Hackney Wick police see how infrastructure failure endangers cyclists

The local police safer neighbourhood team were out on my commute home tonight warning cyclists about breaking the law on Victoria Park Road. They seemed to accept, though, that Hackney Council’s failure to provide safe lanes on an important cycling route was causing scores of cyclists to either put themselves in danger or conflict with pedestrians on the (also inadequate) pavements. I’m also hopeful from my chat with the SNT officer that the police in Hackney are actually already advocating for better infrastructure.

There is a busy eastbound cycle route on Hackney’s southern border. The safest ways to get from the City to anywhere in or beyond northeast Hackney pass through or around Victoria Park. One such route skirts the north of the the park, then diffuses as it hits Well Street Common. It’s always busy, and in the few minutes I was there talking to the police more than a dozen riders passed.

The problem is that the people planning the transport infrastructure did not prioritise the cycle route – so it is broken for one stupid moment by a one-way street.

Victoria Park Rd is part of the Hackney Wick racetrack circuit: traffic here routinely breaks the speed limit. We can see that, because the council did helpfully provide those warning signs that flash on when cars are going too fast – and they come on for almost every car. How many? We’ll never know, because Hackney Council would apparently rather not think about it, let alone do anything.

On the north side, the pavement is both narrow and fenced off with railings; on the south side there is a bus shelter. Even if you walked your bike here you would come into conflict with pedestrians.

The road is wide enough here for a short contraflow cycle path, just linking up the two parts of the route. Instead, the lack of thought by the council is just asking for cyclists to risk putting themselves at danger by rushing the wrong way up an unregulated road of speeding traffic, or to annoy pedestrians on a narrow, crooked, fenced-off pavement.

This wouldn’t be a particularly difficult fix, especially compared with the killer junctions that still dot the borough, so the failure to do anything about it is just symptomatic of the lack of real attention given to cycling under Mayor Jules Pipe’s leadership. But the local SNT, and apparently also the local Labour councillors, do believe that the community safety issue here is the cyclists who are put at danger by bad traffic planning, not the risk to the abstract integrity of the one-way system from forty yards of cyclists being encouraged to break the law.

Published in: on January 17, 2012 at 7:39 pm  Leave a Comment  

Hackney votes Yes to AV

It looks like Hackney had the highest Yes2AV vote in the UK, at 61%.

Thank you to all Hackney reformers who helped with the campaign, and to everyone who came out and voted yes.

Hackney must be one of the few places in the country where it was a truly cross-party campaign. It was a real pleasure campaigning alongside Liberal Democrats, Greens, Labour – and even Conservatives.

Greens, Lib Dems, Labour, and Tories all campaigned together to win the referendum in Hackney.

Shame about the rest of the country.

Published in: on May 6, 2011 at 9:42 pm  Comments (2)  

Hackney’s Labour Council shows no interest in making cycling safer

Every year in Hackney, around 6 cyclists are killed and 150 seriously injured. There have been so many accidents recently that the local newspaper has launched a safer cycling campaign. Our Labour Mayor has claimed to support the campaign, but the borough’s new Transport Local Implementation Plan has been released – and it won’t do a thing to improve safety for cyclists.

Mayor Jules Pipe told the Gazette:

“In recent years, Hackney Council has gone to great efforts to improve safety for cyclists, including free cycle training to people living, working or studying in the borough. We also host a local safety working group, where the council and its partners meet up to discuss ways of improving cyclist and pedestrian safety around heavy goods vehicles. As a council, we support any additional efforts to try and create a safer environment for cyclists in Hackney.”

But the proposed Transport Local Implementation Plan barely says a thing about physical improvements to make the transport network safe for cyclists.

Three out of four of the borough plan’s cycling goals are just to provide more cycle parking:
– Estate cycle parking: providing cycle lockers in Hackney Estates.
– Increase in cycle parking at rail, Overground and Tube stations in the borough.
– Provision of on carriageway and on footway cycle parking.

That’s all very well – and very cheap. Hackney has about half the amount of bike stands as neighbouring Islington; and installing secure cycle parking at rail stations would be particularly welcome, although I’ll believe it when I see it. In general, though, Hackney already has a tolerably good amount of cycle parking, so this doesn’t add much.

No matter how much parking there is, without improving the safety of the road en route, more people won’t take up cycling.

