Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Rat-running time for a different solution

Seeing the news published by the council today that "Public say no to Earlsfield traffic changes" has spurred me on to write this.

The problem faced by the residents of Earlsfield is one which people face across the UK, and no doubt in other countries too. As main roads become congested with more and more (motor) traffic, those drivers seek alternative routes to travel along. In the case of Earlsfield, those alternative routes are clearly residential streets.

My understanding of the current scenario is as follows:

  1. Resident speaks to local Councillor (Cllr)
  2. Cllr tells resident to do a petition to show support
  3. Resident collects signatures for their petition
  4. Resident returns petition to Cllr
  5. Cllr presents petition at full council
  6. Next transport committee meeting, petition noted, officers asked to work on it.
  7. Depending on officer workload, several committee meetings later, report presented recommending a public consultation.
  8. Data gathered if needs be, proposed solution worked up by highways officers.
  9. Consultation goes out to key stakeholders first, then shared with wider public. 
  10. Local residents are given a take it or leave it option, which proposes change to stop the problem. 

End result = Residents reject proposed changes, problem remains, time and money wasted.

My main issues with this process is that the public consultation totally fails to consult with the public in question. There is no exchange of views, both from the officers with the residents or vis-a-versa. Also the process takes so long, that the impetus from the original petition may have been forgotten by the time these changes are proposed. The changes are also usually proposed as permanent, which can be very unsettling if you feel that they may not work.

A different approach - A possible Solution

In light of a similar outcome on my residential streets, I conducted a petition which asks the council to trial a solution. In excess of 90% of the people asked were happy to sign. They can see that there is a problem, we don't all agree that my proposed solution will work, but we all recognise that if we don't change anything then nothing will change.

Here is my petition form

I'm waiting for the officers locally to report back. I'm confident that the changes will work, but to really be sure, we need to see how people react with them on the ground.

I'd really like to help others in Wandsworth improve their streets. On my patch, 3 consultations have been done in 10 years. That is a lot of time wasted as well as money, with all the problems still with us.

The right solutions could have been proposed before, but we are naturally hesitant/concerned about change, and whilst change could be good people often think 'better the devil I know'.

If the proposed change is temporary, to allow people the opportunity to experience something different without the fear presented by permanent change and it works, they will want to keep it.

If you'd like some help putting together something like this for your streets, let me know. If several different people could work on similar petitions for their local streets, we could change the streets quite quickly with a lot of local support.

Drop me a line if you are interested.


  1. I'm going through a process at the moment where proposals which are greatly desired by residents who are most affected by them could be torpedoed by outsiders who object to the proposals on principle - there is no clear evidence that they make any difference to them whatsoever, especially as many of the objectors live at some distance.

    However, there are two key features of this scenario. First is that the objections are highly orchestrated, with individuals making multiple objections (to different proposals) in a manner which permits them to be counted as ten (sic) objections to individual schemes instead of one general objection. Many of the objecton letters are clearly cloned.

    Second is that the statutory consultation process requires the authority to advance a proposal and to request objections. They are under no obligation, indeed I don't think they are actually allowed, to solicit support explicitly. This of course can mean that your supporters are lulled into a false sense of security, thinking that if support is not requested, it is not needed.

    However, when it comes to reporting the outcome, the authority will be bound to report both the objections and the supporting comments, even if the latter were not actually solicited. Perhaps next time you will need to organise to make sure that everyone who wants it takes the time to write or email in to voice support. That might mean using the comments box to say "I fully support etc" because the formal questions don't provide scope for that, or using the email alternative to phrase a simple statement.

    Also, my local mole on the council tells me "it's a numbers game". Unless you get under the skin of the consultation response, and ask questions about who/what/where objections are, you can be swamped by a small, undemocratic but ruthlesss and crafty claque.

    In my case the issue is residents asking for control over incomers parking in their street, and objections against such controls - not really from the people who want these spaces, but people who don't obviously have any interest in the question but just want to kibosh it. If you can stand it, look at tripledoubleyewhaslemereparkingdotcom (I don't want this to ping-back) where you will see how much affluent burghers can foam at the mouth about such a trivial issue.

  2. It’s a pity that local communities don’t act like communities and help each other out! Unfortunately, it would seem that all too often if something is not seen as a direct benefit (and potentially a dis-benefit) then the “don’t change anything” or “keep the status-quo” brigades win out. All helped of course by a slice of the “it’s all too difficult” and “anything for an easy life” culture. If it doesn’t affect me (yet), why should I care (now)? Is that what localism is supposed to be all about?

