Letter to Comet

Dear Sir,

I have received a number of complaints about the new Variable Message Signs (VMS) and car park management signs (CPMGS) which have been appearing in the last couple of weeks at the side of some main roads in Stevenage and your own columns have also referred to these. I would like to make clear a few points for your readers, following a lot of research by me on the issue:

  • I do not think that they were a good use of over £200,000 of taxpayers’ money, and that money could certainly have been better spent on other highways issues, notably road and footway surface repairs – but it is not as simple as just changing what the money is spent on.
  • The Conservative controlled Hertfordshire County Council (HCC) is fitting the VMS and CPMGS, as the local highway authority.
  • VMS will show traffic conditions ahead. CPMGS will show town centre car park status and capacity.
  • The previous Labour government, and the current government, made available various grants, for which highways authorities, like HCC, could bid, for use only on these VMS and CPMGS, the intention being to help relieve congestion on roads. It has been an annual bidding process now for some years. It was a ‘once only’ offer.
  • If awarded such a grant, the highway authority had to put in a proportion of the total cost out of its own resources (varying in each year’s bidding process, but typically about 50%). The rest of the cost has to come from local council taxpayers, in our case via HCC.
  • HCC have a plan to roll out these VMS and CPMGS across Hertfordshire, in order of the likely road congestion priorities, and Stevenage is being done now in 2012/2013, roughly in the middle of the Hertfordshire programme. The Stevenage signs are due to go live within the next month.
  • The total cost for all the Stevenage signs is just over £201,000, so about £100,000 has come from local council taxpayers via HCC.
  • If HCC had not fitted these signs in Stevenage, that £100,000 could indeed have been used for other highways priorities, like improving road and footway surfaces. However, the other approx. £100,000 from central government would of course have been lost from Hertfordshire and spent on other areas of the country.
  • 5 of the 6 local Stevenage county councillors were informed of the intention to fit the VMS and CPMGS, in Stevenage, in e mails dated 27.7.2012 and 13.8.2012, although no plan of locations was provided. (Only those county councillors representing divisions where at least one sign was planned were sent those e mails.)
  • In my case, I asked HCC to inform me if/when/where any VMS would be fitted in my area (Chells, Chells Manor and Mobbsbury). This did not happen and the first I knew was when I saw them appear overnight (literally – this was done because it is cheaper to do the work at night).
  • The signs near the town centre will be CPMGS and will be linked to Stevenage Borough Council (SBC) information about the state and capacity of their town centre car parks, so to that extent SBC officials were consulted as well.
  • Local residents were not consulted prior to the VMS or CPMGS being fitted, unless they were “near” their properties. I disagree with HCC’s interpretation of “near”. I have had complaints from residents of Marlborough Road about the new VMS on Six Hills Way, because it is (in my view) near where they live and is unsightly. I agree with the residents.
  • The VMS on Six Hills Way near Marlborough Road is also just before a crossing point, where in recent years there has been at least one fatality, and I do not want anything there that might cause a distraction for drivers.
  • As yet I have received no complaints about any CPMGS.
  • I have passed on complaints from residents about the VMS to the relevant HCC engineers. I am told that they will review the locations and usefulness of the VMS and CPMGS in “due course” and I intend to hold them to this. At the moment, HCC refuse to remove the offending signs.
  • The actual location of each of the signs is limited by availability of power and the intention to “catch” as much traffic as possible and, having checked the facts, I can confirm that it is true that the Six Hills Way VMS is in the only viable location.
  • The issue is, though, is it needed at all? I do not think so.
  • As Stevenage population and traffic volumes increase, HCC engineers argue that the VMS and CPMGS may become more useful. I doubt this. Stevenage is still small enough for any local road congestion to be obvious immediately one sets off on a journey. This will remain the case.
  • In summary, the Conservative controlled HCC have spent £100,000 of our local council taxpayers’ money on some half price white elephants, there was poor consultation, and the money should have been spent on repairing road and footway surfaces instead.

Yours sincerely

Robin Parker

Chells county councillor on HCC and Manor borough councillor on SBC