At this week’s Plaza meeting local residents asked me to produce a briefing note on the background to the ‘Plaza’ project and its intended goals. Therefore I have set this out below, together with a Q&A based on the most common questions residents have asked me since we started construction of the scheme in September.
It is a long read, but I hope you persevere (!) and it helps to get us all to a common level of knowledge about the project, so that we can then consider changes and improvements we could make later this year.
History of the Project
Since 2017, Canterbury City Council (CCC) has intended to create the Plaza, expecting that a new pedestrianised area would attract more visitors and help boost the town's economy. When I joined that council in 2019, plans were advanced and the budget in place to start the work, but before it could be initiated, Covid-19 struck and the funds were allocated to help fight the pandemic and the project went on hold.
The role of Kent County Council (KCC) had been just to accommodate the Plaza and the associated traffic flows by adding some additional one-way streets. When I was elected as the KCC councillor for the area in May 2021, the Plaza was still on hold.
Unrelated to the Plaza, I had been receiving many requests from Herne Bay residents to tackle speeding and other road safety issues on local roads. As such, I had been working on a project to extend the 20mph zone in Herne Bay to create safer, quieter and cleaner streets.
Officers at KCC later alerted me to a new ‘Active Travel’ funding pot that central government was making available to local councils to fund projects which helped encourage walking, wheeling and cycling, with all of the health, transport and environmental benefits they bring. Officers could include my 20mph extension project alongside a new cycling route and the Plaza as one qualifying project for the Active Travel monies. This would cost local taxpayers nothing, and Canterbury City Council was also keen to support the plan.
KCC officers worked with CCC to create a plan for an Active Travel bid to the Department of Transport. It was for the Plaza, cycle route and 20mph zone extension. There was pre-consultation engagement with the community and then an extensive public consultation on the plan in the autumn of 2022, with some changes made in response to local residents’ feedback (eg additional disabled parking was made available).
The final plan was taken to the Joint Transportation Board (JTB) meeting – at which CCC and KCC councillor sit - in November 2022, where it was supported unanimously by councillors of all political parties. It was then formally signed off, by David Brazier, KCC Cabinet Member for Highways. A further JTB meeting in March 2023 saw all councillors vote in favour of the car parking changes required to accommodate the active travel scheme.
I had been concerned that residents had not been given a recent update by either of the Councils, so produced a leaflet explaining the scheme and its objectives, and delivered it with local councillors to 5,000 homes in central Herne Bay in July 2023, in advance of the works. That leaflet is attached below.
The Councils did further engagement with local businesses on the effected roads in the summer and the construction work started in September 2023 (once the summer holiday period was over, so as to minimise disruption in the busy period).
I appreciate that the construction work has caused disruption, and myself and other councillors have been unhappy with the performance of the contractor the Council used for the signing of the new one-way system. Accordingly, I have made residents’ unhappiness about this known and those involved have apologised for the issues which caused more disruption than was necessary. We have been able to make changes to Richmond Street and to get some additional signs added to the one-way system in recent weeks in light of resident feedback.
Construction work is almost completed, with the final parts of the scheme relating to Memorial Park and the extension of the 20mph zone to residential roads being made in the coming weeks.
In light of feedback, officers at Kent County Council have committed to do an additional review of all signage once the scheme is complete, making any further changes as required, alongside the road safety audit that they will carry out, as always done at the end of a project such as this.
Looking ahead, the Plaza is a Canterbury City Council asset and will be managed as a community space by them. In response to the ‘Expression of Interest’ process that the Council is currently running, I understand that eight community groups have written with an interest to run this new public space, making it available for those wishing to hold activities within it.
Like all councillors, I recognise that traffic flow has been impacted during parts of the construction period for the ‘Plaza’ project and this has caused a huge amount of frustration. With the works soon to be completed, we will soon be able to see how the new one-way system beds in and motorists adjust to the new arrangement. I am committed to making any further changes to signage etc that might be required in light of experience.
Objectives of the Scheme
Living locally myself, and having been a Herne Bay councillor for the past 5 years, I believe that the town needs to modernise if it is to avoid being left behind relative to other coastal destinations. Letting the Bay stagnate would lead to more empty shops, less jobs, and even more of our young people leaving the area.
The scheme as a whole (the Plaza, cycle route and extended 20mph zone) will provide a number of benefits:
- Not everyone is a driver: those on lower incomes, children and many less able-bodied people don’t have a car, so by making walking, wheeling and cycling through the town feel safer, it provides more transport options to our most vulnerable residents
- Herne Bay is unusual in not having a dedicated cycling and walking route from its train station to its seafront activities; 2024 will see Network Rail add step-free access to the station, so a safe cycle/walk route from there to the coast is very much needed
- Over 10,000 residents live within a 10 minute walk of the seafront, and if even a small fraction of them start walking rather than driving to the seafront, it will reduce congestion for the remaining motorists
- Health improvements from having more people walk, wheel and cycle around the town:
- Each year, 49,000 people die prematurely in the UK due to air pollution; pro rata, this is 23 deaths in Herne Bay each year, and this number can be reduced significantly if we can have more people walking, wheeling and cycling, rather than driving
- As we saw so vividly during the pandemic, being active helps people’s physical and mental health, allowing them to live longer lives in better health
- Environmental benefits:
- Quieter neighbourhoods: rather than having motorists accelerating to 30mph and then braking again as they approach traffic or other obstacles in the road, maintaining a more steady 20mph speed leads to quieter, more pleasant streets
- Better air quality: slower, more consistent vehicle speeds also help to reduce air pollution and carbon emissions
- Economic regeneration:
- Evidence shows that people who walk, cycle or wheel to a shopping street spend more time and more money than someone who drives there, so by encouraging more higher-spending visits to the high street, we can help boost our local shops
- More generally, by promoting a ‘quieter, safer, cleaner’ town, it will be more competitive as a destination for visitors, who have many other seaside spots in Kent to choose from.
