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17 Apr 2002 : Column 222WH

Robin Hood Gate, Richmond

1 pm

Mr. Tony Colman (Putney): I thank Mr. Speaker for allowing this debate after my earlier requests in January, February and March. The issue may appear to some to be parochial, but wider and important matters arise from it. The wall of the organisations involved that I have come up against has led me to pursue a new direction and, as Richmond park is a royal park, I contacted His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales, and asked him to comment on the situation. As a keen environmentalist and, more importantly, someone who has acknowledged the role of a decent, clean and safe urban environment, I hope that he will respond.

I have advised the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) of the debate as the park is in her constituency. However, the relevance and importance of the issue for me is its undoubted impact on my constituents, especially those in Roehampton. I shall explain why the proposed closure of the Robin Hood gate—the main access from the A3 and Roehampton vale—has attracted such criticism and will delve briefly into the history of the decision, but only so far as to draw useful lessons for the future on consultation and decision making.

The criticism of the proposal stems from a concrete event; the foot and mouth epidemic of last year. During that period, as was to be expected, Richmond park was closed to all vehicles in line with the standard safety procedures throughout the United Kingdom. The resulting displaced traffic—families, commuters, dog walkers and the thousands of others who frequently drive through the park—were obliged to use routes around the park. Predictably, that caused problems on all the surrounding roads and areas and affected local residents, schools, businesses and those travelling through the area.

The side roads off Roehampton vale and Roehampton lane were havens for rat running, and the main roads were gridlocked. The gridlock extended down to the Upper Richmond road and the south circular. Pupils arrived by bus at the Paddocks school on the Lennox estate after 10 o'clock in the morning. I even contacted Transport for London to see if the Upper Richmond road was wide enough to install a bus lane between Roehampton lane and Priory lane but, regrettably, the road at that point is too narrow. So the chaos continued, only to disappear as soon as the gates of Richmond park were re-opened after the end of the foot and mouth epidemic.

What for some in the countryside was a nightmare proved an equally salutary lesson for those living in Roehampton. With that in mind, I was incredibly surprised to hear the Royal Parks agency's proposal to close the Robin Hood gate to Richmond park, among its other plans such as closing the central car park and the introduction of a land train. I was telephoned about the decision to close the gate just before Christmas 2001. I spoke immediately to William Weston, the chief executive of Royal Parks, and asked him why he had not consulted me before making the decision. He said that he had no statutory requirement to do so and that the Minister, Baroness Blackstone, had spoken to the hon. Member for Richmond Park, who had raised no

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objection. The hon. Lady has told me subsequently that she had not endorsed the proposal for the closure. I spoke to the Minister who agreed that the permanent closure proposal should be replaced by a trial period of five months, but she did not agree to drop the proposal.

We have at our disposal foot and mouth traffic data, which provides an almost perfect test period for the closure of the gate and highlights the problem that will arise following a closure. That data predicts that some 700 extra cars an hour will be on the roads through Roehampton when the gate is closed. At the time of the original December 2001 decision, no traffic data from that time had been made available to Royal Parks from either Kingston or Wandsworth councils. Royal Parks would not wait for the information, which surely would be not only helpful but essential for an informed decision. Equally extraordinary, up to last week, Wandsworth council had still not, according to Royal Parks, sent the full foot and mouth traffic data.

According to Wandsworth council in an e-mail that was sent to me this week, after weeks of my asking for such information, the traffic reports were passed to Peter Brett Associates, Royal Parks' consultants, on 5 March. As if that were not late enough, I was told in the same e-mail that

I am afraid that I have not had time to find out from Wandsworth council the technical difference between the traffic reports and the base data.

The base data was passed to Transport for London on 16 May 2001. I do not know why that information was never passed to Royal Parks to help it make its decision; that seems ridiculous, as the plans for the park have been in the air for several years. To be deprived of such excellent comparative data is extraordinary and does not speak wonders for Wandsworth council's long-term thinking. If it was that worried about the closure of the Robin Hood gate, why did it not pass on key data before March? It smacks of publicity-seeking to rush to a judicial review.

