The Highway Code is dead. We need a new movement code

Piccadilly Circus, c1970, when the Highway Code still worked. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

The battle for space on London’s roads and streets seems to be getting worse. Every day our crowded public transport network accommodates not only millions of people, but the varied fabric of our lives – from luggage to gym bags, pushchairs to tool kits. Technology-enabled personal mobility – from Uber to home deliveries – have put even more vehicles on the road. The welcome and much needed uptick in cycling adds another layer into the mix.

Our daily frustrations are regularly aired: from aggressive driving to phone zombies; pedestrians in bike lanes, to bikes cutting lights. Tube riders who won’t make space, loud telephone conversations or music percolating from earphones, man spreading… We all have our lists. 

Cities are complex ecosystems that work, in part, through a series of unspoken codes, negotiation and accommodation. If everyone is to have a place in the city, for us to move safely and in harmony, it’s time to look afresh at how we support and guide people on the rules, their rights, and responsibilities on London’s roads and streets.  

When the motorcar first traversed our streets, someone walked ahead waving a red flag, to warn pedestrians. As cars became ubiquitous, we created the Highway Code, focused on the ‘rules of the road’.

Over the intervening decades our city, priorities, transportation choices and population have changed enormously. Increasing numbers of people now eschew driving all together, so fewer Londoners actually know the Highway Code. This means we are moving around our busy city with different needs, assumptions and knowledge. And though the Highway Code has been updated, it has not kept up with the pace of change.

We need a ‘new movement code’ – a new platform for sharing our city, based on how we live and travel now. Much more than a cycling or a pedestrian campaign, it would offer a refreshed and a fit-for-purpose protocol, information and behavioural campaign, designed to better guide the daily interaction between different users.


It could embrace trip planning tools and road user training, and may well need lead to changes in the official rules, if the current ones prove wanting in the face of societal change. But for now, it simply surfaces what exists already, overlaid with a voluntary guide.  At its most basic, it should help people understand what we can legally expect of each other as we go about our daily lives.

Mark Twain reminded us that we are not making any more land. Yet we are building more homes, workspace, bike lanes, widened pavements, and adding more people in a space constrained city. If our city is to accommodate that pressure it needs help, from us. 

It’s worth remembering, though, just how far we’ve come since the days when Trafalgar Square was a traffic clogged roundabout. When few traffic lights had pedestrian walk times, dropped kerbs were the exception and public space was lined by tracts of ugly guardrail. We’ve unravelled one-way systems, prioritised good design, pedestrianised streets and softened urban edges with planting and public art. We made London more liveable, easier to walk, much more pleasant to linger and soak in the city. 

But we can’t just rely on the built environment to change and inform our travel habits. A new movement code would be based on mutual understanding, common courtesy and respect. It would be known and used by all road users, of all ages and abilities.

Through generosity and empathy for our fellow Londoners, we can all help make this amazing city, and its busy streets and spaces, work for everyone. 

Patricia Brown is a director of consultancy Central, and a member of the Independent Commission on the Future of London's Roads and Streets.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.