FAQs – a reply to a reply

Newcastle City Council have released a FAQ document (pdf, external link) in response to the public outburst on the Northern Access Corridor (Blue House to Haddrick’s Mill) proposals. We had a quick look and have some comments:

The structure

Why were these questions chosen? Are they the ones most often asked? How was that determined? Is this list of 20 questions exhaustive? The public will not be able to check so we just went with the listing the council provided. But a lingering doubt remains, which is not an excellent start to reading a document that’s supposed to instil competence and transparency.

Why not give some categories? These could easily have been: technical, consultation, traffic management, funding, past projects, options, as these categories flow sequentially through the questions anyhow. By creating categories, the rather long list of 20 questions (and presented to the reader with no numbering) could have been arranged in a more manageable and accessible way. It would have allowed the reader to immediately home in on their specific interests, may that be funding or relating to another category.

As for the categories, the 20 questions could be broken down into:

  • 9 technical
  • 3 consultation
  • 3 traffic management
  • 2 funding
  • 2 past projects
  • 1 options
  • + one more section: a kind of outlook has been provided here, which does not appear in the contents list (ie unlisted text, and not very good practice).

We had a look at the number of words per question and will concentrate on analysing questions that took council the most words to answer. We will also analyse the technical content of the questions, and we will provide some background using knowledge that we have gained from interacting with the council over the years.

The entire document (excluding contents) comes to nearly 7,000 words.

  • What are the other options you’ve considered for Blue House? (990 words, category options, listed last of all questions ie No.20)
  • Why are you proposing to build roads and junctions like this when you should be trying to support modal shift by making driving less attractive? (982 words, category technical, listed last in the technical category ie No.9)

Weighing in at 2,000 words, these two questions account for 30% of words in the document. We cannot know whether these are the most frequently asked questions; these two questions are simply the questions that the council gave the longest answers to. It could be an indicator that these are the subjects the council is grappling with, or these may be the most complex questions. Be it as it may, we do have some comments and questions about these two questions, which we list below.

Q: What are the other options you’ve considered for Blue House?

Traffic flows are mentioned. Why has this not been discussed before? Why has the transport forum, that the council runs, not seen this before? As it stands, a solution was sprung on unsuspecting residents and community groups without wider council engagement and outreach. It seems quite late in the process to backtrack and retro-inform and this is a real shame. As we know, once a proposal has reached a certain stage and the council has invested resources into it, the council is more likely to turn to defending it, rather than feeling amenable towards changing it.

A very technical language is used (single destination, trips etc). This does not seem very accessible to any public observer. In fact the council’s answer, in places, looks to be a deliberate attempt to bamboozle the reader (TEMPro, forecasts, growth scenarios, trip rates).

It’s almost entirely about car journeys.

At some point we hear then that the number of people cycling has increased. So why does the council proposal do so little for cycling? And where are the walking stats? It may also be good to consider that Blue House is hostile, and that people have either found a different way to negotiate the area, or they may not consider cycling into town because of it. Blue House road environment is severing, and it is preventative to cycling.

Some photos are used elsewhere in the document, yet here, where a mapped representation of traffic flows, and such like, would help, none is provided.

And there is an underlying belief by council that people need to drive. This is at odds with council policy. And it is clearly not how to go about transitioning the transport system. Some nods are made to the possibility that young people could act differently to the predicted models, but the overall leadership in providing a system fit for the future is not there.

We can only repeat to council yet again, that Newcycling had a look at DfT figures, and 2015 motor traffic levels in that corridor have fallen, baselined against levels dating from 2000, 2005 and 2010. We would be pleased if council could follow this logic through and provide for reducing car journeys and assess the purpose of this corridor.

He council’s text consists of too much stuff, and comes way too late in the process. Council, please work on developing a vision for a green corridor.

Q: Why are you proposing to build roads and junctions like this when you should be trying to support modal shift by making driving less attractive?

This is a good question, as was the previous one. Nearly as many words were used here by the council to put together the reply. Let’s see what is said:

The council does… well… it says it “supports and encourages shifts in travel behaviour”, but from carrying out policy assessments before, we sadly know this to mean not much at all. We do need to adjust our transport system, the way we build and lay out our innercity roads and urban environments. In fact, this is what the Local Plan, the relevant transport planning policy document, says. But for some reason, the council does not mention it in their opening remarks. We need to create safe infrastructure so that people have alternatives to driving, not put the blame on individuals for not choosing these alternatives in a hostile environment.

Council’s focus on the school run has always felt peculiar to us, and we’ve pointed that fact out to the council on many occasions: it is school-run parents who are most constrained in their behaviour. You want the best and the safest for your kids. To many this means using the car (if we can afford one) and frankly, who can blame parents trying to negotiate the hostile roads we have created? We must stop this arms race where everyone tries to be the safest due to lack of safe alternatives. At one point the council makes the link between assisting young people and not constraining growth. This is cruel, and it is the ever-more growth mantra gone bad. Newcastle needs a vision of enoughness and sufficiency. Climate change is closing in. Obesity strikes.

The idea of removing rat running through filtering is great, and council should make close links with our Infrastructure Team, as a lot of legwork has already been done, some of which we elaborate on in the reply we have published to the proposal.

Safety is then mentioned as a key design criterium for the council. However, if safety is not coupled with mode-shifting road changes the approach is flawed: the outcome will not be sustainable – it will not be safe for walking and cycling. Over the years, we have repeatedly highlighted the council’s rather contradictory stance to road safety, which often means that their schemes reduce walking and cycling links (through erection of “safety barriers”, ignoring desire lines for crossings etc), when we need to create better conditions for walking and cycling (and public transport). We have spoken to council about the Dutch system of Sustainable (Road) Safety before. Their road safety system successfully combines safety with increasing sustainable travel.

We would be very happy to give a presentation to Cabinet or to lead officers if that should help them to understand and internalise the principles.

The discussion of pavement cycling makes sense, and we need infrastructural solutions now to reduce pavement cycling.

In conclusion

Overall, the document as it stands should not have been released. At 7,000 words, it’s, well, wordy. It is presumably trying to communicate rationality and competence. We cannot see this entirely working, as the debate is (understandably) heated and emotional. What the public needs is reassurances that the council will not dash off and build what they have proposed.

The FAQ document, on the whole, fails to provide the necessary reassurance.

The words climate change, policies and resilience are only mentioned once, each, in the whole document. Sustainability is not mentioned at all. In 2016 this is not a good score.

Newcastle City Council completely failed in bringing community groups with them, by informing them, and working with them to co-produce a proposal.

It’s very sad to see the council now on the back foot. Please council, start to listen seriously to the public’s concerns – and take the public seriously. Above all, the council would do very well to check out its Local Plan, engage in a policy debate and inject some real reason and a transparent process into the consultation.