Sunday 7 February 2021

Pathways in crisis - an appeal for action

In the year of the Covid lockdowns, we’ve seen walkers and cyclists  take to the many motor traffic free paths of Merton in unprecedented numbers in search of fresh air and exercise. But they’ve found their way hampered by overgrown vegetation, poor surfaces and bottle necks.

This issue was highlighted as early as 2012, and went unheeded by the Council, creating a crisis un-der Covid where motor traffic free public pathways offering the promise of physical and mental well-being are made uninviting by lack of maintenance and neglect. 

So that the full potential of existing motor-traffic-free shared-use routes can be fully unlocked and exploited Merton Council must start to prepare pathways for Spring 2021 now. MCC have prepared a report for Merton Council on the current state of some key paths, calling for action to be prioritised to make these pathways accessible to all for the welfare of all under Covid in 2021. The report has not highlighted the effect of obstructed pathways on the mobility impaired and vulnerable and the target must be that all public pathways are accessible to all.

To maximise the use of paths for promoting active lives for as many people as possible requires

  • Vegetation cut back 
  • Surface maintenance 
  • Surface construction 
  • Alleviation of bottlenecks 

With good husbandry, and good management from the beginning of 2021, public expectations can be met with attractive, clipped, clear, comfortable, coherent paths which meet the Council’s Policy commitments to Active Travel and promote an active life through cycling and walking.

How you can help 

Submit examples of overgrown vegetation, poor surfaces or bottlenecks to Publicspace [at] or for routine operational matters contact the maintenance service provider, idverde:  slwpenquiries [at]

Write to your ward Councillor with the same examples asking them to make sure that the Council takes action to ensure that everyone can safely share the space available to cyclists and walkers and make more journeys in these covid-secure ways. You can find your ward Councillor here. 


In ‘Cycle Schemes’ section of Merton Council’s Covid -19 2020 ‘Transport Projects’ Merton recommend that the level of skill needed to cycle any route can be found in the Merton Cycle Skills Network Audit 2012 carried out by Transport Initiatives in 2012. 

But in this audit Transport Initiatives also made the point that motor traffic free paths in Merton have problems caused by encroaching vegetation blocking sightlines and causing a hazard due to shoots growing across the path; resulting in reduced width of the paths, some of which are already constrained by walls and fences.

Furthermore the auditors noted that path surface deterioration had led to major defects causing problems for cyclists and walkers, especially in wet weather. They suggested that while funding may not permit these paths to be resurfaced in the near future, attention should be paid to any further deterioration which might reduce their usability even further. At the very least a regular inspection schedule should be set up and management of vegetation carried out to prevent the build-up of mulch and drainage problems. 

However the 2012 Audit warning and the advice for proper husbandry was not fully taken, over the intervening years, which meant that in Spring 2020, when Covid hit Merton, pathways were partic-ularly unprepared and their usability limited. While Merton were accepting new money to resolve Covid issues on Streets for pedestrians and cyclists, the need for the work already contracted for maintenance to paths was not given the necessary impetus to improve.

Vegetation Cut Back 

Left: June 2020 Wandle Trail Parallel to Weir Road     Right: The same path December 2020 after 2nd verge cut 

If the path, above left, had been cut back properly in previous years it would not be like this in June.  The vegetation in the squared section, above right, is an obstruction it was not there when the path was designed, and is only there because cut-back has been limited to verges. Good sight-lines, avoid collisions and promote a sense of social safety. The free zone of this 3 metre shared-use open path needs to be 6 metres wide, which includes an allowance for some regrowth, and up to a height of 3 metres. 

Left: Path on Borough Boundary with Sutton Dec 2020                    Right: Wandle Trail by Savacentre Dec 2020

A wall along one side of a walking and cycling path is restrictive and requires the vegetation on the free side to be as open as possible. Above left shows sufficient cut-back to be ready for the 2021 growing season. Above right the squared section shows a restrictive and unnecessary wall of vegetation on one side. It should be cut-back well behind the lamp post. This is a much used path and there have been complaints of conflict between pedestrians and cyclists. This obstructive vegetation is best removed now before the start of the 2021 growing season.

Left: Wandle Trail beside Savacentre June 2020         Right: Shared-use path  through Oakmead Place Dec 2020

When a path for walking and cycling is confined by wall or fence on both sides it is particularly important to keep it clear of vegetation. Above left, a popular link should not be obstructed by vegetation at all particularly when the year has reached June. The squared area should be clear and the growth behind the fence should be cut-back enough to allow for regrowth, the arrow at the back shows it is engulfing the railings. The head height for cycling also needs to be clear of obstruction.

