Councillors clash over city centre pedestrianisation

Cllr Annie Brewster in the overview and scrutiny committee meeting.

Cllr Annie Brewster in the overview and scrutiny committee meeting. - Credit: SADC

The ongoing row over city centre road closure trials erupted into a heated debate between councillors this week.

The trials, set to begin this spring, could be under threat after the fire service said they could be delayed responding to emergencies if roads were closed.

Last year, St Albans district council (SADC) agreed to undertake trials into the pedestrianisation of roads in the city centre in the spring, as long as the emergency services were not impacted.

This week the overview and scrutiny committee agreed on a recommendation that response times will be affected after also hearing from a senior member of the ambulance service, who acknowledged there could be an impact from having to open gates while responding.

The ambulance service, however, were unable to conclusively say whether the road closures in place last year had led to longer response times or not.

The committee's findings from the committee could provide a hurdle ahead of any trials, which are set to begin in April.

Councillors disagreed on whether there was enough data to reach a definite conclusion on the issue.

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Last year, Sean Comerford, district commander for Dacorum and St Albans at Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service, wrote to councillors expressing his concerns about longer response times.

In the letter, referenced during Tuesday’s meeting, Mr Comerford said any installation of a barrier or gate would affect the fire service’s response time to areas in the city.

However, a representative from the East of England ambulance service said a number of factors affecting the service during the pandemic meant it was difficult to highlight specific factors for their response times.

Jonathan Perry, assistant general manager for mid-Hertfordshire, told councillors he had not seen any data regarding response times in 2020 and 2021.

In a question regarding whether there was any impact as a result of road closures, he said: “During the pandemic it was very difficult to say, just because call volume was so variant, staff sickness was so changed, we had support from fire colleagues.

“It’s very difficult to pinpoint any particular changes or issues we had in response in St Albans purely down to the road closures because there were so many different elements to take into account for that."

He added: “I couldn’t sit here and say to you for definite the road closures impacted on response times, I couldn’t sit here and categorically confirm or deny that.

“It’s something we are monitoring and working with, we’re aware of some of the closures coming up. It’s something we are keeping an eye on and making sure there’s no impact being felt on our response times.”

Any changes to the response times during the trials would be provided to the project board at Herts county council (HCC).

Mr Perry, however, did say having to enter codes to open barriers could slow down a crew’s response.

He said ambulance crews would be provided the code to the gates automatically on their vehicle’s display, but this would need to be manually entered by someone leaving the ambulance.

Mr Perry also noted that responders who are not using blue lights would have to sit in traffic, which could affect response times if traffic builds up on surrounding roads.

Conservative Cllr Annie Brewster also raised concerns that any problems with locks could present issues with ambulances as crews don’t carry bolt cutters, to which Mr Perry said rising bollards would be preferable.

Representatives from the police force and fire service were unable to attend the meeting, and Cllr Brewster said the committee would be sending written questions to both services to clarify any concerns or issues they have with potential road closures.

The committee voted to pass a recommendation brought forward by the chair, concluding that “response times will be impacted in our city centre” by 6-5.

Following the vote, Lib Dem Cllr Chris Davies accused Cllr Brewster of a “dereliction of duty”, arguing the ambulance service said they did not know how response times could be impacted at this stage.

Cllr Davies  said: “What we’ve had is one person turn up from the ambulance service, who isn’t a decision maker. We don’t have the data – the data is with the [HCC] committee that’s dealing with this.

“We can’t ride roughshod if we don’t have the data. We need to model all the data, model how emergency services are going to be impacted – or not, as the case may be – and that will take the time it takes.

“At the end of the day, if you’re going to put this to policy [committee], it’s going to be meaningless in my opinion.”

Cllr Brewester said she had noted the fire service letter was much more conclusive about the effects of the closures, while Mr Perry had acknowledged issues with opening gates and how an increase in traffic could slow down some responding vehicles.

The recommendation will be sent to the district council’s Policy Committee for consideration.

The trials are organised by HCC, who will have the final say on whether closures should be put in place.