Adjournment Debate on Clevedon Seafront

Dr Liam Fox MP:

Usually, my Adjournment debates requiring a Minister from the Department of Transport to come to the House relate to the Portishead railway, but such is the state of progress on that subject, I am able to turn to something entirely different today and regale the House with the tale of Clevedon seafront.

Clevedon seafront is a Victorian jewel. For generations, people have come to watch its famous sunsets over the water, or simply sit and have a cup of tea or a picnic by the seafront. They have been able to marvel at the engineering of Clevedon pier, or enjoy the architecture of the old Victorian part of the town. They could, and still do, come to sample the excellent pubs, restaurants and cafes that are along the seafront itself.

Now, the seafront has made the national news, but sadly for all the wrong reasons: not for that list of excellence, but for the ludicrous scheme being put in place by North Somerset Council. It is a coalition council, often referred to locally as the coalition of chaos, which is seemingly obsessed with changes to the road networks—for whose benefit, it has never been entirely clear. It has previous in this area, having sought to close our rural lanes that connect Backwell, Nailsea, Clevedon and Yatton, so when we heard about the scheme, we were naturally suspicious.

Let me begin by describing how North Somerset saw the proposal. It said:

“This exciting proposal is to provide a permanent, segregated, cycle route from the ever-popular Clevedon seafront into the bustling retail, business and dining area at Hill Road. A new one-way system and 20mph limit along The Beach and Hill Road will meaningfully alter the status quo of these roads by reallocating street space to segregated cycling and making a safer environment for pedestrians. This will be supported by making the connecting roads in the seafront and Hill Road neighbourhood area one-way and introducing 20mph zones to facilitate further safety improvements for both cyclists and pedestrians.”

Amazingly, it also said this:

“In the short term, cycling will be able to replace public transport journeys as we continue to recover from the COVID-19 crisis. The scheme will link into the flagship North Somerset Coastal Towns Cycle Route as part of the strategic cycling network in North Somerset. The scheme package will improve the provision and awareness of safe walking and cycling facilities to local shops and businesses, reduce private car dominance of this popular seafront space and improve road safety perception.”

I wonder whether the people who wrote that description ever looked at the demographics of the town, or looked to see who was actually using the seafront, because it is hugely popular with elderly residents and the disabled, or mums with pushchairs taking advantage of the sea air. Those people are not going to get on a bike to cycle to the seafront; the system is actually putting them at a tremendous disadvantage. In 2020, North Somerset Council was awarded £473,750 as part of the Government’s grant award to “create safe routes for people to walk and cycle safely”, but far from improving safety, I believe that North Somerset’s plans to remodel—many of us would say vandalise—the historic seafront at Clevedon will create new safety risks for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers alike.

Let me begin with the range of problems related to road safety. I do not expect my right hon. Friend the Minister, with all his grasp of detail, for which he is well known in this House, to understand the geography of Clevedon seafront, but currently, cars can park directly facing the sea. Should residents want to get out and walk along the seafront, they simply have to get out of their cars and walk directly on to the pavement. Under this new, brilliant scheme, there is a two-lane cycleway immediately adjacent to the seafront. Cars have to park in the middle of the road, drivers have to get out of their cars into the traffic lane itself, and passengers and drivers alike have to cross a two-way cycle lane to get to the seafront. This is supposed to be improving the safety of pedestrians.

We saw recently in our press examples of what might be kindly described as the eccentricity of the scheme. First, we had what were known as the wiggly lines, which none of us could find any reference to in any of the literature of road safety—no one seems to know what they are for. Those were followed by what locals have come to call the crop circle at the end, which is another road marking. None of us knows exactly what it is: it is not a roundabout or a mini-roundabout. What, exactly, its purpose is is not known to us. The scheme is not improving safety for cyclists either, because neither end of the very limited cycle lanes connects with the seamless cycleway described by North Somerset: those lanes connect with busy roads that cyclists have to cross, one of which has a considerable gradient, and the speed of the traffic coming down there is sometimes extremely dangerous indeed. In fact, when I visited recently, I was almost hit myself by one cyclist racing along the road because of the pace of the cyclists in the cycle lane. The scheme is adding to the dangers that cyclists face, not reducing them. That would be bad enough in itself, were it not for the method by which the scheme came into being.