Above right, the obstruction is almost to the centre line of the path;  seen with a faded white line. There has been no cut-back on the left hand side for years, to reveal the wall behind.

Left: Shared-use path to Lavender Park  Dec 2020         Right: Shared-use path beside Lavender Park Dec 2020

Above Left and Right: A tight path confined by fences both sides. Vegetation obstructing the width reduces clear passage, causes unnecessary conflict, reduces a sense of social safety and is a deter-rent to both walking and cycling. The vegetation above should all be removed back to the fence.

At eight Cycling Liaison meetings between June and December 2020, the failure to remove uncontrolled vegetation obstructing the popular Wandle Trail was continually reported. Minutes were copied to the Cabinet Member for Transport recording these eight complaints of unfulfilled contractual obligations by the South London Waste Partnership which is now 3 years into an 8 year contract with the London Borough of Merton.

The Standards Required for vegetation cut-back

Local Traffic Note 1/20 produced in July 2020 gives guidance on shared-use path widths using universal principles which were emphasized in the previous Local Traffic Note 1/12; namely that where pedestrians and cyclists share surfaces, sufficient width should be provided to enable users to feel safe by allowing them to see other users and to avoid each other when passing. Sufficient width becomes limited where a cycle track is bounded by vertical features.  People will not be able to use the entire width as they will naturally be wary of riding immediately next to hedges, walls and kerbs. In these circumstances if additional width is available this should be exploited. In order to provide sufficient width a mown grass verge or low, slow growing plants should be provided for 1.0m immediately next to the path and hedgerows are required to be set back at least 1.0m from the path and maintained in such a way that they do not overhang, encroach across, or drop thorns on the path. Head clearance for cyclists should be a minimum of 2.4 metres (the relevant LTN 1/20 Clauses are 4.2.11, 5.2.20, 15.2.21, 5.3.1, 5.5.4)

A simple understanding of how to categorize pedestrians and cyclists comes from the Nov 2019 Walking, Cycling & Horse-Riding Assessment and Review (WCHAR) (LTN 1/20 4.5.10): 

  • Pedestrians - includes mobility impaired and vulnerable pedestrians;
  • Cyclists - includes mobility impaired and vulnerable cyclists;

Finally the Equality Act 2010 requires public sector authorities to make reasonable adjustments to the existing built environment to ensure the design of infrastructure is accessible to all.(1.5.4)

The Service Expected for vegetation cut-back

The previous sections of this report have set out to define when and how pathways are obstructed by vegetation, as applied to combined walking and cycling paths.  Obstruction of paths limited to pedestrian use could benefit from the same parameters. 

The South London Waste Partnership contract with idverde, between Merton and Sutton, lasts until January 2025 and the relevant clauses concerning keeping paths unobstructed by vegetation are in Schedule 1 Specification Contract Schedules 1-5 (PDF file)

The contract defines specific requirements for keeping playgrounds open, but it does not have a category for keeping paths open. These are referred to in passing under horticultural services. For the purposes of this Report it is assumed that areas where random bush, bramble and undergrowth require control this is assumed to be covered under ‘Field Hedges’ and ‘Hedges’.

Where hedges obstruct paths the contractor will cut back nuisance growth at each site maintenance visit. (5.8.2, 5.8.3) Remove brambles, suckers, self-set trees and shrubs and ivy.. that are not part of hedge. (5.8.4) Carry out trimming with sufficient frequency ….to ensure roads and footways are not obstructed and sight lines maintained in highway locations. (5.10.1) (Note: Pedestrians and cyclists are both defined as traffic in LTN 1/20)

The Contractor shall trim using hand saws, mechanical trimmers, chain saws or tractor mounted flails as appropriate to the location and finish required. The Contractor shall cut back current growth to the point of the previous cut. (5.10.3)

To keep paths unobstructed LTN 1/20 expects that there should be a minimum of 4 Maintenance visits a year; Early spring, midsummer, early and late autumn (before and after leaf fall).(Table 15-1)

Surface Maintenance 

Inadequate surface profile for efficient drainage will potentially lead to ponding or erosion on the surface or a weakening of the sub-surface. (LTN 1/20 Cls 15.5.4, 15.5.6).5.4)d four-wheel cycles (

For local authorities, regular maintenance is a more sustainable approach that will help reduce costs over time by avoiding the need for complete reconstruction.(15.6.1)

Where standards are allowed to significantly deteriorate, it becomes a deterrent altogether to active travel. (15.4.2, 15.6.2, 8.8.2)

Left: Wandle Trail                      Middle: Colliers Wood to Myrna Close    Right: Green Lane to Arthur Road

Above left: The popularity of the Wandle Trail under Covid can be seen by the black much-used grass verge, where users have avoided the gravel path uninvitingly crossed by intermittent pud-dles.

