Will ‘Low Emission Neighbourhood’ make Walworth Road more polluted?

Katherine Johnston (19 August, 2020)

Cllr Richard Livingstone says that air pollution monitoring will assess impact in closed roads and those with diverted traffic

37593A sign in Walworth's Amelia Street

Southwark Council’s transport and environment boss says pollution levels are being monitored across the new road layout changes in Walworth, amid claims the ‘low emission neighbourhood’ is making some of the borough’s busiest roads even more congested.

As the News has reported, many side streets in Walworth have been blocked to motorists as part of sweeping changes initiated under COVID-19 legislation.

Although Walworth Road itself is unaffected, streets such as Amelia Street have been blocked off with traffic filters in the form of planters.  It is hoped the changes will reduce air pollution – itself a risk factor for COVID complications – and help encourage more people to walk and cycle to work. But a series of concerns over the scheme’s implementation have been raised by residents, business owners and local MP Neil Coyle.

Last week we reported that police admitted the new layout posed ‘additional complications’ for policing the area.

Although the scheme aims to reduce ‘rat runs’, some residents have argued that the scheme is not reducing traffic – just diverting it – so that people living on main roads suffer worse pollution than before.

In a letter to the council’s transport and environment chief, Bermondsey and Old Southwark MP Coyle asked: “Air quality monitoring I have seen for the borough suggests Walworth Road has the worst air quality of any of the road that have been adapted under these council works. But Walworth Road has had no adaptions. Why is this?” He added: “It would be extraordinary if the outcome of this exercise was worse air quality for the vast majority’.

Responding to those concerns, Cllr Livingstone provided the following statement to the News: “We are addressing the poor air quality that residents in Walworth live with every day, with the help of City Hall’s Low Emissions Neighbourhood funding.  Our scheme aims to reduce through-traffic, while allowing local access. We are also supporting the national cycling strategy, encouraging more people to walk and cycle. There are already a number of long-standing traffic filters in Walworth at Darwin Street, Townsend Street and Surrey Square. After initial concerns from the local community, these have become popular with residents.

“The new filters complement these to create a low emission neighbourhood for the whole of Walworth, and while we understand that they may cause a degree of initial disruption, it is our hope that further projects will prove to be a success with local people as well.

“We have extensive air quality monitoring infrastructure around the borough.

“This means that we can track the progress of the scheme using a local air quality monitoring station and fourteen local diffusion tubes within Walworth.

“Whilst interpreting this data month-to-month can be complex, we will be using this over the period of the trial to measure the impact.”

Residents living in Lorrimore Road and surrounding areas have lobbied for changes to the scheme after being left with no car access to Kennington Park Road or Walworth Road, and only one point of exit via John Ruskin Street.

Writing on Twitter under the name Stuart B, one resident said he was ‘not against’ low emission neighbourhoods but described the new layout as ‘poorly implemented’ and has ‘cut our community in half’.

“The richer Northern half has four+ routes in and out whilst the poor south has only one – a busy road with a school on it,” he said.

Another had complained to the council in July, after the new measures were put in place: “What in the f*** are you doing to the roads?

“I can only get to Walworth Road from Brandon Estate by driving down John Ruskin Street (which was rammed this morning).

“To get to towards Oval, I had to then drive all the way down Walworth Road, past Elephant and Castle.”

When asked what changes would be put in place to respond to residents’ feedback, Cllr Livingstone confirmed the council had asked TfL to make changes to the junction with Camberwell New Road.

“The Low Emission Neighbourhood experimental order is in place for eighteen months, however we are naturally moving far more quickly than that to amend any change that create a safety concern or significant problems within the trial period,” Cllr Livingstone explained.

“We have asked TfL to revise the no right-hand turn at the John Ruskin Street junction with Camberwell New Road to assist drivers from Lorrimore Road and nearby streets travelling westwards.

“We will also be reviewing the scheme as a whole at six and twelve month intervals.”

Regardless of the scheme’s implementation, TfL and London’s local authorities are faced with a transport dilemma.

Social distancing is set to stay, and it means a double decker bus can only transport around 30 people at a time – instead of the maximum 87.

More traffic as people eschew public transport will increase congestion, pollution, and risk more accidents.

Although the changes have proved hugely controversial, despite the vocal opposition Southwark Council maintains they have the backing of the silent majority.

During a consultation more than 6,000 people visited a dedicated online map to highlight areas in the borough where roads were narrow and cycling dangerous or difficult to help identify areas that needed improving.

Over 10,000 agreements were registered with the thousands of suggestions made across the borough.

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