I was coming to the point about the consultation for the scheme. To say that it was suboptimal is to dramatically understate the problem. I believe that it was fundamentally flawed. The consultation opened on 5 February 2021 and ended on 7 March 2021. This was during the third covid lockdown, when most people were more concerned about keeping safe than looking for consultations from North Somerset Council about changes to the seafront. Any consultation could only have been online, or in the very limited press available at that time, as it was illegal to meet face-to-face during this period. It is therefore highly likely that the consultation would not have been visible to older generations and those without internet access. Effectively, North Somerset buried this consultation under the covid pandemic.

North Somerset Council states:

“All these groups were consulted: The Sailing Club, Sea Swimmers, Gig Rowing Club, Canoe club and Pier fishing Club”.

However, as the consultation took place while we were all in lockdown, it is difficult to see how that could have actually happened. The council claims that a grand total of 750 people wrote in support of the scheme but, within days of it opening, the petition against the scheme had attracted more than 6,000 signatures. It points to a severe deficit in the consultation scheme.

Then we have the damage to local businesses. These businesses in the hospitality sector were badly hit by the covid pandemic and were hoping that this summer would be their chance to regain some of the profitability lost during that period. However, the 64 parking spaces that were on the seafront have been reduced to barely 30. As the landlord of the Moon and Sixpence pub on Clevedon seafront said to me, “Since this scheme came in, our business has fallen off a cliff.” He is not alone. Other businesses have told me of the problems they are having in attracting custom now that people are no longer able to park close to the businesses themselves.

Why are we getting these changes? We seem to have a council that is obsessed with bicycle lanes and meddling with our road system—to whose benefit, it is not clear. Many of the businesses think that the council is blind or simply indifferent to local businesses, preferring to get the plaudits of the cycle lobby, whether in North Somerset or elsewhere. That is affecting business not only on the seafront, but in the Hill Road shopping area.

For us, the scheme is a major loss of amenity. For generations, people have come to Clevedon to look at all those elements I have described. This is a scheme for which there is no need, no demand and no desire from the local population. It creates road safety problems where none existed. It was not properly consulted upon and due diligence may indeed have been absent in the road safety elements that were the duty of the council before bringing the scheme into place. It is a waste of money, with overspending rumoured to be around £250,000. That will have to be taken from local taxpayers, or programmes locally will have to be cut as a consequence.

We need to change the council, and to do that we have to change the councillors, for which we have an opportunity in our local elections in May. Before 2019, and before the council of chaos came into being, we had a competent Conservative local authority, which I hope we will see again, but my right hon. Friend the Minister can help us by saying what the Government might be able to do directly, or through their agencies, to enable us to deal with some of these road safety issues and reassure my constituents that, even when we have a council that will not listen to what they want, we have a Government in Westminster who will.


Jesse Norman MP, Minister of State, Department for Transport:

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) on securing the debate, and on the wonderful, almost idyllic, picture of Clevedon seafront that he painted at the start of his remarks. As he will know, managing traffic on local roads is and always has been a matter for local traffic authorities. They have a range of duties, powers and responsibilities, and a considerable toolkit of measures at their disposal to achieve that. Specifically, local highway authorities have a duty under section 16 of the Traffic Management Act 2004 to manage their roads so as to secure the expeditious movement of all traffic, which, it is important to say, includes pedestrians and cyclists. Balancing the different needs of road users with the many and varied demands on roads is complex. The role of my Department is to set an overarching Government policy, and provide an enabling framework of legislation, guidance and advice. But of course we take a serious interest in issues of road safety for all road users.

Because of that overall remit, we have no brief to intervene in matters of local democratic decision making. Decisions on what traffic management measures to provide are entirely a matter for local authorities, in accordance with local democratic procedures. Successive Governments have made it clear that they want cycling and walking to be a natural first choice for shorter journeys, and the Government have set out an ambitious vision that, by 2030, half of all journeys in towns and cities should be cycled or walked. Accordingly, as my right hon. Friend will know, Active Travel England was launched in August 2022 to work with local authorities to develop and deliver new high-quality walking and cycling infrastructure schemes. ATE is an executive agency of the Department, based in York. One of its core functions is to drive up the quality of new walking and cycling schemes, and to provide local authorities with the right skills to deliver them. ATE will review the quality of designs at bid stage, design stage and after construction. It is already proving to be a valuable resource where there are local concerns about safety.