No matter how much “Provision of cycle training levels 1,2,3 to adults” the council offers, without improving the safety of the road, more people won’t take up cycling.

The council’s plan wants more pupils to cycle to school. That’s not going to happen without without improving the safety of the road en route ETC. ETC.

Hackney Council are currently making Goldsmith’s Row ‘safer for cycling’, involving a massive amount of digging-up and repaving. It’s a popular cycle route into the borough… but it was already safe. This is a quiet, slow, minor street. It was even one of the few places with a segregated cycle path. This couldn’t be a more pointless tinkering exercise with something that was already basically fine.

This seems utterly symptomatic of Mayor Pipe’s approach to cycling: tinkering around the edges. There are mad five-way junctions like Pembury Place, HGV Chaos at Dalston Junction (the scene of the most recent killing). Even on Goldsmith’s Row- after the clear and safe stretch that the council are pointlessly digging up- on-street parking narrows the road to a bottleneck and causes constant clashes between cyclists and traffic. What will be done to tackle these genuine problems?

In conclusion, Hackney’s transport plan is utterly uninspiring, doing only the easiest of the easy stuff. It lacks any sort of coherant vision, and doesn’t even plot a clear way to achieve its stated goals.

It’s still out for consultation of course- but why bother responding? As we know, no matter what people say, Hackney’s Labour council isn’t interested in listening.

Published in: on February 18, 2011 at 2:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

Localism Bill: Citizens doing it for themselves

Across the country, right now, local communities are holding meetings to discuss their reactions to the Localism Bill, to start the process of drawing up Neighbourhood Plans, and to talk about the decisions that could be better taken around the parish pump than in the Town Hall. My advice to Liberal Democrat councillors and activists would be to get working on this as soon as you can, because the spoils- both political and practical- seem destined to go to those who take the initiative first.

This evening, the founding meeting of the London Fields Community Council was called by the local GLA member, who declared: Citizens are doing it for themselves.

There was a great talk from an Urban Planner called Euan Mills, who is working on the Neighbourhood Plan for the Chatsworth Road neighbourhood, a bit further East.

He showed that Neighbourhood Planning can be a positive, proactive role for the local community.

Local campaigners and Focus Teams will know that it’s usually easy to mobilise the community against something; much harder to mobilise them in favour of something. And there did seem to be some strength of feeling in the room that Hackney Council’s borough-wide strategic planning didn’t meet local needs. People seemed particularly aggrieved that London Fields is designated as suitable site for tall buildings in the Hackney plan.

But the new process is positive one: Identifying high-level aspirations for the neighbourhood, and linking each one with the policies or projects needed to fulfil them. Establishing the neighbourhood’s key values, and tailoring the physical environment to suit them.

This is fantastic. I think we’ll get a real clarity of purpose when planning in a much more detailed way for a small neighbourhood– something the borough hasn’t managed to do successfully.

The fly in the ointment still seems to be getting all the right stakeholders a say in that plan.

I worried before the meeting that the urban parish system looks a bit too atomised, and doesn’t take into account of how people view their community. I have to say, my worries were not assuaged.

Andrew Boff had prepared a suggested map of the parish boundary. I’ve a few issues with this. For example, Goldsmith’s Row is very obviously part of the community, yet is excluded. It was emphasised that this is just the starting point, but could it ever capture everyone? As I wrote in my last post, an urban community, centered on a specific location, can be geographically dispersed in terms of where people actually live.

There were voices calling for an extremely restricted definition of the neighbourhood. An elderly man representing the London Fields User Group complained about people coming in from as far away as Queensbridge Road, “using our park”, let alone making decisions about it. Queensbridge Road is about 100 yards from the park gate.

This would be the worst result of the atomisation of London: that people like this get more power, and use it to exclude people they don’t consider to belong – that they might try to redefine a park or street of regional importance as a local place for local people. The projects the London Fields User Group are pushing for seem fair enough, but this is the user group that since I’ve lived around here seem to have concentrated on trying to stop outsiders from using the park in the summer (or “hogging the space”, as they put it), stopping barbecues, attempting to get the whole park closed at night, and succeeding at getting a large piece of the park fenced off and tarmacked for football.

