Can you rely on Labour representatives to stand up for sustainable transport?

Here’s the vision: local communities where people own fewer cars, with high car club membership, where people are unimpeded in driving out and around the city, but not across or through it, where streets are more accessible for play and contain livability measures (e.g. pocket parks, small businesses, kiosks, etc.), and where walking and cycling are the main methods of travel for small distances (under 5 miles).

Here is what is standing in our way of this vision for cities: the dithering, mediocre position of the Labour Party on sustainable transport. It’s not that there aren’t Labour councillors who care passionately about sustainable transport and making our cities less dominated by cars and streets safer and better for walking and cycling. It’s that there are lots who don’t, and who don’t really know what they’re talking about, haven’t looked at the evidence, and are mostly about appeasing those people they perceive to be shouting the loudest and who might cost them most votes. You might think it’s cycnical for me to say this, but it isn’t untrue.

Last night, I attended a meeting about the Easton Safer Streets scheme, an effort by Bristol City Council and Sustrans to fund a number of road closures of rat runs to make streets safer in the community. The scheme developers have already had to row back once on making Chelsea Road (the main area where car drivers speed unsafely through the community) one way. Yesterday, we learned that the 6 Labour councillors have decided (“a consensus position” between them, apparently) that the only street closure that they will countenance will be the Bannerman Road tunnel closure, and they have rejected the High Street and Rosemary Lane closures and asked project officers to redesign these two streets with other traffic calming measures. Never mind that this is adding cost and additional time to transport officers’ workloads.

The key thing to consider is that the Labour councillors are desperate to keep the scheme money, as they don’t want to have headlines about economic incompetency and massive sums wasted on schemes that don’t come to fruition. This scheme has the built-in proviso that there is at least one road closure. Bannerman Road School has long been plagued by speeding motorists and a particularly unsafe tunnel nearby for pedestrians, scooters and cyclists. The Bannerman Road PTA (Parent Teacher Association) have been active in calling for the road closure, which is great – not least that this has been an issue for over 20 years. If we extrapolate from this activity and there’d have been a high level of understanding of the benefits of street closures to businesses (brought about by Cllr Afzal Shah or a local businesses “pro-street closure group”) then the High Street closure would have gone through, and if there’d been a “parents of May Park” or “local residents for green spaces” group, the Rosemary Lane closure may have gone through. When councillors blow with the wind, even the slightest level of activity influences them.

Of course, these closures would have negligible impact on journey times for drivers, the majority of residents would use different streets to access arterial routes or simply stop making short, unnecessary journeys in their cars. So far, so non-contentious, right?

Wrong. Apparently, sending two addressed letters, running numerous pop-up consultation events and attending Neighbourhood Partnership meetings several times is not adequate in terms of a consultation exercise. Up pops a biased organisation called “Easton Voice” who decide that it’s time for unthinking car drivers to take back control and ruin the one chance the community has for a well-funded, sensible approach to the huge influx of cars into and through the community. Ironically, the Bannerman Road closure is both the least contentious and also the one that most annoys the “Easton Voice” people the most because it apparently “divides the community”. What really divides the community is organisations calling themselves “Easton Voice” when they don’t represent the views of everyone who lives in Easton and are not partaking consultation in an appropriate way.

The person who set this organisation up, a chap called Stuart Phelps, has an incredibly high view of “direct democracy”, which leads to him believing that unless every single person has given their view on an issue, nothing can be decided. Now, I’m as idealistic as the next person, but even I recognise that this is just not a realistic proposition. His claim is that if you had an open public meeting, it would hugely help. He’s out of his mind if he thinks that this would breed consensus – it would just cause anger and hackles to rise further – particularly if he’s present and badgering everyone about how undemocratic everything is.

