A fine example of the pointlessness of Norfolk County Council street closure at the junction of King Street and Music House Lane – photos © Julian Swainson 2022
King Street in Norwich is an historic street with many fine buildings and a vibrant and cohesive local community. It has been closed to through vehicle traffic since the 1990s, but is an important cycle and pedestrian route used by hundreds every day. It is a vital part of the National Cycle Route through Norwich. It is a safe and level route for pedestrians, wheelchair and pushchair users to get in and out of the city centre.
Since last June, however, it has been difficult and on occasions downright dangerous for cyclists and pedestrians to try and traverse this street.
Norfolk County Council have undertaken a programme of works that are supposed to improve the street, and have been slowly carrying these out for months and months now. Hundreds of square metres of public highway have been surrounded by endless plastic fencing, and for extended periods only a tiny narrow passage was left for those who had to still use the street. This narrow passage has on many occasions been dangerous for all but the most fleet of foot and completely impassable for anyone in a wheelchair or pushing a double buggy. There has consistently been no provision at all made for cyclists, on what is arguably one of the busiest cycle routes in Norfolk. Cyclists are ordered to ‘dismount and walk’ or take a lengthy and unhelpful diversion. Of course, they do not, they try and press on through the tiny gaps left, causing further hazard to pedestrians and unnecessary conflict. In fact, being Norwich, people have been very patient and polite with each other by and large. In times of Covid we have all got used to waiting for some time for the relevant bit of narrow passage to be completely clear so we can pass each other without hazard.
This is all so unnecessary. The contractors have fenced off a lot of space. A lot of empty space, which could perfectly well have been used to maintain a viable cycle route safely. Other things have priority, it seems. Contractors vans, parked all over the place. Stocks of paving materials, stored for weeks ahead of need. Machinery left on site for ages. And lots of empty road space, just blocked off from public use for months at a time.
To add to this chaos and confusion we now have the developers of the former Ferryboat pub adding to the problem. Everyday they park a string of vans and cars on the brand new pavements. They have taken to arbitrarily blocking the cycle and pedestrian path from outside the pub to the Novi Sad bridge, causing considerable difficulty for cyclists forced uphill onto the Rouen Road junction with King Street. They have no licence to do this, they have permission to erect scaffold over the footpath unto 27th January, but not to completely block this public right of way. The City Council have received complaints about this parking, but still the vans are there every working day.
The works that have been carried out have given little improvement and in some parts have made things worse. The new asphalt surface has been laid next to the new dropped kerbstone, but in many instances leaving a step gap big enough to tip a cyclist off their machine. Look at the entrances to Wensum Lodge to see what I mean. They have even put down some temporary fill in recognition of this basic error. Historic and very smooth cobbled areas, patinated with age and use, have been ripped up and replaced with a new ‘cobbled’ surface that is almost impassable for wheelchair and pushchair users. The end of the cycle path outside the Ferryboat has been left with kerbs protruding so high that they are dangerous to cycles and anyone else reliant on wheels for locomotion.
The conclusions from all this are depressing. Norfolk County Council is using funding from government to, in their own words, ‘focus on creating a better environment for cycling and walking’ while in reality the way that the work has been managed has made King Street a complete nightmare for cyclists for the best part of a year now.
There would seem to be a serious lack of accountability in highway matters. A few months back the Tory administration on the County unilaterally ended the long standing Joint Highways Committee which previously gave City Councillors a voice in highway works. Not one single Tory councillor has been elected in Norwich for years, yet they now control what is done on our streets, with our money. Is this why we have the sheer nonsense of taxpayers money being used for a lengthy programme of work that has just made everything much worse for cyclists and pedestrians?
One considerable irony is that this area elected two new Green councillors last May, but since then any form of sustainable transport along King Street has become almost impossible to achieve safely. We have contacted these ward councillors with our concerns. County Councillor Ben Price has replied and is looking into the problems.
Government guidance on cycle design was updated in 2021 with very clear instructions for highways authorities about how cycling and pedestrian transport must be prioritised, but this document does not seem to have filtered through to County Hall, even though ironically it was published in Norwich by TSO. Read it here: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/951074/cycle-infrastructure-design-ltn-1-20.pdf
One possible solution to the extensive corralling of public highway by contractors might be to follow the practice sometimes used by the Highways Agency on motorways, known as ‘lane rental’. In essence contractors have to pay the agency by the hour for all the time they occupy any road space for maintenance work. This incentivises contractors to work quickly and minimise disruption. Whatever the potential solutions, the current system in Norwich is simply not fit for purpose.
Norwich Eye will continue to investigate this mess and attempt to hold those responsible to account.
© Norwich Eye 12 January 2022