Discourse analysis on Blue House

At the moment, I am thinking about methods and methodology for my (mixed-method) PhD. Which means I am thinking much about text analysis. To apply and test my abilities, I further exploited the local opportunity that currently presents itself on my Newcastle doorstep: Northern Access Corridor plans by Newcastle council. Having checked out online anticycling/ist commentaries,  I now had a look at council statements (found in press releases and in subsequent newspaper quotes). The council scheme proposes the construction of a motorway-style roundabout in the inner city. It is a scheme that has turned rather sour in the public eye. I look at Newcastle council’s discourse with particular regard to power plays and how power is assured and asserted by council.

Act 1

Scene setting

In a press statement the responsible Cabinet Councillor sets out that Newcastle needs to do something, and why.

That something is named as: safety, congestion, economic growth. There is an apparent urgency, too. Slightly disjunct in the statement, the reader is also informed that the number of trees will be increased. A brief nod to the future is made by the councillor but the reader also learns about restrictions: that the money must be used on certain things only (presumably addressing the original concerns which were described as safety, congestion, economic growth, but this is less clear from the statement).

Then the Councillor returns to the prosperity theme and asserts that “bold and ambitious solutions” must be sought. He assures the reader that the council has technical ability (“modelled and tested”) to “keep traffic moving”.

This statement by the councillor contains a number of contradictions in itself and is accentuated by keeping the traditional approach – and culminating in “keep traffic moving”.

Council has not published any numbers to back up their claims (“unsafe and congested” or “modelled and tested”) and although the councillor hints at the future, the statement is nonetheless rather void of any grounded vision. It is also void of policy statements (ie directives and way-finders for a better future).

So the scene is set. The reader has been assured that we have a competent council that is concerned about “keep traffic moving”. It’s solutions to safety, congestions and economy growth are the construction of a very big roundabout in an innercity setting.

The Cabinet Councillor asserts the reason and rightfulness of the plans and bets his money on one horse: “these are the best proposals“. It’s hard to come back from a statement as strong as this. It’s also hard to understand how public consultation and council’s open listening can fit in with a statement that strongly comes down in favour of one solution.

The statement is only 156 words long, but it’s brimming with power. Here it is in full:

Cllr Ged Bell “These junctions are some of the most unsafe and congested in the city; our priority is to make them safer and reduce congestion for road-users, which will also enable economic growth in the city. We will be increasing the number of trees along the route, which, along with a reduction in congestion, will contribute towards improved air quality for residents and road-users

“These junctions have been a concern for decades and, now that we have secured investment from central Government, we are finally able to improve them for current and future generations. It is important to note that the funds can only be spent on transport infrastructure and were won outside our annual budget.

“Our city’s future prosperity depends on us providing bold and ambitious solutions to infrastucture (sic). We have modelled and tested many different variations and believe these are the best proposals to keep traffic moving for many years to come.”

Act 2

The scene gets its actors

A day later, presumably using the press statement, the local newspaper The Evening Chronicle starts to report on the council’s plan.

The situation then quite quickly escalates into the hardening of two camps: the public (in opposition to council plans) and the council (in defense of their plans). Looking purely at the statements from the council, either made by a spokesperson or the Cabinet Councillor, it becomes clear that the council is more and more tense, and, not surprisingly, so is the opposition in response to council’s plans and stance.

When at first a council spokesperson dealt with the media and provided comments, this also now is escalated to the Cabinet Councillor who is providing the occasional comments. On the whole, the council is now at the mercy of the local newspaper, who is contacting the council with questions for quotes and positions. Council, at this point and increasingly so, is less in charge of the ‘show’ that originally was carefully constructed in their press statement dated 24 July 2016.

The original authoritative ‘Trust us, we solve a problem for you’ stance of the original press release, becomes more and more problematic for the council – especially as the public (and the media) leans in and demands to understand, demands answers. At one point, council makes a press release to reassure Newcastle of its technical ability (Cowgate, 7 minutes saved for commuting drivers), a junction connected to the Northern Access Corridor plans.

At this point it could have been a good time to humanise communications. It would have been a time to reflect on the authoritative air that council tries to keep (up). The council stance creates tensions and anxiety amongst residents. The situation and its hardened front look increasingly without hope. Council staff, when surveying trees on site, were harrassed, the Chronicle reports.

