But there is, it seems from statements by government ministers, a problem with this investment, aside from whether we can afford it or not: "red tape". It suddenly seems to be the idea of the moment that "red tape" needs to be swept away to allow government, in collaboration with the private sector, to build the infrastructure that we need. According to George Osborne today, the planning system is too cumbersome and it is getting in the way.
In fact, I agree with this, but on, I suspect, completely different grounds to the ministers who have been talking about it, and the kinds of projects I am thinking about are quite different. I am thinking not about a new runway for Heathrow, but about modest changes to the streets of London. But these things are all related. Let's face it, if we can't get kerbs and signs right, what chance have we with airports and high speed rail?
So, on Friday I was looking at a little street in Brent, just north of Harrow Road, called Hazel Road, with a consultant and some council officers. This street has been closed-off to through-traffic for some years. There is a pedestrainised area by a small playground. We noted that many cyclists were using this street as a bypass to a congested junction on Harrow Road. Good on them, why shouldn't they? This is what "filtered permeability" is all about: giving cyclists easier journeys than other road traffic by letting them use routes that are blocked to motor traffic, in the process, separating them from motor traffic, for the good of all. But unfortunately, cyclists are not officially allowed to pass through the pedestrainised section of Hazel Road. The meeting was convened to consider how to change the street to make it better and regularise the cycle route through here.
|Hazel Road, Kensal Green|
But in reality, in UK town planning, things are never as simple, or as cheap, as this. For this road has has a "traffic order" put on it that excluded all wheeled traffic from the pedestrianised section, and it will need another traffic order to create an exception for bikes. That means that Brent has to go through an expensive legal procedure. Public notices need to be issued, adverts need to be placed in obscure papers that nobody reads (and that exist only for the purpose of having these public notices that nobody reads placed in them), consultation documents need to be sent out to all and sundry, lawyers need to be paid, and officers must get bogged down in masses of paperwork, all, in effect, to allow a couple of workmen to come out for a morning with a pick and shovel to relay about eight kerbstones. It's a situation that the Charles Dickens of Bleak House would have revelled in grimly satirising.
As a result, the cost of this tiny, modest change to the road network, and to the cycling infrastructure in London, will be thousands of pounds. Multiply this by the many other small changes that are needed all over London to create even the most rudimentary cycling network, and you can readily see why such a project seems unaffordable. And the great worry of council officers is that if the proposals are slightly ambitious, involving changes to parking or motor traffic flow patterns, then there could be quite a few objections in a public consultation, and councillors may take heed of these, and block the scheme. Then all the money spent on it will have been wasted.
So we have a crazy situation. Leading politicians are saying we need to spend money on new infrastructure, not merely for the reason of actually having the infrastructure, but for the reason of actually spending the money to revive the economy. Yet when we ask for small changes to create better cycling connections in London, and improve the streetscapes for everybody, we are told that there is no money because we are in a recession, and money is tight. But in fact, there was no money for these changes when the economy was booming either (or they would have been done by now).
The money to change Hazel Road comes from the "Biking Borough" grant awarded to Brent by Boris Johnson. It is around £300,000 to be spent over three years. But at least half this cash is being spend on promotional measures to encourage cycling, because that is what should happen in Biking Borough schemes, according to TfL. That leaves about £50,000 per year to be spent on infrastructure, for three years. That means two or three very small-scale schemes like Hazel Road per year, plus maybe a few more cycle stands. This is a minuscule rate of progress, even if all goes according to plan, and nothing gets objected to.
A mad system of red tape, legalism, and excessive emphasis on expensive public consultation over small matters currently strangles attempts to provide for cycling in our cities.
Some of the consultation thing comes from legal judgements that stem from legislation put in during the Thatcher era. The "Primrose Hill Judgement" of 1995 against Camden Council, where Camden attempted to introduce controlled parking in that well-heeled (and well-wheeled) district, without, according to a judge, adequate consultation, along with other developments and emphases by local government ministers in successive governments, has fostered an idea that residential roads "belong" to the people who live on them. It has become very difficult for councils to put in schemes on such roads with which a majority of residents disagree. And this makes strategic planning for cycling extremely difficult, because cycle networks will be, in part, on minor roads, but if each section of network can potentially be blocked by a vociferous group of nimby residents who see only their own short-term interests, and don't understand the strategic reasoning, then it is no wonder that council officers are very loth to propose anything remotely ambitions, beyond painting some cycle symbols on a road.
So I agree with George Osborne. The infrastructure we need for both growth and environmental benefit is being strangled by foolish bureaucratic rules imposed by government. But at this level, the level of kerbstones on tiny residential streets, I don't think this problem is on the radar of ministers. It needs to be, if councils are to deliver any sort of cycling infrastructure, and deliver it within sensible budgets.