On the other hand, the opposite problem could occur- that these parishes are too expansive. The Chatsworth Road Parish Council seemed intent, from the look of their maps, on absorbing part of Lower Clapton Road – which has the potential to be a high street in its own right. Would this expansive districting subordinate the needs of that for the interests of the movers and shakers on Chatsworth Road? As a precept on the council tax can be levied, not to mention potentially very large sums through Community Infrastructure Levy from developers wanting to build in the area, there are financial incentives for expansionistic parishes.

It seems that because this is very much a Big Society citizens’ initiative, it depends on the citizens that get involved and get their territorial claims in first.

This could all get a bit ‘Napoleon of Notting Hill‘…

These issues of balance notwithstanding, it’s still a good policy from the Coalition Government.

Published in: on February 16, 2011 at 3:08 am  Leave a Comment  

Localism Bill: what’s a community?

The Localism Bill gives more power to “local communities”, letting “communities” run their own affairs. There’s a Community Right to Challenge. Communities will keep the proceeds of the Community Infrastructure Levy. Community, community, community. Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities, won’t stop talking about communities.

The problem is that in practice it doesn’t mean “communities”, it seems to mean something closer to “parish”, which is something quite different.

The Bill seems to suggest that the new level of power is arranged along prescriptive ward/parish-style boundaries. But that’s not how communities actually function, and would likely remove power from the majority of people who actually use and care for a place.

Urban neighbourhoods are not self-contained to any degree: what we really have is a series of communities that overlap geographically. They may be based on age, class, religion, colour, or just on a favourite pub. Although people may live next door to each other, their ideas of what constitutes their ‘neighbourhood’ might vary wildly depending on the shops, pubs, and parks they frequent, their usual walking routes, and so on.

So, for example, I view my neighbourhood as extending roughly from Columbia Road to the London Fields Lido. My neighbour might think of their community as being centred around the Shah Poran Masjid, or Hoxton Square, or Haggerston School. Our imagined place in the urban fabric is only marginally decided by where we are physically located.

There’s a meeting next week to set up a ‘Community Council’ for London Fields – the Localism Bill will promote many more such Neighbourhood Forums.

Andrew Boff (a great local Tory Assembly Member, who is helping with the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign) says that a community council in London Fields could give “residents” more influence:

“A community council can set up youth facilities (much under- resourced in London Fields), get local consent for any future road works, address a shortage of child care facilities, or set up a transition town strategy to address climate change.”

The people who use the park probably aren’t residents of the immediate area, but they are still stakeholders in the park. They are the customers of local businesses, and the life of local streets. A neighbourhood purely managed for the local residents wouldn’t necessarily cater for those who live somewhat more geographically dispersed, but are still invested in the place.

The principle of subsidiarity is a good one in theory – that decisions should be taken at the smallest, lowest competent authority. But this looks a bit too atomised, and doesn’t take into account of how people live their lives.

There’s no doubt that the existing Boroughs are too big – why should decisions be taken on a level that covers Bethnal Green, Canary Wharf, Fish Island, and Wapping? I’d suggest that the former Metropolitan Boroughs, established by the 1900 London Government Act, better contain the possibilities of human activity and communities.

So, I suppose, here begins the Shoreditch secessionist movement. More Light! More Power!

Published in: on February 11, 2011 at 3:46 pm  Comments (1)  

No sex please, we’re Hackney

Hackney Council’s licensing committee voted this week to approve a new ‘nil’ policy on sex establishments in the borough. Sex shops, strip clubs, and porn cinemas will not be able to open in Hackney if and when the Committee’s decision is endorsed by full council. This fight between a broad coalition of libertarian citizens on one hand, and a nest of clucking moralistic biddies on the other, is instructive, as the former were in the majority even if the latter have won this round.

I’ve never been to a strip club or porn cinema BY THE WAY, and when I went into a sex shop once I went scarlet and wasn’t sure where to look. Such, I suppose, is the residual effect of Catholicism even on the committed apostate. But, as a matter of principle, freedom of choice should always be respected, and it is deeply offensive that the borough authorities should be able to stamp their moral code on the rest of us.

The consultation went massively against the Council’s proposed ban. It was reassuring that most of the responses from members of the public to the council’s consultation were broadly libertarian. Two-thirds of respondents opposed the council’s proposal to ban sex encounter establishments; three-quarters opposed banning sex shops.

Local businesses also opposed the ban. Strip clubs in particular seem to generate a lot of business for other aspects of the evening economy. Bars, kebab shops, cab companies, and the local comedy club all opposed the nil policy.