At the end of March, some two months after Royal Parks announced its proposals, Wandsworth council finally debated the matter and opposed the closure. With two days to spare, it threatened Royal Parks with judicial review because consultation on the closure of the gate had not been separated from other matters that Royal Parks wished to pursue about the park. Royal Parks gave in and agreed to a fresh consultation, which ends in June 2002. Royal Parks is adamant that the closure must still go ahead. That has always been the case; indeed, the original consultation carried no option for residents to vote for retaining the status quo until I insisted on it.

I understand that the status quo was a very popular option, although that appears to have made little impact on the decision-making process. Why? Those who answered the consultation questionnaire handed out in early 2001 overwhelmingly wanted all the gates to be left open as they are now, with the same opening hours as now. However, Royal Parks says that the status quo was never an acceptable option. Change was essential so as to better preserve the quality of the environment; the flora and fauna in the park. That is laudable, but no park such as Richmond stands apart from its surroundings, nor does traffic in the park stand alone as an issue.

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As a practical and keen environmentalist, I chaired London Agenda 21 between 1994 and 1997, and I look forward to going to the world summit for sustainable development this summer. However, when there is a trade-off between the environment inside and outside the park, we must look for a balance. Changing the status quo and closing the Robin Hood gate would affect my constituents disproportionately.

We must consider the longer-term view by making the roads to the park safer for cyclists, improving the public transport infrastructure for those going to and through the park, and changing to vehicles that run on liquefied petroleum gas or zero-emissions vehicles. We should encourage people to shop locally and to educate their children in the high-quality local schools in the Roehampton and Putney area, thus eliminating the school runs through the park. I would love it if Richmond park were without traffic. It is my local park, and I have visited it in the past 30 years with my children. However, without the necessary infrastructure surrounding the park, I do not believe that that is an option.

The balance, in terms of quality of life and extra pollution outside the park, would be hugely weighted against my constituents if the closure went ahead. The suggestion that the closure of the Robin Hood gate would protect the environment also sits strangely with Royal Parks' next proposal. It is for the development of a new golf centre, complete with floodlit driving range, a large car park and banqueting suites in the area between the internal south-north road and the Alton estate; that is, the Roehampton estate. The golfing centre is accessed by the A3, Roehampton vale and Norstead place. It would open the Chohole gate to the public and build over Silver hill, Hyde Park nursery, and Kings Farm plantations. Currently, all of them are open areas. With this proposal, Royal Parks is not following what appears to be its usual practice, which is to attempt to protect the environment.

Although nobody could object to speed bumps on park roads or a 20 mph speed limit, Royal Parks has told me that a reduction from 30 to 20 mph would require primary legislation. Surely, that cannot be the case. Will the Under-Secretary clarify that?

I mentioned other changes to traffic arrangements in Richmond park. Chief among them is the proposed closure of Pen Ponds car park. That has caused outrage, not only from Putney constituents, but from across south-west London; a petition has already gathered 10,000 signatures, and it is swiftly gaining more. Royal Parks has now proposed to allow the elderly, and people with disability stickers for their cars, to continue to park in that central car park and to allow everyone else to park there outside peak times. However, that appears to be another muddle, and I ask Royal Parks to scrap its plans, and to think again.

What lessons can be learned? First, Royal Parks and the Under-Secretary should consult with Members of Parliament, and authorities that represent people who will be affected, before any decisions are taken. Secondly, all statistical data that can be made available—in this case from Wandsworth council and Transport for London—must be handed over to Royal Parks within a time scale. With regard to that, in this case I exonerate Royal Parks because it has been asking for that information since last September, and it has not

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received it. Moreover, Wandsworth council says that it did not pass the relevant information to the traffic consultants until 5 March, which was three months after the announcement of the proposed closure of the gate.

Thirdly, if such data are not available, any decision should be deferred until the information is made available. Fourthly, any future plans for the park should look at all angles of sustainable development—not only at the environmental consequences within the park, but at the social consequences, and the right of the people who live around the park in Roehampton to live without the extra traffic pollution and gridlock that would result from the closure of the Robin Hood gate, as happened last spring and summer. Fifthly, Royal Parks should consult with the local decision-making bodies, such as Transport for London, on the impact of in-park policies; it is narrow-minded not to hold such consultations, and that must be avoided in the future.

