Working with the beast

Seven years. It’s been seven years. I find this hard to believe. I have given a lot of time to campaigning for planning, designing and building cycleways in Newcastle. For seven years. And, my voice is quite a legitimate one too, please pardon that I say so myself. In early 2010 over 800 people had signed a petition for safer cycling in Newcastle. I had gathered the signatures in a short period of only four weeks. Not to forget the subsequent formation of newcycling.org to further legitimate the voice for cycleways. I together with my co-activists was bursting, bubbling over, had things to say, things to contribute, things to debate and wanted to influence stuff. Naively, I thought they would listen! Radical campaigns, eh!

During all that time I have seen many council officers and politicians come and go. I stayed when they swapped seats with yet another one or left. Naturally, sometimes forced through redundancies or elections – yet I was still there. I was there, refusing to back down, standing together with the totally fab crew of newcycling.org. I keep asking myself, what have we achieved?

The obvious answer is that we have a clear and unequivocal voice for cycleways in Newcastle. We talk about alternatives to the council’s current models, processes, ways of doing and designs. That, absolutely, is important. But ultimately it’s about cycleways and any physical changes to the streetscape are subject to council’s willingness. And that’s where the happy part of the fairytale ends for me. Council are still planning, designing and building for motor traffic, as the recent scheme of Blue House Roudabout demonstrated. It’s their technical default and it’s not changed. The practice of planning for the private car is strong. In a city with 42% of households without a car! Yet the firm official belief remains that “everyone drives”.

Even John Dobsons Street does not look like an achievement for longterm planning for cycling after all. It is a space-reallocation scheme which has been in the making for many years (only then called “Civic Boulevard”). It’s great that the final version saw a cycleway on it, which on older plans would not have been the case – it would have been insanely wide public realm with no provision of a North-South cycle space, so badly needed. So thanks, but … there is no coherent plan to expand these mere 500 metres of cycleway.

So, I am looking back and taking stock. I am looking back on seven years. All this time I have tried to talk to the council sensibly, methodically and always arguing from a base of their own policies of climate change, mode shift, public health – you name it. One third of my retrospective diary is now assembled. And a sad and grim story is emerging. The honeymoon period of 2011 “let’s work together“ when Labour was back at the city’s helm, did not turn into action. Council processes have not slowed down to allow thinking and relearning, and re-directing. No routine early consultation with interest groups, no deeper civic values at the heart of plans.

It’s a gutting experience. My diary endeavour suggests that it took me four or five years to realise that something was majorly wrong: there were promises, but no real change of direction. I could not believe that my professional values of efficient project and programme management, engineering ethics, sustainable risk management would not be theirs. It turns our council culture works very differently.

It took me another year to put a finger on it: the council did not want to change or did not know how to change. The culture is engrained and entrenched. They were simply sweet-talking the campaign (and everyone else for that matter). We mistook the politicians’ warm words for calls to action! I was under the impression they would restructure budgets and council teams to focus on people mobility and space efficiency, transport fairness and better lives and opportunities. Surely, a Labour council should do that blindfolded!

The campaign’s rationality of Age of Redistribution, climate change and public health crises was not the reality of the council at all. Council believes in ever bigger pies, growth and the retail sector amidst a big crisis of health, care and education. To put it mildly, realities clashed.

But I think it goes even deeper than that. Council knew they weren’t going to change. I know that because during the seven years they did not seek a dialogue. An organisation that wants change would rip their right arm out to seek alliances through regular dialogue and openness. Council closed down. Their ongoing forums and meetings remain window dressing (cyclists come together to have a moan, or council downloading information with no real exchange taking place) – the council remains a top-down organisation that seeks to portray itself as accessible and interested to hear what people think. This is clear for everyone to see. So why are they doing it?

The real sign for me that council weren’t serious to discuss a transport transition was when the CCAF1 Works Programme was deliberately let to dissolve. It was mismanaged. We informed politicians, they did not care.

The only explanation I have is that the organisation is deeply split. They know they should be doing one thing (addressing climate change, mode shift, public health) but their practices and rhetoric do not allow them to. And, in absence of change management, they resort to (neoliberal) spin. Say one thing, and do another. Entangling in ever more complicated storylines.

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6 thoughts on “Working with the beast

  1. You aren’t alone in this. My experience with Sheffield is identical. I lasted only 2 years. I concluded that officers knew what needed doing, but councillors live in fear of making any significant change, because they aren’t prepared to risk losing their seat. It is more important to them that they are elected, than that they actually achieve change. The effect is toxic and dysfunctional. I feel for you. 😎

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  2. Yes, you have captured perfectly the feelings of disappointment, anger and even utter hopelessness that most of us are probably experiencing. Councillors seem to me to be, with only a few exceptions, little people who enjoy strutting around with delusions of importance, but have no ideas or vision; incapable of thinking outside their own little world views. As Barry says, they seem to be more concerned with maintaining their air of importance by keeping their positions rather than actually making a difference for the good. I just don’t know how we can break through this.

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  3. You’re not alone, Kats, speaking from the other end of the globe in Tasmania. We have similar frustrations over failure of Councils to embrace new directions and walk the talk. While urging strategic changes, we find ourselves battling the detail on local neighbourhood projects. It’s a combination of division at the elected representatives level, and under resourced/over worked professionals too worn down and tired to lead their own vision. But we will keep going…

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  4. Every significant change has gone through a phase like this. Including bicycle advocacy in The Netherlands, which went through this phase in the 1970’s.

    The solution is to get organized and engage in specific, concrete actions that put pressure for change upon the people who can make change happen. The “Stop de Kindermoord” campaign was not successful because people made polite delegations for politicians to ignore. They were successful because they were in the street, making streets safe with their bodies by preventing car driving. Marches, die-ins: look at the record from the 1970’s of what worked then. The same actions will also work today by disrupting the status quo in a way that cannot be ignored.

    If we make ourselves un-ignorable then we will not be ignored.

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