A lot of residents told the consultation that the establishments are well-run and not a cause of antisocial behaviour or crime. Local Tennants’ Associations wrote that “None of the tenants or residents have complained of the crime of anti-social behaviour from Browns or the White Horse. Off-licences causing more problems”. Pubwatch, an organisation that runs a voluntary accreditation for well-run pubs, noted that the “premises operate in a professional manner.” Even the Vicar at St. Leonard’s Church, Rev. Turp, told the committee that although there are “tensions between local residents and transient commercial users” and crime caused by local bars, the strip clubs happen to be a “big success” when it comes to managing antisocial behaviour, and that “none cause trouble for the police or community disruption.”

This doesn’t surprise me. When For Your Eyes Only was applying for a license on City Road, the police told the licensing committee that in streets where this chain had opened a club, crime and antisocial behaviour actually went down, so effective were its door staff.

30% of the consultation responses were from Gay men, many attempting to save the ‘Expectations’ sex shop as a resource for the gay community. Shops like this may sell rude items, but they are also an important source of condoms and lubricants and other sexual health needs.

So why did the curtain-twitching moralistic tendency win out?

The obvious response is that Hackney traditionally has a respect for democracy roughly equivalent to Cuba, and the Labour Council is all about imposing their own moral code despite people’s actual wishes.

Yes, Hackney Council’s consultations are usually some form of sham. But pandering to moralistic groups is not the preserve of one party or one borough – even the Liberal Democrats have jumped on this bandwagon before.

Lib Dem councillors in Archway fought against a new strip club for example. (I should declare an interest as having drafted the press releases.)

To be fair on them, the councillors involved there are impeccable liberals, and the argument was always couched in the ostensibly liberal terms of local people having a say on what happens in their community. The loophole in Labour’s 2003 licensing act pretty much allowed licensed pubs and bars to transform into strip clubs at will – a loophole that was closed by the Coalition Government last November. There probably are good and bad places for strip clubs, and councillors are there to make that decision for the local community. I guess that’s legitimate local democracy. Although sitting as it does in the middle of an ugly and inhospitable – and largely inaccessible – gyratory, I probably wouldn’t think of the Archway Tavern as an obviously wrong place.

From the Islington Lib Dem press release, you’ll note that the Liberal Democrats were working hand-in-hand with the Fawcett Society and Object, who aren’t interested in finding the right place for different sorts of entertainment. They want it banned outright.

Almost all of those responding to support the council’s proposed policy included the formulation that the “Borough has a duty to tackle gender inequality”, usually citing Harman’s Gender Equality Duty 2007. According to the Committee’s own analysis of the consultation responses: “When looking at the arguments presented in support of the “nil” policy and in opposition to the different types of sex establishments, the ‘exploitation and objectification of women’ was the main reason presented”

The chair of OBJECT (tagline: “Women are not sex objects!”) sent a response, and many followed her template. Including, in a move I find rather disturbing, an apparently official submission from Amnesty International UK.

“Very uncomfortable with the existence of the licensed clubs”, says one supporter of the nil policy, summing up the Object argument in a nutshell.

In this case there was clearly an organised group of Feminists attempting to use the force of law to impose their morals on everyone else.

In one brilliant example from Islington, the licensing committee was considering giving an adult entertainment license for a new strip club at Bar Aquarium in Shoreditch. The committee was bombarded by letters and template emails from outraged women saying how degrading it was to have women stripped and objectified, how it would inevitably lead to rape on Old Street, and so on. The bar, however, was applying to have male go-go dancers. The feminists are fiercely organised, even if they are bad at reading the small print.

So what are the lessons here?

That in this country, even here at the heart of the Metrop, politicians are keen to legislate for morality. In Hackney it’s a problem with Labour, but even Liberal Democrats can jump on that bandwagon to curry favour with vociferous local groups of WI-type ladies, and that’s a difficult beast for a liberal to ride.

These noisy interest groups can represent a form of tyranny. As Lib Dems, we have to recognise that while localism is good, the dangers of autocracy are as relevant at a local level as a national one. Adam Bell has warned that the Tories in Government are in favour of state intervention as long as it’s at the local level – which shouldn’t be surprising, but is something we need to keep an eye on.

But the most heartening lesson is that, at least in Hackney, the vast majority of people just want the Council to mind it’s own damn business.

Published in: on January 13, 2011 at 4:32 pm  Comments (1)