By Martin Stanley, local resident and editor of Understanding Government
It is common ground that Vauxhall Cross poses numerous planning dilemmas. It is a major transport interchange and a complex junction where seven major roads meet, two of them forming the Inner Ring Road and boundary of the Congestion Zone. It looks well placed to become a vibrant neighbourhood, but the roads and the railway viaduct in practice create an unattractive environment, as well as forming a real barrier between the Thames and residential areas to the south and east.
The planning challenge is exacerbated by the division of responsibility between the two key authorities – the London Borough of Lambeth (LBL) and Transport for London (TfL). Although their political masters from time to time try to work together, they clearly have different and conflicting priorities, and they consult separately and generally ineffectively about the three main planning issues:
- the road layout – “the gyratory”
- the transport interchange – and especially the future of the bus station, and
- the new high-rise buildings – “the island site”.
TfL organised a significant improvement in the Vauxhall Cross environment in the early 2000s when they replaced the congested two-way circulatory system with the current one-way system, and built the transport interchange.
TfL’s boss Peter Hendy said this in September 2004:
The Vauxhall Cross interchange has been an ambitious project for TfL. For passengers at Vauxhall Cross, changing between bus, rail and Tube had been difficult for a long time. At the same time, pedestrians and cyclists had to use a road network dominated by cars and lorries. We’ve tackled these issues head on and passengers and residents will have a transport interchange that will improve their journeys and make them feel safer.
TfL itself said:
Transport for London worked in partnership with the Mayor of London, Cross River Partnership, London Development Agency, London Borough of Lambeth and others to improve public transport facilities at Vauxhall Cross. Designed to reflect the Mayor’s integrated transport strategy, the interchange supports greater use of public transport, cycling and walking, while aiming to reduce accidents and congestion.
The main feature of the interchange is the fully pedestrianised bus station area. It brings bus stops from the major surrounding roads (South Lambeth Road, Wandsworth Road and the south end of Vauxhall Bridgefoot) to a central area along Bondway making it far more convenient and safer for passengers.
Mayor Ken Livingstone formally opened the bus station on 24 February 2005.
Boris Johnson became Mayor of London in 2008. Noting the successful closure of the North side of Trafalgar Square to traffic in 2003, he determined to get rid of London’s other four-sided ‘gyratories’ – in future confining traffic to three sides of major interchanges such as Elephant & Castle, Archway and Lewisham. Some refer to this as ‘peninsularisation’.
LBL welcomed this policy insofar as it might have applied to Vauxhall Cross, and saw the opportunity simultaneously to bring commercial and artistic life to the area. Following consultation, there was widespread support for the creation of a district or town centre and the ‘the removal of the gyratory’. The September 2012 Consultation Statement for the Draft Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) reported that consultees had said that “It is essential to get rid of the gyratory”. The late 2012 SPD consultation document itself accordingly sought views on the creation of…
But the accompanying questionnaire contained some very loaded questions. Who (other than experts) could not but agree to all these statements?
Note in particular the lack of precision in Question 1 above. It was not made clear (by LBL) that TfL had begun to realise that peninsularisation might prove problematic. Even converting all four sides of the gyratory to two-way traffic would likely introduce delay and junction complexity that would severely delay traffic on the Inner Ring Road/Congestion Charge boundary. The only way, it seemed, that the road traffic could be accommodated would be if Kennington Lane were widened under the railway, but this alone would cost c.£50m and be very disruptive to railway traffic whilst being built. Other solutions might involve demolition of the bus station but TfL recognised that this would involve prioritising road traffic over pedestrians and bus passengers. This TfL graphic made the case for bus passengers very well. (The relative traffic proportions remained pretty similar all day.)
Summarising the SPD consultation, LBL Council Leader Lib Peck said in October 2013 that
The SPD is the result of extensive consultation which was very clear in stating that residents want Vauxhall Cross to be made safer for pedestrians and cyclists, to become a nicer place to shop and socialise, and that any changes must ensure that the interchange for passengers using the train, tube and buses is quick and easy.
There then followed some sort of political deal under which TfL accepted that two-way working might be acceptable, without widening the road under the railway. But senior London Borough of Lambeth (LBL) and TfL officials could not explain how this policy development could be justified, commenting only, in one meeting, that the decision had been taken ‘above their pay grade’.
