No consultation, no scrutiny (1): Merton Council’s £900,000 project to replace the Figges Marsh roundabout

In south London, the London Borough of Merton will shortly start work on two highways projects valued together at over £1million.  Neither project has been offered to the general public via consultation, nor have they been presented to council committees for scrutiny or approval.

In Merton, that’s perfectly fine and normal.

In July 2019, Merton Council will start work on two projects:

  1. Remove the roundabout at Figges Marsh, between Mitcham and Tooting. This project will take approximately six months and cost £900,000.
  2. Reconfigure the junction and pedestrian crossing at the middle of Mitcham Common (junction of Croydon Road, Windmill Road and Beddington Lane). The council has declined to state the budget (likely six figures) and the project will 8 weeks.

The council has answered most of two Freedom of Information Requests for both projects.  This blogpost focuses on the first project – the roundabout at Figges Marsh – and also looks the council’s approach to public engagement.

A separate blogpost looks at the changes to the Mitcham Common junction.

Figges Marsh – where is it? How is it configured today?

Figges Marsh is an open green space just north of Mitcham town centre, south of Tooting.  Today, there’s a signalised roundabout at the bottom of the park land at the junction of London Road, Streatham Road and Locks Lane (Google maps link).

What is Merton Council proposing to do? And, why?

The council is replacing the roundabout with a flat, signalised junction.   The aim is to improve the journey times of the many buses that go through the junction.  The traffic lights controlling today’s roundabout are standalone.  It is likely the new traffic lights for the rebuilt junction will be linked into Transport for London’s SCOOT system.  TfL’s roads page (link) says that “SCOOT (Split Cycle Offset Optimisation) technology is used at 75% of [TfL’s] traffic lights. This uses sensors in the road to detect vehicles and uses the information to automatically respond to changes in traffic conditions. This reduces delays at junctions by about 13%.”

The council’s decision papers say that TfL’s models show many buses will benefit with improved timings and journey reliability.  No metrics have been published – these would certainly need further FOI requests to Merton Council or TfL.

How much will this cost?  How is it funded?  How long will it take?

Replacing the roundabout will take about six months and cost £900,000.  Thanks to an FOI answer, we know that most of the cost is funded by TfL’s bus priority programme (£825,000) (link to PDF funding letter), and the remainder from other TfL budgets such as the Local Implementation Plan (LIP).

Has the Figges Marsh project been published for public consultation?

No, not as a £900,000 project to reconfigure the whole junction.

The council did make a traffic order for one small detail: to ban the left-hand turn for southbound vehicles wishing to turn left into Streatham Road (Gazette TO link).  The TO process was the public’s only opportunity to comment on this scheme, through this small detail.

Asked why this big project hasn’t been subject to consultation, Merton Council answered:

 “This [Figges Marsh] scheme is an alteration to the junction layout to primarily improve bus journey times on behalf of Transport for London (TfL) bus services. The combined layout and operation of the traffic lights system is strictly governed by TfL’s design requirements and procedures and thus not subject to the usual consultation procedures, except for the element requiring a TMO [traffic management order]”.

Asked the same question for the changes to Mitcham Common’s junction, Merton Council answered:

Such highway and junction improvements do not require informal or statutory consultation. … Traffic and Highway matters are not subject to Committee decisions. Decisions regarding highway and junction improvements that do not require an informal or a statutory consultation are made informally by the Cabinet Member and Ward Councillors. As this scheme did not require any consultation, there was no requirement to undergo the formal process.”

Yes, “decisions … are made informally”.

Has the Figges Marsh project been presented to a council scrutiny committee?  Have councillors been informed?  How was it decided?

No, the project has not been presented to a scrutiny committee for review or approval.  The project was authorised by a Cabinet member’s decision, following budget approval by an internal TfL steering group.  This follows the process as explained in FOI answers noted above.

Merton Council has a Cabinet model, with councillors drawn from the majority Labour group.  The council has scrutiny committees which are intended to scrutinise each Cabinet portfolio.  The majority Labour group have the majority of positions on the scrutiny committees.  The council also runs local community forums, usually once per quarter.

The Cabinet member for transport is Cllr. Martin Whelton.  The transport portfolio is over seen by the Sustainable Communities Committee (dates & agendas).  This area would be covered by the Mitcham Community Forum (dates & agendas) which meets twice a year.

