Jamie has kindly written a guest blog for us, talking about the footstreets issue specifically around a Freedom of Information request he made. You have the right to ask to see recorded information held by public authorities and can ask to see this under the Freedom of Information Act.
TLDR: Jamie talks about the information he asked the council for, why he asked for it and why it’s important data. He explains why the data he recieved doesn’t give a strong enough argument to go ahead and make the changes permanent. He also talks about how saying yes to “Would you like less traffic on the foot streets” is being used to justify removing Blue Badge holders, and only Blue Badge holders, from the city centre exemption list.
The issue of Blue Badge access to the footstreets area has been a major issue in York for the nearly two years. In summary, Blue Badge holders are temporarily unable to drive into and park within any of the footstreets area. Before June 2020, Blue Badge holders were able to access certain streets within the footstreets area including Goodramgate, Blake Street and Lendal. Since June 2020, this hasn’t been possible during the footstreet hours. And the footstreet hours have increased from 10.30-5pm, to 10.30-8pm.
On 18th November there is a possibility the currently temporary changes will be made permanent and one of the considerations being included will be the results of a survey conducted in the Spring. After it became clear the survey would be a key part of the argument for the change, I submitted a request to the council asking about the extent of their monitoring of vehicle traffic in the footstreets area. To me this was a crucial piece of information.
Currently, the council are using the responses of yet another survey to suggest that people who identify as having a disability are supportive of restrictions on traffic in the footstreets. I am one of those: I would prefer less traffic in the footstreets. Why? Because I could use the roads for my mobility scooter, not have to hunt out drop kerbs. Because I could cycle safely to reach the centre, not have to risk life and limb on Deangate, Navigation Road or Piccadilly. Because I could move unhindered on the pavements rather than dodge chairs and tables (pavement café’s could shift to the carriageway, a solution used more widely on the continent). It then became clear that the council were using my, and others, answers to the question “Would you like less traffic on the foot streets” to justify removing Blue Badge holders, and only Blue Badge holders, from the city centre exemption list.
The question that sprang to mind was “How many vehicles in the footstreets are Blue Badge holders?” It seems fairly obvious that, in order to use the survey in the way that they have, they must have this information. So I used an FOI (Freedom of information) request to find out. I sent the FOI on 28th July and the council had four weeks to respond. This meant they legally had to respond by the 26th August, by chance the day of a council executive meeting at which I spoke (you can read my statement or watch the recording). During the meeting I mentioned the pending FOI and the Deputy Chief Executive even received a text message during the meeting. He used the text messages as an opportunitiy for an interruption to reassure the Executive that the answer to the FOI would be imminent.
The response arrived on 29th September, almost 5 weeks later, and contained two lots of information. Firstly, some information I was already familiary with and, secondly, a set of data regarding traffic counts conducted on 2 days in 2018 and 2 days in 2021. So, does this answer my questions? Those questions were:
- What proportion of vehicles in the footstreets before and during the change are blue badge holder?
- What is the anticipated impact on all traffic of the change?
In short, no it doesn’t answer them. The first information gives the results of street surveys conducted prior to the changes, but bizarrely no information was collected on Goodramgate, one of the crucial streets involved. The second batch of information contains details of the number of vehicles in the area and the differences between these days between 2018 and 2021, but only on four particular days . Crucially the information about whether these vehicles were Blue Badge holders is lacking – only information regarding parking of Blue Badge holders is present, and, more astonishing still, the information regarding Goodramgate is also missing.
There are therefore three gaping flaws with this data. Firstly, it is only a single day for each data point! We have no idea whether these numbers are representative of the normal situation or not. Secondly, the vital data for Goodramgate is missing. Finally, and worse, all the data demonstrates is that if access points are monitored, as they were in 2021, then fewer vehicles will enter the footstreets. The data related to 2018 was taken at a time when access points to the footstreets were not monitored. We also have no idea whether the vehicles recorded were Blue Badge holders or not. In short, we don’t have data indicating the level of traffic due to Blue Badge holders in the footstreets, the supposed problem that making the changes permanent will correct.
Even more bizarrly, the council’s “statement of reasons” document argues that there is a need to exclude vehicles from the city centre in order to reduce the threat of terrorism. This seems strange. Either there is a real threat from terrorism, in which case we need a more drastic response with bans for all vehicles enforced by physical bollards. Or there isn’t a real threat, in which case terrorism shouldn’t even be part of this conversation, never mind central to the statement of reasons. I hate to break it to the council, but simply excluding Blue Badge holders is not going to stop a vehicle with a malign purpose from entering the footstreets area.
The question remains is whether the council is, or will be, in breach of equality law if they make the changes permanent. That is a matter for someone who is far more qualified than I to judge. What I can say is that in order for the council to use a reasonable adjustment defence, as in the UTAG vs TfL case, a strong evidence base is needed. This does not look like any sort of evidence base to me, much less a strong one.