Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Roger Williams Esq (WTC 84)



  1.  Oxfordshire County Council adopted a Walking Strategy in 1998 which builds on Structure Plan and other policies, giving a high priority to walking. A variety of initiatives have been adopted, and the County has been complimented by the Government's Regional Office for the strength of its walking strategy.

  2.  This evidence focuses on the problems of introducing pedestrian areas in town centres by describing recent experiences in Oxford and Henley-on-Thames.


Pedestrianisation of Shopping Streets

  3.  In June 1999, the centre of Oxford was transformed; the main shopping streets were pedestrianised, roads were closed to through traffic and a new bus priority route, looping around the centre was created. Since no new road provision was involved, the success of the changes relied on achieving a substantial reduction in general traffic in the City centre which, in turn, relied upon many people—especially car drivers, changing their patterns and modes of travel.

  The quite major changes in many people's travel patterns that did occur are illustrated by the results below:


-20 per cent
Local Services
+9 per cent
Park and Ride
+7 per cent
+5 per cent

  (The number of pedestrians in the City centre increased by 7½ per cent 1998-2000.)

  4.  Bearing in mind the scale of the changes, the many people and interests affected, and the many articulate local residents, criticism of the changes has been limited. The main opposition has come largely from small business interests and the hardcore car-driving lobby.

  5.  Background to the 1999 changes.

  To understand why the backlash has been limited requires an explanation of the context for the changes and the way that they were introduced.

  6.  In the early 1970s, Oxford was one of the first cities in the UK to adopt a car restraint approach following years of debate over road building "solutions". The restraint strategy has proved to be very successful and Oxford is now one of the least car-dependent and walking-biased cities in the country (16.1 per cent of work trips on foot, 46.2 per cent by car; compared with 4.5 per cent and 72.7 per cent nationally: 1991 Census). At the same time, the City has continued to grow and thrive commercially.

  7.  But problems remained in the City centre, with buses and cars jockeying with pedestrians in narrow polluted shopping streets. These conditions were universally criticised, and resulted in the pedestrianisation introduced in 1999.

  8.  Inevitably there was disruption to traffic and people during the introduction of the measures, especially around the changeover time; but conditions have now settled down and criticism has abated.


Pedestrianisation of the Market Place

  9.  In January 1999 there was an explosion of protest from the people of Henley following the pedestrianisation of the Market Place. Traders joined the opposition claiming that trade was 20 per cent down. Since the changes to the traffic arrangements were relatively modest, and the differences in travel times for the majority of people were small, the scale and vehemence of the protests was surprising. This eventually led to withdrawal of support from the local Town Council, following a change of political control, and resulted in modification reducing the pedestrianised area.

Background to the 1999 changes

  10.  Worries about the town centre shopping decline, added to long-held concerns about traffic conditions, were intensified with the opening of an edge-of-town supermarket in 1992. Consultants were appointed to recommend a strategy for making the town centre a more pleasant place for people, relegating motorists to a lesser priority. As in Oxford there was extensive public involvement in the development of the proposals, and they were endorsed by all the local Councils.

Explanations for the Different Responses

  11.  So why were the responses from the two towns so different?

The Public

  12.  I believe that the main reason why the reaction at Oxford was much less aggressive that an Henley, despite the Oxford measures penalising car users much more than at Henley, was because people in Oxford recognised the problem and understood that providing for unfettered car use was not a realistic possibility. This enlightened view is a result of being exposed to many years (50+) of discussion and rejection of road building "solutions" as well as experiencing the success of the 1970's restraint strategy, including the popular Park & Ride system.

  13.  In the Henley area there are many affluent people, car travel predominates, and people have not been involved in the travel debates that have gone on in Oxford. Also, the problem that pedestrianisation was seeking to address was not so obvious in Henley. Hence the pedestrianisation was seen as being "anti-car" and there was little sympathy for the wider environmental objectives.


  14.  Opposition to pedestrianisation has largely come from smaller retailers in both Henley & Oxford. Because there is a much higher proportion of larger companies in Oxford the backlash has been relatively much less. The larger companies seem to recognise that pedestrianisation and an improved environment does generally assist trade.

  15.  Henley town centre trade will have been affected by the new out-of-town store and is in competition with a nearby shopping centre, whereas Oxford is encircled by a 6-7 mile wide Green Belt and competing shopping centres are more distant. Consequently, shopping patterns will be less sensitive to car restraint than in Henley.

Lessons and Recommendations from the Oxford and Henley Experience

  16.  Traffic management schemes involving lifestyle changes will only succeed if people are convinced of the need for change; recognising that the societal benefits justify individual inconvenience. Few communities will have had the "benefit" of the passionate transport debate that has gone on in Oxford for more than 50 years and has informed the enlightened views of Oxford people. It is very clear that the majority of people in the Henley area are wedded to car use and car restraint is totally out of step with their lifestyle patterns and aspirations. Whilst local "hearts and minds" campaigns can help to change public attitudes, they will have little influence without the backing of national promotion of the need for people to adopt more sustainable travel habits, accepting that car use will have to be curbed, especially in urban areas.

  17.  Similarly, retailers need to have confidence that pedestrianisation will enhance trade. There are many successful examples, especially in mainland Europe but only limited research evidence. With this available to present to sceptical retailers, and with resulting Government guidance on the components of successful pedestrianisation schemes, support rather than opposition from the smaller retailing interests would be much more likely. Hence the Government should commission research into the benefits of pedestrianisation for retailing, using evidence from this country and the rest of Europe; and use this as a basis for the production of new guidance which explains the benefits for retailers and describes the components of successful pedestrianisation schemes.

  18.  Fear of competition from other shopping centres, and especially out-of-town shops with free car parking, can undermine support from retailers for town centre pedestrianisation schemes and effective car restraint measures. The Planning Officers Society enlarge on the dangers of this and the wider travel consequences of imbalanced policies in Section 4 of their submission. Local traders will have less concern about the introduction of town centre car restraints if they have confidence that the land use planning context is secure; in particular policies (PPG6 & 13) restricting out-of-town shopping, that parking policies of adjacent centres are harmonised and that competition from out-of-town shopping will not be biased.

  19.  Consequently there is a need to:

    —  Reinforce the out-of-town shopping restrictive policies of PPG6 & 13;

    —  Create a level playing field of parking policies of adjacent centres by establishing regional parking strategies. (The sensitivity of this may well mean that Government will need to intervene if local authorities fail to reach agreement.);

    —  Allow the taxation of work-place parking to be extended to out-of-town private non-residential parking.

Roger Williams
Transport Planning Consultant

January 2001

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