The tenor and tone of last night’s meeting was set up to fail from the word go when the councillors were literally (I kid you not) seated in an “inner circle” of seats. Participants were expected to up sticks from their position back in the cheap seats to join the “goldfish bowl” in the “inner circle” to ask questions and make comments to their councillors, then voluntarily give up their seats for other people to come and have their little rant at the councillors. There was no sense that these comments/rants were building towards an ability to breed more trust and connection across the warring clans, so unfortunately they failed in the first task of the meeting. The meeting was effectively unchaired, which given the high tension did not really give the necessary basis for people to gracefully listen to each other, particularly when there was no set up of an evidence basis to frame the conversation.

There was a lot of talk about consensus-building (one of the councillors ended the meeting by saying that we needed to stop talking in terms of division, seemingly unaware that this meeting had bred more of it), but this is about as far from a good model of consensus-building as I can imagine. Short of having an open public meeting where everyone is given an opportunity to yell and rant about the plans and achieve nothing (apart from a bunch of sustainable transport advocates sitting quietly fuming, like I was for most of last night, when I wasn’t “rudely interrupting” a councillor who had failed to answer a basic question). I don’t know whether it was the Labour councillors or the facilitator (a decent guy, who did his best) who came up with this meeting format, but it really didn’t work.

An alternative structure that is far better for achieving consensus is to get everyone on their feet, put up posters with clear declarative statements or options for the future on the walls of the room, ask people to talk and mingle on a personal level, all the while writing short messages about their honest feelings about each of these statements (some of which are “compromise positions”) and figuring out what solution (that still IS a solution to the problem of unsafe streets, increasing population and car ownership, and air quality concerns) holds the space of the participants on that day. The councillors, or more likely a facilitator who knows the issue inside out, assesses and talks through the outcomes as written up by the meeting participants and suggests to the room which things should be abandoned as unpopular and unfeasible, and which things should be kept as good proposals. This is by no means a perfect format (what is?), but there would potentially be more light than heat generated and people would feel heard without immediately devolving into the back and forth we witnessed.

So, where did the Labour councillors go wrong with this scheme?

1) They didn’t decide what they thought about the scheme – and the urban design principles underpinning it – from the get-go.

Labour’s values are about solidarity and – in particular in the Bristol context – representing the voices of the BME communities as the play-out of this idea. These two principles come above all others for Labour politicians. It’s an understandable position, but we shouldn’t pretend that it’s an intellectually coherent one. Increasing participation amongst BME communities in the political process is a crucial aim, and one the Labour Party has a solid record on. But simply deciding the rightness or wrongness of a course of action based on what people from BME backgrounds say is not, in every circumstance, an effective method of making sound decisions for the community. I would like the Labour Party to start from an evidence base. What do transport planners, urban design professionals, and the best academic research say about the positive or negative impacts of streets closures on local communities? What work needs to be done to effectively communicate these conclusions to those communities we represent and start a positive dialogue about why this scheme isn’t the end of the world (far from it) for residents? What attitude and values should I be modelling to these people in terms of the honesty and integrity of my stated positions?

I am sick to death of politicians allowing themselves to be blown this way and that by the storms of public opinion. There are sometimes right and wrong answers, and politicians are there to stick their necks out if there is a clear evidence base for action in a community. There are far too many intelligent Labour politicians for them to continue to pretend that the evidence basis, rather than the populist basis, isn’t the community engagement model of the future. The Labour politicians in question in Bristol didn’t inform themselves and decide what they thought about the scheme at the beginning of the process, so they couldn’t lead the community – which is one of their primary roles as elected representatives. We don’t elect delegates with the view that they will do whatever we (or 50%+1 of us) tell them to do. We elect representatives who we should expect to come to their own conclusions from all of the available evidence.

2) They didn’t realise sooner that they needed to put out ward-wide information in an addressed letter.

“Universal” information arrived later than was ideal (during the co-production phase). However, I would maintain that sending two addressed letters to every household in the scheme area is sufficient for effective consultation, and that those who say they “haven’t been consulted” need to do a better job of reading their post and getting involved in their community. This scheme used a number of methods of engagement to reach people:

  • 24 workshops across Easton – held at high footfall locations throughout Easton
  • Discussed engagement methods with Bristol Muslim Cultural Society.
  • Members of engagement staff completed courses with the Shah Jalal Jame Mosque
  • Regular presentations at the Ashley, Easton and Lawrence Hill Neighbourhood Partnership/Forum
  • Presentations given to the Disability forum
  • Events were publicised via Up Our Street, posters in notice boards and flyers were distributed.