  • Cllr Whelton published a decision on 2 July’19 to proceed with the banned left-turn, allowing until 5 July’19 (4 days later) to allow councillors to “call-in” the decision for review. (Short call-in cycles are the norm in Merton). The actual decision papers are dated 25 June, and include a lot of detail about the overall project (pdf link), such as the benefits to bus journey times.  No councillors asked for the decision to be called-in for review.   These decision papers do *not* mention the £900,000 cost, just that the project is fully funded by TfL.
  • Transport for London approved the project several months earlier, on 8 December’18 at the Bus Priority Programme Scheme Progression Group. This is noted in Cllr Whelton’s decision papers (linked above).  TfL’s papers have not been published and new FOI requests will be needed to get them.
  • The project has not been presented to the Sustainable Communities Committee for review or approval. At the 19 March’19 meeting (agenda link), the officers presenting the town centre regeneration slot (see Youtube video of the meeting, starting at 1h40m) provided a 30 second overview of the project, but no papers were presented, no costs mentioned, no questions asked and, therefore, no answers given.  Listening to the video, I don’t believe Cllr Whelton or the officers mentioned that the project had been approved by TfL back in December.
  • As explained in the FOI answers, council committees do not scrutinise highways projects.  Budgetary information about highways projects does go to Cabinet, but only as budget line headings – no detail about the individual projects is provided.
  • Nothing has been presented to the Mitcham Community Forum.

Shortly after the council answered an FOI request, the council published a webpage with information about the Figges Marsh project.  I am sure the timing was a conincidence. The council published a letter to local residents on 12 July’19 (pdf) saying works will usually be carried out Mondays to Fridays.

Any other signal that Merton Council & TfL would spend £900,000 on this project?

No.

In March 2019, Merton Council pubished its draft LIP3 submission to TfL (webpage) with its bid to TfL for funding to implement the Mayor’s transport strategy for 2019-2023 under the 3rd cycle of Local Implementation Plan (LIP) funding. The LIP3 submission (7.5mb PDF document) noted the Figges March roundabout twice.  Paragraph 3.98 noted “TfL/London buses have identified significant bus reliability issues at Figges March [sic] roundabout. The council will support proposals to comprehensively design this junction to improve movement and reduce bus delays”.   Later in the document Table ST04 (titled STABLE ST04), with the indicative 3 year transport programme, listed £120,000 for “Figges Marsh signalised roundabout reconfiguration”.   Although published in March’19, the draft LIP3 document did not mention that TfL had approved the project and its £900,000 budget back in December 2018.

Looking through Merton Council’s budget papers to Cabinet, it is clear that the council and TfL have been considering changes to Figges Marsh for several years.  Each year’s capital budget papers have included Figges-related line items e.g. the 2017/18 Period 8 budget papers (pdf) to January 2018’s Cabinet (agenda) noted a transfer of £74,000 from “Figges Marsh” to “Casualty Reduction and Schools”.   As normal for Merton, the budget papers are never accompanied with project descriptions to explain the line items.

Update: 17 July’19.  Merton Council’s budget outturn papers for 2018/19 include revised capital budget for 2019/20 (PDF page 46).  These assign  £917k to the Figges Marsh project, and £210k to the Mitcham Common/ Beddington Lane project.

Merton201819Capital#4

So what highways projects have gone to public consultation? Which have not?

The council’s approach to public engagement – and committee scrutiny – is to do the minimum needed to comply with statutory requirements.  Other London boroughs use highways projects as a way of engaging the public to test and improve proposals.

Broadly, the council is using three mechanisms to engage the public:

  1. Merton Council Consultations webpage: This tends to be used for broad policy questions, such as the Local Plan or changes to polling districts.  Looking through closed consultations, the only highways projects listed are links to TfL consultations such as the recent, small A24/Jubilee Way (south Wimbledon) proposal.
  2. Merton Council Traffic Management consultations webpage: lots of useful but small proposals such as zebra crossings. Examples in 2019 include an informal raised-table crossing in Dorset Road, speed humps in Windmill Road (Mitcham Common), and the recent traffic order to extend 20mph zone across east of the borough. Most of these are copies of the Traffic Orders published in the London Gazette (below).  All ask for comments in writing or by email rather than a consultation webpage; and
  3. Traffic Orders published in the London Gazette, with copies printed in the local free-sheet newspapers. TOs are legal instruments and written in legalese.  They can be difficult to interpret and are not accompanied by plans or explanations.  These ask the public for feedback by letters or emails.

