Proposals to lay a path through Alexandra Park for cyclists to share with pedestrians were endorsed by East Sussex County Council (ESCC) in March and are backed by immediately available government funding. But local park users are mounting organised resistance. 

The scheme will need the backing of Hastings Borough Council (HBC) as owners of the park, and also a change in the by-laws which currently ban any cycling within it. Candidates in this week’s elections were being strongly canvassed on social media to declare their opposition, and a protest meeting will be held in the park at 11.30 am tomorrow (Saturday). Organiser Dave Smith says he is “inviting councillors to come and explain to the press why they support a scheme which is quite obviously dangerous, discriminatory and which seems to have been pushed through only with the backing of cycling lobby groups”.

Local groups such as Hastings Urban Bikes, Hastings Greenway Group and Hastings Sustainable Transport Forum have certainly been pressing – some of their members for a decade or more – for the laying of a network of dedicated cycle routes through the town. Alexandra Park is the natural fulcrum. The Hastings Walking and Cycling Strategy document, developed by ESCC in conjunction with HBC in 2014 and adopted in the Local Plan, mapped two major routes from the town centre through or alongside the park – one to the Combe Valley via Silverhill, the other to the Conquest Hospital on the Ridge. SELEP (South East Local Economic Partnership) allocated £6m of government funds, to be spent by ESCC over three years between 2018 and 2021, to a programme which included establishing these two cycling routes and a section within the park.

Some of those funds got diverted, and very little progress had been made before the Covid-19 pandemic brought the programme to a standstill. However, it remained on ESCC’s drawing board, and £560,000 has been set aside for the scheme in its 2022/23 capital budget. Most of this sum (£500,000) is to be provided from Local Growth Fund monies with a condition that it be spent by March 2023. 

Rival petitions

After publication of plans for the park section revealed the proposed sharing of a pathway between cyclists and pedestrians, rival petitions were presented to Cllr Claire Dowling, the council’s lead member for transport and environment. Cycling groups and their supporters called for the plan to be implemented in full. Opponents claimed that allowing cycling through the park would raise intolerable safety issues for other users, including children, elderly and disabled pedestrians, and dog-walkers.

Cllr Dowling reviewed both petitions in March. She concluded that, shorn of the Alexandra Park section, the other cycle routes in the proposed scheme would be left disconnected. Alternative routes alongside the park, including a dedicated cycle lane running alongside St Helen’s Road, were unsafe. She had made a personal inspection of the park together with council officers and believed that the shared pathway would work.

Mr Smith, organiser of Saturday’s protest, disagrees: “We aren’t anti-cyclists, in fact we want them to be safe also. But this scheme offers anything but safety. Those visually impaired won’t be able to walk the length of the park any more. The toilets have a cycle path in front of them. The ‘pedestrian only route’ still has to cross the cycle path twice and is more challenging for the disabled and elderly. Toddlers are at risk on the lawns, dog walkers will have to watch for their pets suddenly darting after a squirrel and bringing a cyclist down. And it involves digging up a huge amount of lawn and shrubs with many trees needing to be felled. So much for a Grade II-listed public park.”

He concludes: “This is a St Helen’s Road bypass for cyclists, created on the lowest possible budget. Creating it on St Helen’s Road or Lower/Upper Park road (which I consider the best option with Lower Park Road being made one-way towards the town) would be far safer and at the same time improve the awful traffic situation on Lower Park Road.” 

Political divisions

Mr Smith has enlisted political support for his campaign not only from local ward councillor Godfrey Daniel but from both Labour and Conservative party candidates in this week’s HBC election. Among those endorsing it were rival St Helens ward candidates Andy Batsford (Labour) and Laurie Loe (Conservative). 

However, new Labour leader Paul Barnett is reported to have backed the shared pathway in a letter to Cllr Dowling, and an unnamed Green party spokesperson issued a statement in favour: “We have to make our town more bike-friendly, and this new route is an important development to support more active travel. Across the country there are thousands of shared routes where pedestrians and cyclists co-exist, and there are virtually no reports of accidents.  With the new route through Alexandra Park it’s essential that cyclists are careful, and there is bound to be some period of adjustment, but my suspicion is that the whole issue will quickly subside as people realise it can work.”

Anna Sabin, a member of Hastings Urban Bikes who stood as a Labour party candidate in the 2021 local election, agrees. “In a climate emergency we can’t go on driving cars about, we need to encourage other forms of transport. And although pedestrians do get worried about cyclists, shared paths are the norm in many parks all over London, and people don’t get injured. The real danger is cars.”

There is likely to be a formal HBC consultation this summer before the ESCC programme is implemented.

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