the solution but they are not the whole solution by any means, so we need to get lots more people out of cars and walking and cycling,” Mr Sparkes said.
By 2041, Lewisham Council wants 80 per cent of all journeys in the borough to be made sustainably, such as via walking, cycling and public transport.
“So it needs to start doing this now,” he added. “It’s understandable if they think that, but at the moment there are so many variables going on – we’ve just come out of an unprecedented lockdown and lots of people are nervous about getting on public transport.
“It’s very hard to know what is causing changes to traffic at the moment, so we need to give it time.”
The schemes are not fully in place yet, closures involving camera enforcement yet to be set up.
“Until this is all finished, we can’t really gauge the success of the scheme.
“Lewisham Council said they’ll roll this project out all the way across the borough over time, and they have to start somewhere.
“There’s a long way to go before we live in some sort of Dutch utopia, but there’s no reason that we can’t get there. People have to be patient and pragmatic,” Mr Sparkes said.
Michael Diamond, 62, from Lewisham Pedestrians, was one of the original people pushing for an LTN in Lee Green.
A Cambridge Drive resident, he and another local started doing traffic surveys in April 2017 in response to increasing cut-through traffic.
From there they set up LiveLee, a group campaigning for three goals.
“LiveLee was created for three purposes, only in the streets east of Burnt Ash Road, and that is to get rid of commuter parking which we are plagued by, to reduce road traffic, and to improve air quality,” Mr Diamond said, adding “you can only affect change where you are”.
“Most importantly we wanted to create a database of everyone in the street. People had to answer questions about the street they lived in, to check the voracity of the data.
“That worked well, and we got a comprehensive database of actual people who support the scheme locally,” he said.
The group submitted two petitions, while Mr Diamond spoke at a Greenwich full council meeting.
The London Assembly Member for Greenwich and Lewisham, Len Duvall, stepped in to help and Lewisham Council’s Third Local Implementation Plan (LIP3) bid last year included a healthy neighbourhood programme across the borough.
Mr Diamond said: “We were selected [first] because we were the area that was most supportive of an LTN because we’ve been doing this stuff for years.
“We have a superb LTN now. Our streets are beautiful. It’s amazing, you can just walk around the streets and people are more likely to say hello to you.
“We went from 700 vehicles an hour in the peak period going one direction along Upwood Road, and that is now gone down to about eight or nine.”
Mr Diamond said he was sympathetic to those in neighbouring areas experiencing a surge in traffic, and said it would be preferable if the LTNs were rolled out next to each other.
“I’ve had meetings as part of Lewisham Pedestrians – I understand entirely the knock-on effects of the scheme across the Lewisham and Lee Green healthy neighbourhood.
“But once the scheme is fully in place, then there will be a virtual LTN in all of the roads to the west of the railway line up to Hither Green Lane – they’re going to be quiet roads.
“There’ll be no reason for any car to enter those roads because they don’t go anywhere.
“There is still an outside chance that people will drop down into the roads closer to the railway line from Hither Green Lane simply to rejoin Hither Green Lane further on if they are travelling from west to east.
“There is a chance but that seems very unlikely,” he said.
Mr Diamond said the idea to put traffic filters in Hither Green Lane was “fantastic”.
“I completely an utterly support it […] it would completely turn that massive area into such a quiet place.
“When they started the healthy neighbourhoods, what they should have done was roll out the schemes one after the other next to each other.
“But by doing places all over the borough, it’s creating conflicts between nearby residents unnecessarily, people who live in streets next to one another.
“If they let the schemes roll out next to each other, [Lewisham] could be a model borough. Not just in London, the whole world would come to see it,” Mr Diamond said.
He added that the delay in installing the camera-controlled filters needed to addressed quickly.
“We know that there are people who are disadvantaged by LTNs, but it’s about the greater good and how much better it is for everybody,” Mr Diamond said.
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