If a project requires a traffic order, then Merton will conduct the minimal form of statutory consultation.  Otherwise, there’s no communication about it.  For example, later this month, Merton Council starts a project to rebuild the traffic lights and pedestrian crossings in the middle of Mitcham Common.  No traffic order is required, so nothing has gone to public consultation or to a council scrutiny committee.  Last year, Merton Council spend £800,000 resurfacing its stretch of Beddington Lane and built a shared-use pedestrian and cycle pavement.  That didn’t go to consultation or committee for scrutiny either.

A quick look at the neighbouring Wandle boroughs shows a significant difference in approach – Wandsworth and Sutton engage more openly:

Both boroughs regularly present consultation reports, officers’ feedback and decisions for approval by scrutiny and review committees.

What is Merton Council’s policy on public engagement and consultation?

This was last debated at the Overview & Scrutiny Commission on 7 March 2017 (agenda & papers), with a committee paper (pdf) and appendix (pdf).  There is an implied focus on changes to council services rather than infrastructure projects, but the council’s stated principles are clear:

Figges Marsh#2

To me, it looks like Merton Council is happy to dispense with this stuff for infrastructure projects.

 What are the changes proposed at Figges Marsh?

A quick comparison of the roundabout today with the proposed layout (a PDF version of the proposed layout is included in the 12 July letter to residents):

Figges Marsh#1

  1. The roundabout is replaced by a flat junction;
  2. Clockwise from the top: The southbound lane at London Road is split, with a two-box Advanced Stop Line (ASL) box for people cycling. (Question: does this mean the traffic light signals are split?  Has a split ASL been authorised by Department for Transport?)  There’s room for a hatched area between the two lanes, but not for a feed-in lane to the ASL box.  (Question: why this choice of road space? London Road is recognised in TfL’s strategic cycling analysis as a useful route, if not in the top 10%, but I’d expect some improvement here for two-wheeled road users);
  3. Left-hand turn is banned for vehicles over 7.5 tonnes. Today, they’re expected to circle the roundabout. People driving large vehicles are expected to continue into Mitcham, go round the gyratory, and return to the junction in a northbound direction to access Streatham Road. (Question: how will this be enforced?  By camera?)
  4. The southbound lane in Streatham Road is reduced from three lanes to two, with an advisory feed-in lane to the ASL box.
  5. The roundabout is replaced with waiting boxes for right-turning vehicles. (Question: can we infer that northbound traffic from Mitcham’s London Road and southbound traffic from Streatham Road will cross the junction at the same time? Presumably, this is how the bus journey times get speeded up)
  6. No significant changes to the exit from Locks Lane.
  7. Northbound exit from Mitcham’s side of London Road continues to have two lanes. The left lane is marked “Tooting” with a left-turn arrow with the ahead-arrow pointing towards Streatham. Kind of makes sense …
  8. Looks like some pavements are widened, but traffic islands are smaller, and corner radii tightened (which helps discourage fast cornering by drivers).
  9. As today, all of the pedestrian crossings are staggered, two-stage crossings. (Question: will there be pedestrian buttons?  Will any such buttons actually influence the lights? How long will it take to for pedestrians to cross the junction? Will this be quicker or slower than today?)

Overall, the priority at this junction will be motorised traffic, especially buses.  Other road users – pedestrians and cyclists – gain little to nothing.

If there had been a consultation, we could have asked questions like those posed above and, possibly, influenced the design to create a layout better serving people walking and cycling.

Conclusion

Improving bus journey times is a good thing, and it supports the Mayor of London’s transport strategy with its aim of 80% of journeys being by walking, cycling or public transport.

My concern is that that these big highways projects are being done via unscrutinised decisions, and this is the norm in Merton.  There’s no attempt to engage the public by Merton Council or by TfL – no opportunity to constructively test and improve the plans.  The council states it is fulfilling its statutory duties.  Council scrutiny committees receive only abstract bullet points for £1million of public money, and councillors don’t ask questions.   Cabinet Members and Ward Councillors can decide to spend millions of pounds “informally” without scrutiny, according to the FOI answers.

I recognise the projects’ good intentions.  But I worry about the quality of public governance.

 

[Updated 17 July’19 to include reference to Merton Council’s budget papers which assign £917k to the Figges Marsh project, and £210k to the Mitcham Common/ Beddington Lane project]

 

 

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