Yet it does rather feel like an ambivalent relationship the council is pursuing. On the one hand the council eagerly broadcasts that they want to hear everyone’s comments – on the other hand, and Kafkaesquely so, council constructs arbitrary boundaries:

  1. money is for certain things only the reader is told;
  2. a strange and often sudden urgency seems to emanate from the council statements yet left uncontextualised and hanging; and
  3. council’s technocratic language is strengthened in the statements by the council

All these statement are instruments of power. The council as the local transport authority flexes its muscles. It wants to do something. Yet it remains unclear excalty why. The residents are left powerless and subject to council’s power.

Act 3

The (draft) conclusion

The answers received are not sufficiently addressing concerns, or are talking cross-purpose. There is no discourse of a dialogue opening up. To date, there are more questions than answers. But better answers are wanted, demanded and urgently needed, the Chronicle reports on the 2,000 people-strong demonstration on 21 August 2016.

There is urgency for talk, and one of the three local MPs has organised a town-hall meeting. For a fruitful civic debate to take place a much different atmosphere, with a much different flow of power, would have to be created. In fact, Newcastle council’s claim-staking to these imaginary and constructed boundaries would have to be lessened, or at least much better explained by council.

Where are the core pieces, the foundation, to this exchange? Where is the debate about transport policy and Newcastle’s future direction to do something on “safety, congestion and economic growth”? Why is council so reluctant to talk policy? For over seven years and often together with newcycling.org I have been in this exact same position: trying to get answers to very simple questions, and trying to get a lever onto council to organise a step change in their organisational and technical culture to enable Newcastle to move into a better future. Over several years I have learnt that council’s style and culture can be devastatingly exclusive to the communities. So I was pleased when the relevant Councillor attended the newcycling.org AGM 2016 to say “We need a cultural change” talking about the council as an organisation. This makes sense.

Leaving these big questions unanswered adds to the feeling of helplessness, anger and mistrust that has understandably been building amongst the public over the Blue House (Northern Access Corridor) plans. A rift is opening, and it can only be bridged by council grounding the debate. This can be achieved by council, the authority, clearly and honestly putting forward their intentions and motives, for everyone to understand.

Why does council find it so hard to lead us towards a sustainable future for Newcastle’s people, place and everyone’s prosperity?

Do they want to stay their traditional technical course of providing for private motor traffic?

Or does council recognise, now, the crossroads and that their organisational culture has to change, to engage community groups in a meaningful civic debate?

 

Comments as they appeared, in chronological order

Press release  https://www.newcastle.gov.uk/news-story/proposals-ps20m-upgrade-blue-house-and-haddricks-mill-announced

24 July 2016

Cllr Ged Bell “These junctions are some of the most unsafe and congested in the city; our priority is to make them safer and reduce congestion for road-users, which will also enable economic growth in the city. We will be increasing the number of trees along the route, which, along with a reduction in congestion, will contribute towards improved air quality for residents and road-users

“These junctions have been a concern for decades and, now that we have secured investment from central Government, we are finally able to improve them for current and future generations. It is important to note that the funds can only be spent on transport infrastructure and were won outside our annual budget.

“Our city’s future prosperity depends on us providing bold and ambitious solutions to infrastucture (sic). We have modelled and tested many different variations and believe these are the best proposals to keep traffic moving for many years to come.”

Chronicle statements

25 July 2016 http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/homeowners-fears-over-blue-house-11657119

Spokesperson “Early discussions have been held with representatives of the Freemen of the City but no agreement is currently in place given this scheme is yet to go through consultation and as such, a design is not finalised.

“During our early discussions the representatives of the Freemen have resoundingly noted that any changes at this location should ensure the city’s growth and success in future years is secured.”

 

26 July 2016 http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/could-alan-shearer-stop-proposed-11666662

“Fun piece” by local newspaper. Alan Shearer, Freeman. No quotes from council.

 

26 July 2016 http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/cyclists-criticise-20m-plan-haddricks-11667355

Cllr Ged Bell “These junctions are some of the most unsafe and congested in the city; our priority is to make them safer and reduce congestion for road-users, which will also enable economic growth in the city.

“These junctions have been a concern for decades and, now that we have secured investment from central Government, we are finally able to improve them for current and future generations.”

“We recognise that managing the transport network is a balancing act and building new junctions on this scale means making difficult choices, but having considered many different approaches, we believe this is the best and most realistic solution.

“But we want to hear what people think of our proposals so we can work together to shape Newcastle’s future.”

 

1 August 2016 http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/campaign-against-plans-newcastles-blue-11687817

Spokesperson “We have received a lot of feedback in the first stage of us engaging with the public and we’re grateful for people taking the time to provide us with their views.

