The Politics of Plenty have failed us. They are populist. It’s a weak trajectory. It has no direction. By politics of plenty I mean the underlying notion (or sheer senseless belief) that everything is available, at all time, to everybody, at equal measure. I suppose even a five year old would tell you that cannot be true, that stuff is only available within certain limits (in time and space) and that certain things will always have to be prioritised over others. It needs hard decision making, for example to debate how to do the prioritisation. But simply assuming all is plenty, always, is not politics, that’s giving up (may that be deliberately giving up or for other reasons). The politics of the Populist Plenty is a myth and bears no connection to restrictions and pressures in real life.
Yet the Populist Plenty is the prevailing rhetoric in Newcastle transport planning still. Although things may be changing, the rate of change is too slow. Officers continue to predict traffic levels and movements to increase. So what do they do? Bigger roads are proposed, blindly following the failed doctrine of Predict and Provide. I am referring to Newcastle council’s Northern Access Corridor (NAC) plans, more specifically Blue House junction, but we should neither forget Haddricks Mill. The politicians were informed by the expert officers that more of the current was needed and as a consequence a big road building project was proposed by the transport planners. The Cabinet (the concentration of political power to eight or so councillors) seemingly waved this devastating proposal through, there was no wider debate, and there we have it … a public protest of quite immense proportions sprang up.
This was this summer.
And this should have been much different. The NAC showed us that the politics of Populist Plenty were alive and kicking. There was newcycling.org, they had spotted something being awry on the NAC in 2014 and were eager to alert decision makers and inform them about alternatives. So it really is no surprise that the summer saga of NAC was particularly disappointing to activists, when newcycling.org had been providing a voice for an alternative pathway, culminating in writing a series of letters to Pat Ritchie in 2015 warning her about the serious situation about to unfold with the NAC plan and transport planning in general. These letters informed the council of the need to change, gave reasons and laid out alternatives – motor traffic reduction, motor traffic reduction, motor traffic reduction. We have Populist Plenty politics which should be transformed to the Politics of Canny Distribution. Yet newcycling.org warnings were to no avail, the destructive NAC highway plan was born in its horrific detail just a few months later.
The time newcycling.org spent on this huge step backwards, was immense. A vastly wasteful time period followed for everybody concerned. What strikes me is the intense negativity the backwardly-operating council created with their backward proposal. Sure, hard decisions come hard. Motor traffic reduction is not an easy message to deliver and communicate. But that is politics. Or perhaps that is just my hope for politics. This simply is what I expect from my politicians. I would expect them to grasp complex issues that face Newcastle, and would expect that they are able to communicate complex solutions. This is not what happened in Newcastle this summer.
Instead we now have a negative and distrusting mood. And the council wanted to dissolve the negativity (that is entirely of their own making!) by setting up a working group to discuss the Blue House plans (but not the Haddricks Mill plan, go figure). Overall a working group I think is a good thing, with the proviso acknowledgement that without clear steer and direction this group will be another talk shop. (We have a history of talk shops, failed participatory engagement, in Newcastle but that’s perhaps another story.) Questions that get to the root of the problem are these:
What is it that the council wants to achieve?
Why would that have created the original NAC plan?
What problems is the council trying to solve?
It is abundantly clear that there are “hidden murky forces” at play. Transparency has gone to pot. Who do council really listen to? Who is influencing the council and how? Answers on a postcard, but nurturing civic society is yet again something newcycling.org has pointed out as a necessity of positive civic life for a long time. Consultation exercises need to be meaningful; engagement must be confident and clear. Newcastle are patronising when they should be taking up a parental position towards its citizens, eager to grow their city, wisely with foresight and with one eye to the future. Council has responsibilities to Newcastle residents and decision makers at the council have the powers to design public space and distribute it fairly.
We need positive places of debate and engagement. Again, newcycling.org has ideas – perhaps the council would like to work them on this? The questions to ask are who objects and supports plans and on what grounds? Council need to learn to segment replies much better than they are currently able. Here’s the thing. Council can only do that once they have gained confidence and they have learnt to transparently communicate their own ambitions, aims and goals. In the meantime to every clear-thinking person however ushering in more motor traffic into a limited civic space is not the way forward. There is no plenty, it is an illusion. A segmentation analysis needs to also take place on civic society level. Where are the groups that have similar aims to the council’s policy, vision and ambitions? How can these groups be nurtured, given strength and spaces to contribute?
Imagine what could be achieved with mutual support! This is exactly the environment in which a city grows with positivity and confidence.
That’s the way a supportive environment is created. One that is sustaining too and not just there for Christmas. This is why groups like newcycling.org are so amazing. They are enduring even in the face of the wavering council. Step change is needed at the council, and it won’t come from working in patriarchal isolation. It will come from throwing open these creaky old town hall doors and letting civic society in.