Active travel campaigners in London have described a High Court judge’s decision to dismiss a legal challenge brought against the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, after the local authority removed a protected cycle lane just seven weeks after it was installed, as a “hollow victory by a borough that seems happy to put people cycling on its streets in danger”.
Residents and campaigners had sought a judicial review of the manner in which the lightly segregated cycle lanes on Kensington High Street were removed, which Better Streets for Kensington & Chelsea (the residents’ group behind the legal action) claimed was an “irrational” and “clearly and radically wrong” decision which amounted to an “abuse of power” by the local council.
The lanes, installed on both sides of the street and used by up to 3,000 cyclists a day as part of a key corridor in and out of central London, were removed in December 2020, just seven weeks into a scheduled 18-month trial and before construction on the scheme had been fully completed.
Despite protests from residents and nearby schools, hospitals, and businesses, and after telling local campaigners that they would reconsider the decision to remove the scheme, senior councillors at the Conservative-controlled borough voted unanimously in March 2021 not to reinstate the lanes but instead to “develop plans to commission research into post-Covid transport patterns”, which could potentially “lead to a feasibility study in the longer term.”
> Kensington & Chelsea Council refuses to reinstate High Street cycle lane
Kensington & Chelsea council insisted at the time that the decision to remove the lanes – a move which reportedly prompted then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson to go “ballistic” – followed what it claimed were complaints from local businesses and residents (though later evidence showed that some of that opposition emanated from well outside the borough, and even outside the UK).
The local authority also claimed that the lanes created congestion and hindered the emergency services, even though an independent study found that traffic jams had worsened following the removal of the lanes, partly due to illegally parked cars.
In December and January, Better Streets for Kensington & Chelsea and its chair Justin Abbott took the case to the High Court, where they claimed that the council’s decision to scrap the trial early, preventing it “from running its course and gathering data”, was unlawful and broke the rules on public consultations.
However, in a written judgement published yesterday, Mr Justice Lane dismissed the campaigners’ case and found in favour of the borough.
The judge agreed with the council that “there was manifestly no statutory duty to consult” regarding the removal of the cycle lanes, and that the local authority was a “democratically elected public body” which allowed the campaigners “a full opportunity to make representations”.
“The claimants’ criticisms do not show that any consultation exercise went clearly and radically wrong,” he said. “I find that the claimants have not demonstrated any irrationality on the part of the defendant.”
The judge concluded that “it is paradoxical for the claimants, on the one hand, to say that the defendant did not have sufficient information to reach a decision and, on the other, to contend that the defendant’s decision to conduct further research before determining what, if any, cycle lane provision there should be on Kensington High Street, was irrational.”
> Council officer edited business group’s press statement on removal of Kensington High Street bike lane
Following the verdict, a spokesperson for the council said: “The judge has ruled in the council’s favour and dismissed the claim made by Better Streets.
“Our priority is to make Kensington and Chelsea a greener, safer and fairer place to live. We are happy to put legal challenges aside and look forward to working together on productive improvements to our streets.
“We commissioned independent research on travel patterns on our roads from the Centre for London and they published their reports in March and October 2022. We have very recently sought the views of our Citizen’s Panel and are carefully considering the findings.”
However, as the London Cycling Campaign has since pointed out, the Centre for London report alluded to by the council found last October that there is a “strong current and potential demand for East-West (and vice versa) cycle-based travel across the borough” and that there is currently no “convenient alternative East-West cycling route on quiet roads”.
London Cycling Campaign CEO Dr Ashok Sinha says the council has since refused to make any commitment to follow the report’s recommendations or improve cycling infrastructure in the area with any urgency.
“Today’s verdict is a hollow victory by a borough that seems happy to put people cycling on its streets in danger,” Sinha said after yesterday’s verdict.
“Its success in court means that Kensington & Chelsea, the borough with the worst rate of cycling casualties in inner London – where Kensington High Street has seen 15 pedestrians and cyclists seriously injured in the last three years – has a green light to ignore road danger.
“It remains imperative that Kensington & Chelsea makes this key cycling corridor safe in line with their own stated policies and the transport strategy of the Mayor and Transport for London.
“While we wait, the council’s inaction risks further injury and loss of life to those cycling, as well as those walking and wheeling. The campaign to get cycle tracks and safe cycling and walking routes in Kensington & Chelsea and across London continues, to save lives, as well reduce air pollution, carbon emissions and congestion.”
> Motor traffic journey times increase after Kensington cycle lanes removed
In a statement, Better Streets say they will not appeal the judgement, bringing an end to the two-year-long legal process.
“No-one seriously thinks that removing a safety scheme after seven weeks, before it’s even been completed, makes sense,” the group says.
“Judicial review is a technical area of public law. Chances of victory are always low, and how it plays out is hard to know in advance.”
The group said the Centre for London report was proof that “to no-one’s surprise, safe cycle infrastructure is needed on this road – something which RBKC still refuse to acknowledge”.
They continued: “Rather than act accordingly, another process of discussion is apparently now taking place. There is no indication beyond that of whether any action ever will be taken.
“RBKC remains without a single metre of protected cycle lane in the whole borough. No-one thinks this is because of some strange topography. It’s just the continuation of a decades-long policy that looks increasingly reckless as time passes.”
“RBKC has spent public money fighting this case and therefore prolonging road danger,” Better Streets’ chair Justin Abbot added. “This is a borough without a single metre of protected cycle lane, with Kensington High Street the obvious one-mile gap in an otherwise continuous route from Kew Bridge to Barking – a borough surrounded by other councils acting on making cycling safer.
“We ask those responsible for this road and others in the borough to build a safe, healthy and sustainable future for all residents including those cycling.”
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