Above middle: Shows a gravel path crossed with intermittent puddles bounded by walls that man-age to make this path about as uninviting as is physically possible.

As with the Wandle Trail example both these paths show intermittent crossways puddles which have become characteristic of gravel paths that are built without a camber. The construction method may be flawed as outlined in the following section on Surface Construction.

Above right: The vegetation on this path is cut back, but when surrounded by deciduous greenery a drainage gulley is vulnerable to blockage and needs inspection so that the path is kept open for use.

Covid must not be used as an excuse for not to maintaining these paths, Covid increases the rea-son for making sure paths are in good order. 

Walking and cycling excursions are one of the few ways to sustain mental and physical well-being under a pandemic lockdown where exercise options are restricted, amongst other things, by closed schools and gyms.

It is a crisis under Covid when motor traffic free public pathways offering the promise of physical and mental well-being are made uninviting by lack of maintenance and neglect.

Surface Construction 

Paths should be constructed with either a crossfall across the whole width or a central camber to help surface water to clear and with drainage falling to the inside on bends. The path itself should not be lower than the adjacent natural ground because water will then have no escape route.(LTN 1/20 clauses 5.10.1, 15.2.23)

Left: Wandle Trail link to Garfield Road Dec 2020           Right: Wandle Trail by Deen City Farm Jan 2021

Above left: A new ‘black top’ path where the surface is below the adjacent ground level causing a large puddle across more than half the path.

Above right: A gravel path without camber showing intermittent crossways depressions. In this case  the puddles are depressed enough to be detrimentally dammed by the path’s perimeter boarding.(left foreground)

The paths below right and left have a satisfactory 3.5 cm camber drop over a 1.2 metre spirit level

Left: Wimbledon Common Gravel path Dec 2020       Right: Green Lane to Arthur Road ‘Black Top’path Dec 2020 

The development of intermittent crossways depressions in gravel paths with no camber may be to do with a flawed construction process.

New Gravel Path near Merton Park Tramlink Station   Dec 2020

The path shown above has no camber and is already showing a ripple effect marked with arrows. The settlement caused by the self -weight of piles of gravel intermittently mounded from a tipper and left for a matter of days before spreading, can cause such ripples. The intermittent compaction and resultant variation in gravel thickness leads to the future crossways puddling  characteristic of these gravel paths. The paths need to be constructed with consistent compaction and topping thickness with a cambered high point in the middle of the path or a crossfall camber.  

Below is the side view of same path as the previous illustration with 1.2 metre spirit levels showing the intermittent 2-3 cm depression; this ripple is over a 3 metre length and will attract puddling. 

New Gravel Path near Merton Park Tramlink Station   Dec 2020

Alleviation of Bottlenecks 

Bottlenecks on a path as popular as the Wandle Trail make little sense but with the public aware of  social distancing a bottleneck becomes a real deterrent and potentially forces the public into being at risk of  cross contamination especially during the overcrowding at weekends. The illustrations below are taken on a weekday.

Left: Wandle Trail Merantun Way crossing                 Right: Wandle Trail approaching Tramlink crossing

Above left: As Merantun Way is a Red Route under the jurisdiction of TfL it was TfL who obtained Planning Permission (Application 17/P3992) in May 2018 to remove the section of wall between the white dotted vertical lines. Under planning law this needs to be carried out by May 2021 or TfL have to go through the process of re-application. 

Merton Cycling Campaign brought this to TfL’s attention in July 2020 due to the existing restrictive arch being a severe deterrent to Wandle Trail usage under Covid.

TfL’s response was that ‘due to the coronavirus impact…the scheme to provide another gap in the wall has been paused’. The prioritisation of TfL’s resources onto Streetspace in reaction to Covid should undoubtedly be made flexible to relieve this treacherous bottleneck with its very narrow pavement and tiny arch.

Above right: The northern approach to the tramlink crossing on the Wandle Trail is another real deterrent to taking advantage of the physical and mental health well-being benefits of the Wandle Trail. The current queues of people on fair weather weekends at this stretch of path would need marshalling if a risk assessment was done. A scheme for realignment and bridge renewal has been developed by Merton. It should be carried out immediately.

Appeal for Action

The purpose of this Report is to encourage and influence Merton to please prepare pathways for Spring 2021 now. The report has not highlighted the effect of obstructed pathways on the mobility impaired and vulnerable, the target must be that all public pathways are accessible to all.

Merton Cycling Campaign appeal to Merton Council for action to be prioritised to make these pathways accessible to all for the welfare of all under Covid in 2021.

The South London Waste Partnership may not be responsible for all pathways but action is required to manage maintenance commitment and good standards for all paths.