“It is important that we reiterate that this is the first stage of the process, which is about gathering information and views to help inform a final proposal.

“We have been absolutely clear that something needs to be done in this location, but equally clear that there is a chance to shape proposals through this process. Full details are available at: www.newcastle.gov.uk/roads

“When this consultation period closes on August 21 we will review all the comments we have received before finalising proposals.

“Those proposals will then be subject to a further formal consultation that would commence in mid to late September.”

 

7 August 2016 http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/newcastle-not-need-mega-roundabout-11715303

Spokesperson “When this consultation period closes on August 21 we will review all the comments we have received before finalising proposals.

“Those proposals will then be subject to a further formal consultation that would commence in mid to late September.”

 

8 August 2016 http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/ribbons-appearing-trees-next-newcastles-11716706

Spokesperson “When this consultation period closes on August 21 we will review all the comments we have received before finalising proposals.

“Those proposals will then be subject to a further formal consultation that would commence in mid to late September.”

 

8 August 2016 http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/blue-house-roundabout-controversy-put-11719866

Chronicle put questions to council. No quotation marks.

9 August 2016 http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/scrap-blue-house-haddricks-mill-11722987

No direct comment from council or Cllr

 

10 August 2016 http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/pressure-grows-newcastle-city-council-11729783

No direct comment from council or Cllr

 

11 August 2016 http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/newcastle-city-council-staff-assaulted-11736836 (re abuse of council staff)

Spokesperson “While the council respects all views in relation to the proposed scheme, this type of behaviour or abuse is not acceptable and will not be tolerated. The welfare of our staff is of utmost importance to us, and we will not knowingly put staff at risk or expose them to any level of abuse.

“The council has made it clear that the proposals for this area are draft and that the final plan will be informed by feedback from the public before entering any formal consultation. We value the views of all those who have contributed to the consultation and have made it clear that the only certainty is that something needs to be done at the junction to resolve safety and congestion issues.

“We encourage residents and commuters to have their say on these proposals before consultation ends on 21 August, and they can do so here www.newcastle.gov.uk/roads .”

 

16 August 2016 http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/commuters-enjoy-cut-journey-times-11754481

Cllr Ged Bell “When we initially consulted with the public, there was some resistance to replacing the old roundabout into a new junction operated by lights, but we knew the old roundabout wasn’t coping with the high levels of demand placed on it, as well as the potential for housing growth in this area of the city,”

“We knew that we could make this junction better and more reliable by introducing intelligent traffic signals to manage traffic flow, and the stats prove this.”

“We’ve had a good response from the public on the improvements, as wasting time stuck in traffic isn’t good for business, for people, or for the environment.

“We now need to connect the junctions in the key corridor which runs across the city from Cowgate to Gosforth in the north of the city, which includes problem junctions Haddricks Mill and Blue House roundabouts, which we’re currently out to consultation on.”

 

17 August 2016 http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/newcastles-blue-house-super-roundabout-11754475

Spokesperson ”The Blue House roundabout forms part of a key corridor that runs across the north of the city, and suffers from high levels of congestion and delays, and it’s a well-known collision hotspot. We believe our draft proposals for this junction will improve safety, smooth traffic flows and reduce congestion.”

“This helps reduce idling engines and improves air quality. In addition, the improvements we are consulting on include a range of sustainable travel options including protected cycle lanes, bus lanes and safer pedestrian crossings making it safer for those on foot.”

 

19 August 2016 http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/residents-march-protest-against-controversial-11774629

Cllr Ged Bell “We’ve been very clear from the outset that the plans we are consulting on for Blue House roundabout are drafts that we’re seeking feedback on, and that these designs were a starting point.”

“The Blue House draft plan reflects high levels of car use among the local population”

“The only certainty here is that something needs to be done.

“To do nothing or to scrap plans that will make significant improvements is simply not an option.

“What we will do, though – as we have said all along – is to use feedback to re-shape proposals and then formally consult on these. We encourage those who haven’t done so yet to have their say.”

 

21 Aug 2016 http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/dont-cut-out-green-lung-11780116

Cllr Ged Bell “We’ve been very clear from the outset that the plans we are consulting on for Blue House roundabout are drafts that we’re seeking feedback on, and that these designs were a starting point.”

He added: “The only certainty here is that something needs to be done.

“To do nothing or to scrap plans that will make significant improvements is simply not an option.

“What we will do, though – as we have said all along – is to use feedback to re-shape proposals and then formally consult on these. We encourage those who haven’t done so yet to have their say.”

END

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