Gosforth meeting – a member’s letter

Alistair Ford, a member who lives in Gosforth, has written to the Gosforth Councillors following the Town Hall Meeting. Here is his robust and forward-thinking letter. To facilitate communication, we would be delighted to post the Councillors’ reply.

Dear councillors,

I am writing to you regarding the ‘Gosforth Town Meeting’ which I attended last week. I would like to congratulate you all on calling such a meeting, and providing an opportunity for the people of Gosforth to get together and discuss issues which are important to them. I thought it was excellent to hear a range of views and for people to form a better understanding of the challenges being faced by the local area, and I hope such events will be repeated in the future. I must also congratulate Councillor Cott in particular for his excellent and dilligent work over the Post Office relocation and hope that his efforts will bring results that offer a more satisfactory proposal than that so far tabled.

However, I was rather disappointed by the tone adopted by some councillors and the lack of background given on the situation regarding the transport changes to the High Street. The debate was framed in a very negative way from the beginning, with votes being held in the room without any attempt to set out the context, why these proposals are being put in place, or what the alternatives might be. I think it is dangerous for our elected representatives on the council to be couching the discussions in terms of “the people of Gosforth” vs “cyclists” as if these two groups are distinct from one another. I was also dismayed to hear some councillors state on a number of occasions during the evening that “the people of Gosforth are against these proposals” – again, SOME people are against them, but many local people are in favour of changes to the High Street and I believe it is the job of our councillors to offer a balanced response.

It was left to members of the audience to offer that balance on a number of occasions:

  • The issue of air pollution was only mentioned by the audience. Gosforth is a blackspot in the city, with Professor Margaret Bell of Newcastle University pointing out that “unless the volume of cars is reduced and the congestion removed, pollution will not fall significantly” and that “investment in infrastructure changes in Gosforth High Street, with better provision for bicycles, improvements in bus journey times and efficient management of traffic at the Salter’s Road, Church Lane junction will mean that roads in the vicinity will benefit from a healthier environment for shoppers and residents.” (http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/air-quality-fear-backs-council-6756003) No mention was made either of the EU fines that the council is likely to face unless this issue is addressed.
  • The issue of shops closing and standing empty: again, this was mentioned by councillors but with no background as to why these shops may be closing (i.e. changing shopping habits, the influence of large supermarkets, high rents along the High Street, changing tastes and demographics), instead being used as an argument against cycle routes or parking reduction. There was no evidence offered that removing parking or making stopping on the High Street illegal would actually have the detrimental effect on the local shops that some people are claiming.
  • Traffic congestion: a number of members of the audience raised the issue of the volume of cars on our roads and related issues like the lack of parking spaces on terraced streets, or the installation of traffic lights instead of roundabouts. Again, no context was given by our councillors about the number of extra cars on the roads (20,000 more cars in Newcastle in the last decade, 71% of people going to work by car etc), about the limitations the council faces in dealing with this congestion (we can’t widen Gosforth High Street!) and the need for alternatives. The context as to why these traffic lights are being installed (e.g. to increase pedestrian and cyclist safety) was not put forward by councillors.
  • The ‘One Core Strategy’: there was no mention of the effects of what I feel is a completely flawed strategy for the future growth of our city, proposing more out-of-town developments, building on the greenbelt, and dispersed residential areas that will just increase car use and exacerbate the problems of traffic congestion. There was mention by some councillors of opposing housing developments on brownfield sites in our area when these are exactly the kinds of developments that are needed to help maintain the viability of local shops and allow young people like me to be able to afford to buy property in Gosforth.

I look to my elected representatives to have vision and think of the future. It is clear that there are problems facing our area and that solutions must be found in order to ensure it is a vibrant, pleasant, healthy place to live, work, or shop. I agree with you all that the proposals put forward by the council are not perfect. I am dismayed that more has not been done to attempt a more radical change from the status quo. But I understand that the council’s hands are tied financially and that the money being used for these improvements will be taken away if it is not spent soon. Hence I am extremely worried that going along with the calls of a vocal minority for a judicial review or referral to the ombudsman risks losing the cash and leaving us stuck with the current mess for years to come.

As someone who has lived in the Netherlands in the past, I have seen what an alternative could look like. I was a resident of Groningen (Newcastle’s twin city) for a year and enjoyed living in a city with worse weather than ours (more rain and colder winters!), with similar topography, but where the proportion of people who cycled every day was 60%. This was because the infrastructure was provided, because people felt safe to cycle to the local shops with the need for high-viz clothing and helmets, and without the fear of being crushed under the wheels of a bus. This took vision from the local city though; it took a joined-up plan, changing local streets, building cycling infrastructure, and making it easier to cycle than to take the car.

Such vision would offer a solution to Gosforth’s problems: reducing reliance on cars for short journeys (67% of journeys in Newcastle are less than 5 miles), reducing congestion as a result, and freeing up the road for those people who do need to drive because of age, disability, or work. This is not just about the plans for the High Street, but an integrated set of ideals that can make local streets safer and more pleasant too, can help shops to thrive, and can improve the health and well-being of our local people.

I call on you in the future to consider how you see Gosforth in five, ten, or twenty years from now and explain this vision, and how we might get there, to local people. Such transitions need imagination and determination, but also compromise and collaboration, discussion and understanding. By siding with STURR, by framing this discussion as a battle between one group of residents and another, we are in danger of becoming a divided and failing neighbourhood. I believe that holding more meetings like the one last week, but with an emphasis on discussion and understanding, can help form such visions for our area. That bringing together cyclist groups like the Newcastle Cycling Campaign, residents, local shopkeepers, and council officers to explain their rationale, we can see each other’s fears, needs, and pressures much more clearly.

Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts, and thank you again for arranging last week’s meeting.

All the best,

Alistair