In general, the Government take, as I have said, road safety extremely seriously. Reducing the numbers of those needlessly killed and injured on our roads is a crucial priority. The Department continues to make progress in that area. For example, through the safer roads fund, we have invested in schemes to make our 50 most dangerous roads safer. All those schemes are complete or under way and, over the next 20 years, those improvements alone are expected to save 1,500 lives. We also completed the biggest overhaul of the highway code in decades in 2022, so that vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists have priority in certain situations. The Department is working on a road safety strategic frame- work, and the aim is to have it published this spring. Based on a “safe system” approach, it will consider what might be appropriate to support performance indicators on casualty reduction.


Dr Liam Fox MP:

My right hon. Friend mentions those who are vulnerable, but those who are elderly, disabled, or rely on motor transport to get from A to B must have their voices heard, too. It cannot simply be that we give priority to cycleways, which actually increase the danger for some of the constituents I have mentioned, the elderly, or disabled.


Jesse Norman MP:

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. In setting out the general framework of policy, I have yet to come to a specific discussion of the situation in Clevedon, but the elderly people he describes will themselves be pedestrians as they make the final part of their journey to the seafront, and their safety, too, must absolutely be part of an overall framework that respects their wellbeing and health.

Local authorities have a statutory duty under the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 to ensure the safe movement of all traffic. They are responsible for ensuring the infrastructure they provide, including for walking and cycling, is safe and fit for purpose.

As my right hon. Friend highlighted, the scheme is apparently intended to improve the public realm on Clevedon’s seafront. It received funding through the second tranche of the active travel fund, which is designed to build out priority routes that could serve as core parts of longer-term local cycling and walking networks, including direct walking and cycling routes, road crossings, safer junctions, school streets, cycle parking, segregated cycle lanes and other such schemes. I want to be clear that a number of the schemes that were made permanent from earlier emergency active travel schemes have been modified or replaced following processes of formal consultation and design review.

On the subject of the wiggly lines, it is important to say that any road markings installed by local authorities must either comply with the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2016, or be specially authorised by the Secretary of State. The Department was not approached about these markings and has not authorised them. I note with some concern that the RAC said:

“This is one of the most bizarre new road schemes we’ve ever seen” and went on to say the “new wavy road markings could accidentally prove to be a road safety risk”.

It seems to me that the RAC is independently validating my right hon. Friend’s concerns. If they are a safety hazard, of course that is a matter to be taken extremely seriously, not just locally but by Active Travel England and the Department as it considers the wider picture on road safety.

I reassure the House and my right hon. Friend that ATE will be arranging an inspection of the scheme as part of its regular review programme. That will also consider safety issues, such as those that have been highlighted in this debate. As I understand it, some remedial work has already taken place on the scheme, although it may not be clear yet what changes will be made finally to the scheme as a whole. Although the Department has no powers to halt or remove the scheme, and ATE does not have powers to compel local authorities to make changes to active travel schemes, they are absolutely in a position to record non-compliance on design and safety issues that have been identified. Those then can, in the normal way, become the subject of public debate, local review, and any actions or reactions through proper local democratic processes. Design review outcomes will in turn inform assessments of the capability of local authorities, which in turn will have a material impact on future funding for schemes.

On engagement and consultation, it is true that any scheme must be developed and implemented after thorough engagement with the community affected. The Department has made that extremely clear. It appears, as I understand it, that North Somerset Council did carry out some public engagement on the proposals. It is important to say that objective methods should be used to establish a genuinely representative picture of local views and to ensure that minority views do not dominate a proper consultation process. Engagement should not end when a scheme is introduced. Authorities should continue to monitor how schemes are performing and make changes if they are required. I notice that some changes have already been made to the scheme. Authorities should also be open to making changes to any scheme in the light of further experience and real world feedback. The requirement to monitor and engage with local people therefore does not end with the apparent completion of construction work on a scheme.

Let me close by saying that I am very thankful to my right hon. Friend for raising this important local issue on the Floor of the House of Commons and on the public record. ATE will be inspecting the scheme as part of the normal review process, and the Department will continue to focus on safety and the improvement of safety for all road users now and in future.