    Perhaps, rather than setting the consultation in terms of proposals to change traffic rules in order to deter rat-runners and improve vehicle flows, the council would do better to look at the bigger picture and present ideas for making the local neighbourhood more liveable. So, changes to the local road network could result in your children being able to cycle to school on a summer day. Changes to the local road network will mean we can introduce pocket parks and places where neighbours can more easily stop for a chat in the street. Changes to the local road network will potentially facilitate improvements to parking. Changes to local road network, when introduced elsewhere, have resulted in a reduction in crime, an increase in property prices, and produced happier residents who engage in consultations for the common good (well, okay, that is going a bit far, but you get the picture)!

    Of course, this will remain all a bit of a dream unless councillors take the lead, act decisively, understand what is trying to be achieved, and then make the case in an intelligent and considerate manner to everyone in their ward. They need to discuss the ins and outs, the what-ifs and the future scenarios that could benefit more people in the longer term. Unfortunately, it is easier to leave the decision making process to local people, without going through this process first. It is far easier to go with the flow, and appear popular in the here and now. And it’s far easier to be able to say, should anyone subsequently question why things are as they are, or why things perhaps haven’t improved for the better, “don’t blame me, we consulted and local people wanted it”.

    That’s where your proposed approach comes in. Thinking strategically, not being afraid to try something and see how it progresses, and, most importantly, getting things started. I like it, good luck!

  3. You make two statements in your post that I must question:

    Firstly "My main issues with this process is that the public consultation totally fails to consult with the public in question."

    Where I live in Tooting there was a full consultation on a plan regarding the placing of barriers on certain roads around Tooting to restrict alleged 'rat-running'. The documents were sent to every household in the area and the interested parties (15% of all households in the wider area) responded and with a general rejection by 2:1 of the plans.

    Now (without any further consultation) petitions have led to the proposed introduction of 7 barriers to cars compared with just one road closure under the original plan. Indeed the road I live on voted 18:1 against the road closure but the proposed plan now involves that road being blocked along with two other neighbouring roads and I believe no change in the nature of the local one-way working that will cause delays and force local traffic onto an already highly busy main road.

    Hence when you say "On my patch, 3 consultations have been done in 10 years. That is a lot of time wasted as well as money" I would fully agree as it seems the Council will do what they and a vocal minority want and ignore the views of a full consultation of the residents. I have at no point been asked to support the petition and if I was I would set out my full opposition to the plans that create a massive problem where currently we have a minor issue.

    I disagree with the statement that "If the proposed change is temporary, to allow people the opportunity to experience something different without the fear presented by permanent change and it works, they will want to keep it." It is my experience that it will be introduced as temporary but despite opposition it will remain as inertia takes hold and the local area is blighted. Temporary is just a way to push through an unpopular action which then becomes permanent.

    1. Dear Seppy,

      Thanks for your comment. Hope that I can help clarify things. My issue with the questions put forward in the public consultation which put forward proposals to permanently block the south end of Fishponds Road are as follows. The questions sought to get a black or white style response from residents, where in reality people's feelings and answers are more grey. With issues like rat-running, people often want the problem solved, however there can be often be differences of opinion as to the best way to solve the problem. This results in inertia both to ask for change, as well as to make any changes happen. The traffic counts which were done in order for the previous public consultations to go ahead showed that the volume of motor traffic on those streets was significantly higher than what it should be for residential streets.

      The petition that I ran for Fishponds Road gathered circa 100 more responses than were sent back to the council for their consultation. In excess of 90% of the people I asked were happy to sign the petition. A minority (albeit vocal) very clearly indicated to me that they weren't happy with the proposals, as no doubt you would have done if I had met you and asked for your support.

      The purpose of conducting a trial, is so that we can see how it works. I am fully of the view, that should the proposed trial not deliver the benefits that I believe it will, then we should remove it.

      I believe that in light of having experienced the new layout local people will be in a position to take a more qualified view as to if the changes have been beneficial, or not. If a majority says that they would like to keep the changes, then is that not local democracy in action?

      I don't think that the 243 people who signed the petition, who all live locally can be characterised as a vocal minority. Doing the rounds myself was time consuming, and I knocked on many more than 243 doors in order to gain those signatures.