Finally, I wish to correct the misleading impression that might have been picked up by those who have been watching the edited television and radio coverage of this issue in recent days. They might think that I see it as a people versus animals issue, and that I would support the people every time. Not only do I have a clear commitment to all forms of environmental concerns, but this issue was never so black and white. I believe that the existing balance with regard to access for cars should continue and, if that were maintained, it would go a long way towards protecting the environment of Richmond park.

I am grateful that the Under-Secretary is present, and I look forward to his response.

1.13 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Dr. Kim Howells) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Colman) on drawing the Chamber's attention to this important subject. I pay tribute to his efforts on behalf of those of his constituents who will be affected by the proposal to close the Robin Hood gate in Richmond park. With regard to that, he has made a strong case for proceeding with great care.

I wish to set the issue in context. It is important to remember that the royal parks are a national asset. They are paid for out of central Government funds, and taxpayers in Richmond in Yorkshire contribute as much towards their upkeep as do the residents of Richmond-upon-Thames; or, indeed, people in Macclesfield or Pontypridd.

The royal parks have been given to the nation in trust by the Crown to provide open spaces where people can enjoy the open air, and get away from the pressures to which they are subjected on every day of their urban lives. I am not sure that I like the phrase "urban lives", but you know what I mean, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The parks are special places that form part of our cultural heritage, and in managing them we are committed to maintaining high standards of care and maintenance and taking the lead in good environmental and horticultural practices. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Putney, who has been a doughty and imaginative fighter for the incremental advances in environmental protection and understanding that we need.

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By the same token, roads in the royal parks are not public highways. They are not the responsibility of local highway authorities but are maintained by Royal Parks to provide access for those living and working in the park and for people visiting the park. The parks have not escaped the inexorable rise in the volume of traffic on the country's roads over the past 30 years, and drivers have increasingly taken to using the parks' roads. Those roads were never intended to make up for the inadequacies of the local road network, and Royal Parks is entitled to try to reduce the intrusion caused by thousands of additional vehicles taking short cuts through the park.

Richmond park is unique. It is an internationally regarded park and a grade 1 listed historical landscape. In addition, because it has been managed as a deer park for 300 years, it has evolved a unique habitat that has made it home to species of insect and plant life not found anywhere else in the region. It has been designated a site of special scientific interest, a national nature reserve and a European special area for conservation.

The inspector responsible for the first review of the Richmond-upon-Thames unitary development plan said that the

Royal Parks is considering how to reduce traffic in Richmond park not on a whim but as part of a process that started several years ago. Indeed, it has been conducting an exercise that all local authorities are now required to do: to consider how to reduce traffic on their roads, which is a clear Government objective.

In 1991, the Government set up a series of reviews of all royal parks, chaired by Dame Jennifer Jenkins, to find out how they were managed and set out principles on which they should be managed for the foreseeable future. The review group considered each park separately and invited stakeholders in all the parks to contribute to its reports. In addition, stakeholders were given an opportunity to comment on the final draft before the report was published.

In 1996, the review group, which contained, among others, the leader of Richmond council, published its report on Richmond park, which states:

It also states:

It noted that

The Government accepted the review group's recommendations.

In 1998, Royal Parks addressed the first issue raised in the report and carried out an origin and destination study of traffic using the park. That established that more than 95 per cent. of traffic in the park on a weekday—and about 80 per cent. at weekends—was through traffic, with almost 4,000 vehicles entering the park in peak hours.

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Following that, a working group that comprised agency management, police, traffic engineers and landscape architects produced a paper on which the agency consulted during the autumn and winter of 2000-01. The proposed range of options for reducing through traffic in the park included: making the park roads one-way only; introducing speed humps, road width restrictions and other traditional traffic management measures; introducing a 20 mph speed limit; introducing a road toll for through traffic; and closing the roads in the middle of the park to prevent through traffic during rush hours, although that would allow park users to drive into the park.

The agency carried out a thorough consultation involving the distribution of 30,000 questionnaires throughout local communities. It held five public meetings and 10 separate public exhibitions. The whole exercise generated around 1,000 written representations. Following the agency's consideration of the responses to its consultation, it produced the report that it presented to local authorities on 17 December 2001.