Over a year of community engagement resulting in….

  • 1200 leaflets distributed in total through the project
  • Engagement with 855 people
  • Capturing over 1000 comments
  • A further 500 people attending the 3 final street events

Does this sound like a thorough consultation process to you?

3) They believed the concerns of the “Easton Voice” pressure group were evidentially valid because they hadn’t got a set principled position on whether the scheme idea was good or not.

I would argue that only 1 of the 6 local councillors for the three wards is sufficiently interested in urban transport as a policy area for them to be able to speak with authority on the issue, and that person (Mhairi Threlfall) happens to be the Cabinet member for Transport in Bristol. It would have been good if Mhairi could have attended some of the public meetings, but alas we were left with her fellow Eastville councillor Sultan Khan who unfortunately doesn’t have the first clue about urban design principles, arguing at one point that closing roads will adversely affect businesses, when the evidence shows the reverse is true.

When you aren’t coming from a position of principle, you can’t push back against people whose arguments are spurious on the technicalities and the effects of the scheme. This is like trying to repel a battering ram from entering the city gates with a feather duster. It also spoke volumes that no urban design professional from the council was invited to this final meeting.

4) They weren’t honest about the decision they’d taken, or the effect of it.

After a final councillor- and officer-led design has been reached, it goes through the Traffic Regulation Order (TRO) process, an antiquated way of “ensuring” public feedback through what is called a statutory consultation phase. In reality, the TRO is a rubber stamp of what has been decided and it is very very unlikely that any feedback given to this statutory consultation will affect whether or not the scheme, as submitted, does or doesn’t go ahead.

I asked the councillors point blank last night to be honest and admit that this was the case, but they were unwilling to do so, and indeed despite saying they had come to a collective decision on which aspects of the scheme to keep (Bannerman Road) and which to throw out (High Street and Rosemary Lane), that the process was still open-ended. This is disingenuous at best.

We need councillors to be honest with people, not pretend that decisions haven’t already been made. If this meeting was about communicating the decision and moving forward with that decision, then that should have been that.

5) They didn’t give their personal views.

When I was a councillor, there was a moment where I had to decide whether to outwardly give my views on the Residents’ Parking Schemes proposed for different districts in my ward. I decided that I didn’t need to go overboard on what I thought (that RPS is a really good tool for promoting sustainable travel), but if asked by someone directly I would give my views honestly.

I realise now this was completely the wrong approach. It would have been far better if I had simply explained at the start – in a public leaflet, delivered to every door in the ward – my position on the schemes and the evidence base for it. This is exactly what a fellow Green councillor, Charlie Bolton, did in Southville ward and he was re-elected in 2016. Democracy is not well-served by elected representatives ducking the issues, or simply being swayed by the quantity, ferocity or volume of people who make the same erroneous case. This isn’t what I did on RPS, but I regret that I wasn’t more open from the start about what I really thought.

The small amount of sympathy I have for the local councillors in east Bristol is that if they were to continue to publicly make the case FOR these schemes, they would be castigated every time they opened their mouths and their popularity, at least amongst those present, would take a hit. I can understand why that prospect isn’t too appetising, but to be honest with an issue like this, they are going to have some people agreeing with them and some people not. If you try to “manage” this in any political or electoral sense, it’s pretty obvious.

All in all, I was left dispirited and angered by this meeting, and would not quickly sign up to attend another one with the same personnel in a hurry.

Anyone who is a local of Easton (or Lawrence Hill or Eastville) should make sure they make their feelings known to their local councillors both before the statutory consultation begins, as it is taking place and after the final scheme is implemented. It is my view that failing to close Rosemary Lane and High Street is a huge missed opportunity to change the balance of power in our streets towards safety, walking and cycling and away from private car ownership, use, rat runs and speeding.


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