And, to be fair to TfL, its officials continued to express concern about the direction in which LBL were moving. The London Mayor’s April 2013 representations on the draft Lambeth Local Plan show that TfL regarded LBL’s conclusion as ‘unproven’, particularly with regards to the relocation of the bus stops.
Under pressure, LBL’s Lib Peck said this on 14 October 2013:
We will not be returning to a situation where bus stops appear to be scattered throughout the area.
Deputy Mayor Isabel Dedring said this on 14 January 2014:
Can I just personally reassure you that there is no intention by either Lambeth or TFL to affect bus interchange (or indeed public transport interchange) negatively with this project at all.
And TFL’s Peter Hendy said this on BBC London on 26 February 2014:
The council said we don’t like the environment at Vauxhall, what can you do?…..Lambeth came to us and said get rid of the gyratory and didn’t appear to be averse to getting rid of the bus stations. If it appears there is a number of people who want to keep the bus station we’ll see if there is a scheme that works.
As TfL/LBL relations soured, an internal TfL email dated September 2015 asked:
Why should we do schemes like the Vauxhall gyratory which are important to Lambeth?
Even as recently as March 2016, TfL continued to hope that LBL would revisit its strategy. Leon Daniels said this:
Since we met in early January, there has been progress with the Island Site, with the site being purchased by new owners. TfL, LB Lambeth and the GLA have held initial discussions with the new owners to encourage them to develop a new scheme that better integrates with TfL’s proposals and Lambeth’s aspirations, rather than build out as per the existing consent. These discussions are at an early stage but they do present a potentially exciting opportunity to deliver a more holistic solution for Vauxhall. [emphasis added]
Construction has of course carried on apace in the wider Vauxhall/Nine Elms area. But there has been no sign of any ‘holistic’ planning as envisaged by TfL or in LBL’s ‘Transforming Vauxhall Update’ which summarised the aims of the SPD as follows:
- The creation of a district centre with a high street and proposals for a new public square as a potential venue for community and cultural events at its heart. This has started with the arrival of new shops such as Little Waitrose, Dirty Burger and the Travel Lodge.
- Ensuring that the importance of Vauxhall as a transport interchange between rail, underground and bus is retained and, crucially, that the area becomes safer and more comfortable for cyclists and pedestrians, while maintaining the operation of the strategic road network.
- More shops, cafes and restaurants – both on the streets and within the buildings themselves where distinctive retail businesses will reflect a strong sense of established and emerging local character.
- Iconic tall buildings of high quality with excellent sustainability credentials will form a cluster around Vauxhall Cross, with particular attention paid to design at ground level to ensure they contribute to creating a memorable and attractive place.
- The railway arches, so long a barrier, will be brought to life to provide space for new business, community and cultural uses.
There remains little sign of this vision being realised, although Nando’s has now joined Dirty Burger as a place to eat. Access to the proposed buildings on the Island Site seem highly impracticable and the safety claims appear to be nonsense.
(Vauxhall Cross is already well equipped with light controlled pedestrian crossings and off-road cycle tracks. In response to FoI requests, TfL have confirmed that the vast majority of accidents occur when pedestrians do not wait for the lights to change in their favour, and cyclists, in a hurry, prefer to use the roads rather than the cycle tracks. Tellingly, neither LBL nor TfL have prepared a safety assessment. But TfL have confirmed that, if Vauxhall Cross is developed in the way promoted by LBL, cyclist/pedestrian waiting times will not improve – and will in some cases increase to c.2 minutes, much longer than the 40 seconds beyond which transport experts note that the public are generally willing to wait before taking risks.Also, both cyclists and pedestrians will in future need to cross two carriageways, not one. It seems highly unlikely that this will improve pedestrian and cyclist safety.)
So it remains the case – and it remains concerning – that both LBL and TfL have published consultations which have
- failed properly to explain the trade-offs necessary to develop Vauxhall Cross in a sensible way,
- misled consultees about the nature of the ‘removal of the gyratory’,
- greatly exaggerated the safety implications of their proposals, and
- mis-characterised the nature of the developments which they would eventually wish to approve at the heart of the ‘district centre’.
Vauxhall is a great place to live. And its residents understand that the strategic importance of Vauxhall Cross means that there must be compromises between the needs of residents, bus passengers, pedestrians, cyclists and motorised transport. But LBL and TfL’s post-SPD failure to develop the area as an entity seem to have resulted is a series of plans which are decidedly sub-optimal, and certainly not in line with that planning document.