I appreciate that it is the Plaza itself which is the main source of disruption. While the vision for the Plaza came from others, before my time as a councillor, I can give you my take on some of its specific benefits:
- Connect St Anne’s Gardens to the Pier, to make a large open space, available for small-scale community events, but also just a lovely seaside space for families, the less able-bodied and others to enjoy
- Ending the use of Central Parade as a rat-run for disruptive ‘boy racers’, one of the main issues I get reported by residents
- Bringing Herne Bay more into line with other successful seaside towns, by having more car-free, open spaces, rather than a busy road running the length of the prom.
I appreciate that these have to be taken against the downsides, but on balance, and in time, I think the project can be a success and draw more people to our brilliant seaside town.
I hope you are willing to keep an open mind and consider the impact of the project afresh once it has been completed and in operation for a few months. Like most people, I think further changes are needed and I will continue to channel your feedback to the council officers so that improvements can be made.
Frequently Asked Questions
Could we have used the Active Travel monies for other uses, such as potholes?
Active Travel funds absolutely cannot be used for general road maintenance, contrary to some of the claims made online. As the name suggests, AT monies can only be invested to make towns more attractive for walking, ‘wheeling’ (ie wheelchair use) and cycling.
Is a one-way system necessary for the scheme?
Some roads do need to be one-way to accommodate the plaza and a safe cycle and walking route. However, perhaps there is flexibility with some of the roads, and I am open-minded about making some changes to better allow for the free-flow of traffic.
Why have we not created a larger plaza? Did we need another square?
We have pedestrianised a modest sized square, but it creates a much larger public space as it connects St Anne’s Gardens, the pier and promenade together. By doing so, we still allow motorists to drive along 98% of the seafront stretch from the Hampton Inn to the Kings Hall.
The plaza is very different from Wimereux Square, being next to our main visitor attractions. I think the clocktower space could be better used, but it is a more challenging area to use because it is a smaller overall space and being next to a car park and a road limits its potential. The plaza does add something different to our town.
Has the disabled parking and the coach space from the plaza been replaced?
Yes, we lost 3 disabled spaces at the plaza and we have added 6 new ones immediately to the east. As such, blue badge holders have 3 extra spaces compared with before.
The coach parking space has moved west along Central Parade, near the arcades.
Do you think motorist behaviour will change?
Currently, drivers are getting used to the changes. Locals may be on ‘auto-pilot’ and not notice the no-entry signs. Visitors may use sat-navs or Google maps, which have not yet been updated for the changes.
In time, motorists will comply with the Plaza one-way system, just as they did with the Mortimer Street pedestrianisation and one-way changes, when they were introduced some years ago.
Will the plaza cause gridlock on the High Street?
The High Street has had terrible traffic problems for years. While the plaza was being constructed, the temporary traffic lights definitely caused more delays. However, we are now back to ‘normal’, and I’m continuing the work I was doing with Heron ward councillors throughout 2023 to try and improve traffic flow.
This has involved stricter parking rules – particularly near the take-aways – and more parking enforcement. Between January and September 2023, 240 fixed penalty notices were issued by the Council for illegally parked cars on the High Street. The efforts have continued since then, but we are requesting more as we need to see more improvement.
By helping more people to walk, wheel and cycle, we will in time reduce car journeys and congestion, but I recognise that we need to closely evaluate the results.
Similarly, some motorists who have historically used the High Street as a ’rat-run’, will instead use the Old Thanet Way or other routes to get to their destination. Again, this will be monitored.
Why wasn’t I aware of the public consultation in late 2022?
Postcards advertising the pubic consultation were sent to all residents living in the proposed expanded 20mph zone, as well as the roads immediately surrounding that area. The full range of digital channels were also used (email, social media, websites).
I have asked the Council team who designed the consultation to evaluate the materials used in 2022 to see what can be learnt such that we get better engagement rates in future.
Did the consultation make any difference?
A public consultation is not a referendum, but it is a chance to gather feedback and make changes to plans.
We had several hundred responses to the consultation. There was a large majority (75%) of people in favour of the 20mph zone, equal numbers for and against the cycle route, and a small majority against the plaza and one-way system (58%). The main reason for opposition was the lost disabled parking.
Councillors at Joint Transportation Board listened to the consultation feedback and voted for additional disabled parking bays to be implanted next to the plaza as part of the scheme, and accordingly these were put in place.
Will the cycle lane encourage more people to cycle?
There is quite a lot of cycling along Central Parade as it is part of a national cycling route, but no other roads in Herne Bay see many cyclists. The town is very unusual in not having a safe cycle route to travel across the town (north-south) and ultimately this is somewhat ‘chicken and egg’. People won’t have the confidence to cycle until a safe route exists. It will probably take some time, but the Department for Transport was confident that the route will ultimately have high usage.
Will we have any evidence on the effects of the scheme?
Yes, traffic counters have been installed in the town so that we can count vehicles (e.g. on the high street), as well as pedestrians and cyclists (e.g. on the plaza).
Will the Councils listen to feedback?
It is our role to collect feedback and pass it to the officers of the Councils to see if improvements or compromises can be found to best meet the wishes of the community. I am absolutely committed to working alongside my fellow councillors to listen to your views and represent you accordingly.