Last Sunday, Streets for People Levenshulme and Burnage was proud to hold its first public meeting. It is now over two months since plans to trial a Low Traffic Neighbourhood (LTN) were paused and there has been no formal public engagement from the council in that time, leaving parents in the dark about urgently needed School Streets, and £2.5m in funding potentially at risk. In the absence of leadership from local councillors we decided to start the conversation with an online public meeting, a recording of which is available to view.
Despite sending out invites to all six councillors from both Levenshulme and Burnage wards, no councillors attended. Angeliki Stogia (Executive Member for Environment, Planning and Transport) was also unable to attend. At the request of Cllr Ben Clay, S4PLB has made an online poll available to ensure there is council representation at future meetings, but so far only two Levenshulme councillors have indicated their availability.
In the meeting, S4PLB members provided information about the delayed trials and explained to residents their concerns about the lack of communication from councillors. A panel of speakers presented information about school streets, walking buses, and overcoming barriers for women in cycling. The family-friendly meeting had over 60 attendees, which included concerned parents and other concerned members of the community. All were given the opportunity to put questions to the speakers.
Our first speaker Joe represented S4PLB, and explained how our volunteer group came together after the planned LTN trial was paused because we recognise the urgent need to make our neighbourhood more welcoming and safe for people to travel on foot, by bike, or by wheelchair. A high volume of cars, inadequate crossings, pavement congestion and rat running all cause difficulty for those who wish to travel by active transport. Crucially, this includes the significant number of households who have no access to a car. We believe that most people in our community want to see improvements in this area, and over 500 people have now signed our open letter to the councillors to support this view.
Next to speak was Helen from Levy Clean Air, whose pollution monitoring work showed that almost the entirety of Levenshulme is plagued by very high levels of air pollution, frequently exceeding the legal limit. Helen highlighted that pollution could be reduced by shifting some of the many short journeys currently undertaken by motor vehicles to active travel methods, particularly for the school run in Levenshulme since the schools have small catchment areas. The group have led a variety of campaigns, more recently on school streets, which would provide local children with improved air quality and safety from heavy traffic around the school. Commenting on the current situation outside school entrances, Helen said “It’s generally quite an unsafe environment and this is exacerbated now by Covid-19 and the need for social distancing.”
Our third speaker Giselle, a local resident and parent, introduced us to her work on walking busses where children walk to school in a big group with adult ‘bus drivers’. Even in absence of a council-run formal bus, informal walking busses can share the responsibility of doing the school run between a group of parents, saving them time where they may otherwise be forced to drive. Also discussed was the potential for a “park and stride” whereby parents travelling from further afield can park in a safe place and continue their journey to school on foot. Giselle highlighted that 42% of school journeys are done in a car or van in the UK so working on these ideas could significantly reduce air pollution and congestion, while providing children with more exercise and a chance to socialise.
The final speaker was Vieve from Joyriders, an organisation based in Waltham Forest that aims to empower women through cycling. They run informal rides of varying lengths for women from a broad range of backgrounds. Joyriders have found that many women are interested in cycling but don’t think it is for them – although Vieve herself is a cycling instructor, she said that many women see a lack of road safety as a major barrier, with the Waltham Forest LTN proving beneficial to their outreach work.
Following the speakers there was an open discussion, which featured a wide range of viewpoints from across the community. Attendees of the meeting represented both supporters and objectors to the trials, along with many residents who wanted to find out more about the scheme but have been unable to since Manchester City Council (MCC) took back control of £2.5 million of funding from the original Levenshulme Bee Network group.
Harriet, a mother of a visually impaired child, asked to speak for children in the area who don’t have a voice in the meeting “I think we’ve come to a place, especially in Levenshulme, where cars rule. I see very reasonable people making lazy choices like dropping off children at crossings and mounting pavements to park the car.”
Susan, also a Levenshulme parent, was concerned about a lack of voice for people on the boundary roads like herself “We see children nearly run over everyday. We suffer fumes, so we have a relevant voice and a right to raise it.”
Dianna, a resident from the West Point area covered by the plans, felt that many people supported the trials in some form but was concerned where the funding had gone, “My question is, who has got the money? As I understand it the money was given to a local voluntary group of local people.”
Under the original Bee Network plan, six primary schools were set to start School Streets trials in September. MCC took back control of the project in July and now over four weeks into the new school year, parents and children are still waiting for news of when the trials will start. While School Streets trials have been implemented in cities across the country and also at St Paul’s C of E Primary in Withington, parents from Levenshulme and Burnage schools face a congested school run as shown by several social media posts.
“As a campaign group, Streets for People have spent the summer warning councillors about the problem of social distancing and air pollution that is going to be coming up in September. We didn’t find any plan-B to the postponed trials”, said Tom Haines-Doran. As the R-Rate continues to rise in wards covered by the proposed trials, social distancing outside schools is a serious public health issue and the need to provide for active travel for families without cars is important for key workers.
S4PLB are calling on residents to add their names to the 500+ who have already signed an open letter calling for the councillors to do everything in their power to ensure greatly improved walking and cycling facilities as a matter of urgency across Levenshulme & Burnage. The campaign group will continue to represent local residents and hold elected officials to account.