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Chaos, confusion and catastrophe: Lord Holmes describes the impact of shared space on UK streets

Chaos, confusion and catastrophe: Lord Holmes describes the impact of shared space on UK streets

Elizabeth Bates

4 min read

Conservative peer Lord Holmes speaks to PoliticsHome about a new report of the dangers and disadvantages 'shared space' street design

Lord Holmes is used to making waves, first as a gold-medal-winning Paralympic swimmer and now as Parliament’s only guide dog owner.

Given this record, his latest endeavour seems likely to gain attention, as he takes a stand against shared space schemes that are proliferating on UK high streets and causing “chaos, confusion and catastrophe.”

The Conservative peer describes shared space as a concept “whereby kerbs, traffic lights, crossings, zebra crossing, all of that stuff is simply removed. So, there is no distinction between the road and the pavement, or junctions.”

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Originally a design approach created for remote areas of Holland, it has now been adopted by over 100 locations across the UK, applied to main roads and busy highstreets with the intention of improving usability through greater cooperation. 

“The reality is that people feel terrified to go in these areas,” Lord Holmes says, “be they pedestrians or motorists, because nobody has right of way.

“It effectively creates a third-world traffic free for all, which is ridiculous. We have travelled so far in our development and now we are taking huge steps backwards based on architectural conceit and planning folly.”

After becoming increasingly concerned about the implications of the schemes, the peer commissioned his own research, and the findings were damning.          

In a survey of over 600 people,a majority of respondents were overwhelmingly negative in their reaction to shared space, with 35% of people saying they avoided it altogether.

All types of users reported bad experiences with one pedestrian describing the design as “lethally dangerous,” while a driver said it was an “absolute nightmare that I avoid if I can.”

Building on the data, Lord Holmes is now calling for an immediate moratorium on all shared space development pending thorough impact assessments of current projects, to establish the impact on communities and the cost of delivery. 

In some areas the potential risks have prompted councils to reinstall crossings and road markings to improve usability, raising questions about the economic efficiency of the initiative.     

Lord Holmes warns that “not only is it not inclusive but what you also have is use of public money to lay out this shared space in the first place, then another use of public money to reinstall crossings. So, it doesn’t deliver on efficiency or value for money.

According to Lord Holmes, “it’s seen as the latest thing for the high street. Superficially it has an aesthetic charm, but the reality is councils are also being advised by people who have a financial interest in the schemes going ahead. I really urge all local authorities, all councillors to think again, because they are effectively designing people out of the high-street.”   

The Tory peer has also had personal experience of the concept on London’s Exhibition Road; the UK’s largest shared space area. 

He says: “I remember when it was first mooted and I thought this was an extraordinary idea, to effectively put buses and blind people, trucks and toddlers, pedestrians, cyclists and motorists all in the same space. I go down there and it’s incredibly unnerving. There is no sense of how the space is supposed to operate.

“You feel that people are jumping out at you but they are not, they are just trying to use the space as well. There is this sense that taking everything away is going to create an inclusive, connected experience instead of the reality, which is chaos, confusion and catastrophe.”

Seeking to invigorate the argument and raise awareness amongst his colleagues, Lord Holmes hopes today’s report will shed some light on this vital issue.     

To read the full report, see here.

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