If Wandsworth borough council had responded to the agency's request in August 2001 for traffic data to help the assessment of the effect of different options, the matter might have been settled by now. It was important for my hon. Friend the Member for Putney to state that clearly in his speech. One would have thought that a big, powerful and famous borough would have bothered to notify the agency about crucial traffic figures as part of the consultation. However, it chose not to; one wonders why.

Despite what those who would support unrestricted access to the park for traffic might believe, the agency clearly took account of views expressed during the consultation. Indeed, it was praised for the way in which it did that at the presentation of its report to local authorities on 17 December.

Mr. Colman : The current access arrangements do not allow unrestricted access to the park. I do not want unrestricted access, but a continuation of the current arrangements, which provide a balance, especially during the dark hours of winter.

Dr. Howells : I take my hon. Friend's point, and I shall try to deal with it in a moment or two.

The agency rejected many of the original options, and it is worth explaining the reason for that. It did not close Ham gate because that would have led to additional traffic on the already overcrowded roads to the west of the park. It rejected the use of speed humps and other traditional traffic calming measures because they are designed for urban streets and are inappropriate for a park. A one-way system was considered to be unsafe because it might encourage speeding and tempt drivers to perform dangerous overtaking manoeuvres. Options to close link roads in the park were rejected because that would affect the routine and daily lives of people and businesses. The agency decided to try to work with local authorities to assess whether it was possible to control traffic in the park by using measures outside the park.

The fact that the suggestion to close Robin Hood gate was made at one of the public meetings is proof, if that were needed, that the agency took account of the

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consultation process. That option was chosen because Robin Hood gate offers only limited access; this may address some of my hon. Friend's points. The gate is already one-way because a driver may not enter the park through it. It closes at dusk in the winter months and, therefore, it is unavailable during the evening rush hour for several months during the year.

Wandsworth borough council was reluctant to come forward with traffic figures at the time of the consultation. That is inexplicable, given the importance of safety on roads, especially in the urban areas about which my hon. Friend is concerned. Nevertheless, the council is rightly concerned about the effect of the closure on traffic in the area. However, it gets little credit for quoting figures that apply to a time when all park gates were closed to traffic because of the foot and mouth outbreak. The agency has no wish to avoid consultation as its efforts over the past two years have clearly shown. It did not, technically, consult on the closure because it was not a stand-alone option in the original consultation paper.

Royal Parks has withdrawn its proposed closure of Robin Hood gate in order to consult the local authorities and Transport for London and I assure hon. Members that it will not make a decision on the closure until after that consultation. I hope that that gives my hon. Friend some comfort.

It is estimated that the closure would reduce through traffic in the park by some 5 per cent. That may not seem much, but given the level of opposition to options that would produce more significant reductions, the agency would be satisfied with that amount until further options were investigated.

A 12-month trial is proposed. The period must be long enough to take into account the effect of seasonal variations in traffic volume and usage, and to allow time to measure the full effect of the resulting re-assignment of traffic. It is well documented that, when a road is closed, drivers gradually disperse over a wider area to find more convenient routes. That is more likely to happen with longer-distance traffic. Some 60 per cent. of park traffic is from outside the three neighbouring boroughs, so it is unlikely that all of it would go through the immediate neighbourhood, about which my hon. Friend is rightly concerned. However, to satisfy the local authorities, the agency has agreed to carry out an initial review after six months.

Of course, I cannot say whether the effects of the proposed closure will be as severe as the council claims, which is, after all, why the agency proposes to close the gate for a trial period. The actual effects can then be measured rather than relying on the outcomes of desk-top exercises. The royal parks are important assets. They are a recreational resource for those who live nearby, historic landscapes and wildlife habitats, and tourist destinations for visitors from the United Kingdom and abroad.

From time to time, the agency needs to take measures to preserve the character of the royal parks that makes them such special places; such desirable places to be neighbours with. My hon. Friend is right to be primarily concerned about the health, safety and welfare of his constituents in the neighbouring streets. Nevertheless, I am sure that he would agree that it would be absurd and unreasonable if the agency were never allowed to do

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anything that might affect people living outside the park. I thank him for the opportunity to clarify the position taken on this important matter by my noble Friend Baroness Blackstone and by Royal Parks.

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