Image by Sara
The debate ended, rather well as it happens, and there he was: right in my face. The activist. He’d taken exception to my small contribution to our local “town hall” meeting and had made a bee-line for me as soon as the ripple of applause had dissolved into chatter and movement.
Despite the fixed smile, his eyes blazed with confrontation. My amygdala triggered, a frisson of fear ran through me: was he going to get physical, I wondered? But no, his intention was far more proselytising. Having singled me out, he was going to personally convert me. Of the 400 or so people in the hall (the vast majority on my side), I’d touched a nerve by stating that the mess Hackney Borough Council found itself in was due to the hijacking of their worthy plans by pressure-group activists.
“Have you ever been to Holland?” was his somewhat quixotic opening line. Far from holiday small-talk, he was betraying his vision for our tiny corner of Hackney – that it becomes a cyclists’ paradise free from through (or any) traffic.
It was these plans that were being debated, although it was a debate forced upon the council after it had attempted to foist the scheme on the London Fields area unawares. Yes, that’s right – unbeknown to the residents, a democratically elected council had concocted what it claimed was one of the most radical “quietways” schemes in the capital – involving up to 13 road closures within an eight-street by six-street grid of rather lovely Victorian houses, just a mile out from the City. And rather than ask residents to contribute ideas and thoughts, the council’s plan was to go straight to a full, live, “trial” of the scheme.
Without any prior consultation, the denizens of London Fields would wake up one morning in early January to find their roads blocked in 13 places by “planters” and bollards. All through routes (north-south and east-west) would be closed, with the stated aim of monitoring what happened over the next three months. One imagines North Korean villagers being afforded more consideration when finding their valley on the wrong side of a hydro-electric project.
This was the “mini-Holland” envisioned by Hackney Council, which had developed the scheme after consulting no wider than a small group of self-interested London-wide cycling groups. The only locals involved were a handful of campaigning Middleton Road residents, which just happened to be the only thoroughfare likely to benefit from the scheme (by having their lorry-blighted road converted into a cycleway).
Of course, the pressure groups thought all their Christmas’s had come at once. They’d been meeting with the council in semi-secrecy over the course of a year and now found their every need and desire catered for – and to hell with those pesky petrolhead locals.
This small cohort were also in the hall – shouting “get a bike” to stressed mums claiming the scheme meant they could no longer juggle the school run and their nine-to-five job across town. That said, the activists were now on the back-foot, hence the aggression. They were irritated by this very meeting (thinking it unnecessary); annoyed by the fact the council started the meeting with a “full and unreserved” apology for its oversight in ignoring local people (and by declaring a full 12-week consultation with every resident); and angered by a town hall meeting dominated by local residents seemingly incapable of understanding the wonders they’d plotted on our behalf.
Their plans had become public, no thanks to the council but due to the quiet determination of a single London Fields resident. Mike Hood had spotted the early semi-clandestine gatherings and suspected something was afoot. He’d even tried to join their meetings only to have the door slammed in his face. Eventually, and through persistence, he managed to trick the council into sending him their plans (this was in November), and he immediately started campaigning. The resulting petition and leafletting forced the council out of their conspiratorial corner, although their initial reaction was to offer no more than an “information session” in a room so small that 200 angry residents were left standing in the street.
Soon, more prominent local residents were attracting the wrong sort of headlines, and the Council panicked. Realising that their worthy scheme to improve the area’s cycle routes had been hijacked by a tiny group of highly-motivated activists, they went into full retreat.
We all love cycling
Of course, cycling in London is to be encouraged. And the councillors and officials no doubt thought they were capturing the zeitgeist by trying to reduce the impact of traffic in our small Victorian street grid. Yet – by consulting with only one group of idealogically-charged activists – they forgot that activists are single-minded lot, concerned only with their own (often narrow) agenda.
For instance – and as pointed out by individuals in the town hall meeting – this is what those nice cycling activists ignored:
- That the road closures would add to congestion on perimeter roads, not reduce it.
- That those perimeter roads included three infant and junior schools as well as access to London Fields itself (home to the area’s two largest playgrounds and the Lido).
- That car journeys would be longer, not shorter (by as much as 30 minutes), because of the closures – adding to pollution not reducing it.
- That the elderly and disabled in the area would have their mobility highly restricted by the closures.
- That the road closures could force working school-run parents to choose between work and school.
- That ambulance access would be restricted, not least because the ambulance station was one side of the barriers while the hospital was the other.
- That the neighbouring ward (De Beauvoir), which had previously “benefitted” from a limited road-closure scheme was now a crime blackspot that female cyclists and walkers avoided after dark.
- That creating cycle-only roads can increase the danger to pedestrians rather than reduce it: cyclists being a silent, often-lawless, menace for vulnerable people, particularly in London.
Every single one of the above issues could form the basis for an interest group of activists – forcing their agenda on others. The fact they didn’t was because they expected a democratically-elected body such as their local council to be aware of their needs and to take them into consideration when planning improvements to cycle-routes.
As for my own personal activist – determined to confront me for having the gall to call out their behaviour – I started to reply to his “have you ever been to Holland?” charge before one of my neighbours took him on about the difference between a “trial” and a “consultation”, which the activists (and council) had conflated (along with other semantic acrobatics such as calling road closures “filtering”). But then I realised what was happening and said to my neighbour “I wouldn’t bother if I were you – he’s an activist. He’s not going to listen”.
ps: Interestingly, my neighbour made probably the most sensible suggestion of the night. He had no axe to grind so listened intently to Hackney’s presentation. He noted that the Quietways initiative was Boris Johnson’s (not Hackney’s). And that the scheme didn’t require road closures at all – simply the routing of cycleways along roads with under 2000 vehicles a day. Middleton Road was currently 4500 a day (though the council/activists had inflated this to 6000 in their propaganda). Pushed by the activists, the solution had been to close Middleton Road when, as he quietly pointed out, if you moved the cycleway to any other road in the area, the vehicle count fell to just a few hundred. No other change was required, allowing the activists to create their “mini-Holland” without turning other peoples’ lives upside-down – or have I missed the point?