Still ambitious chaos

You remember the Cycle City Ambition Fund? Maybe not? And you’d be forgiven, as the council keeps strangely quiet about it in its communications, newsletters and updates to residents. Why is that? Why do they find it so hard to communicate their ambitious transformation to a city fit for people? Is it too ambitious and they are hesitant and uncertain where to start? Or do they simply not see the value in shouting it from all roof tops?

The story began last year. In April 2013 we, amongst many other groups, full-heartedly supported Newcastle’s ambition to transform its roads and streets. In our appreciative letter to Newcastle City Council we, as a longstanding council forum member, suggested at the time

We believe the programme is deliverable, particularly with the continued political leadership and upskilling of officials that is taking place.
We suggest using the forum as it is well-placed to oversee delivery of the above vision and act as a project and sounding board.

Source

It was exciting. Then in June there was confirmation of Newcastle’s success, and there was the money – nearly £6m to be precise. Combined with the will and a plan, we looked forward to our city getting a truly fantastic make-over in the next two years. The work on road space re-allocation – the largest chunk of the ambition plan – kicked off in earnest in June. So, where are we now?

The programme

Well, nine months in, and the council cycle forum has not seen a programme once, let alone received an update. This is despite the forum’s stated function to monitor and review council plans and council’s own stated aim to cooperatively and inclusively work with a diversity of communities and groups. Furthermore, a recent council survey couldn’t have been more clearly: people are incredibly interested in being kept informed about the planned road conversions to space for cycling. And who can blame anyone for that? Now sadly, this enthusiasm is thrashed and thwarted by our council not communicating its plans in a concerted and confident way. We will try to communicate matters to you in their stead.

The design

You may say, you are interested in seeing changes on the ground. And let me assure you, so are we! There’s been plenty of talk about cycle infrastructure in the technical group that has met every two weeks since June, and to which we are contributors. There even were some plans to look at but the iterations to go through were many making progress arduous. It became apparent a few months ago that a stronger technical overview at senior level, better supervision and more cycle design experience were needed.

Quo vadis?

At the end of last year we took the initiative and informed Councillors. We wrote to Cllr Marion Talbot (cycle champion) and Cllr Ged Bell (transport cabinet member) to inform them about this lack of vision, effective communication and progress. We also highlighted the risks and challenges involved, like reputation loss with the Department for Transport and other Core Cities, and loosing the trust and enthusiasm of the community.

We suggested to them to assemble a dedicated project delivery team so that the programme – which we believe is badly slipping – as well as the designs and public engagement to be put back on track. For the delivery team we made clear that the council should consider importing experts from outside Newcastle to kick-start the transition. We also expressed the urgency required to do this, as with rising cycle numbers come casualties, injuries and damage if the infrastructure isn’t upgraded in parallel, as we can sadly see from London.

To date, months on, we have not received a reply that would make us understand the politicos’ view or intentions. We offered repeatedly to meet and discuss these concerns we raised before, preferably before it is too late and the programme is irreparable. The delivery deadline is in a years time and that’s not much, when you consider that tasks involved: conceptual design, detailed designs and construction, all interspersed with effectively targetted communication, formal consultation and good community engagement.

Meanwhile the council continued to waste taxpayers money on traditional designs, like Silver Lonnen, Elswick Road, Brighton Grove (Northside) and Fenham Hall Drive, by removing cycle infrastructure or clumping pedestrians and cyclists onto the same narrow footpath when it’s carriageway narrowing that’s needed – and all that, shockingly, against independent road safety advice.

Council so far has failed to integrate modern city design principles and failed to jump-start a confident debate about public life, framed by strong city policies. It’s not the policies, it’s the confidence to spell them out to the public that’s truly absent.

It’s political leadership that’s needed at this point. So, Newcastle council, what is it to be?

Meanwhile for inspiration and hope, we’ll leave you with these illustrations. We are not saying we have got all the answers, but we’ve repeatedly asked the council to seriously involve us and give us a stake as a formal partner. Momentarily we are disseminating, again, their vision and ask why can’t they do it themselves?

Great North Road the stretch between Broadway to Hollywood Avenue
Broadway Gosforth

Great North Road necking down at side road

John Dobson Street in the city centre, screaming for a people-friendly makeover

Tankerville Terrace a popular route to schools

Grey Street a popular shopping street with a historic backdrop, shared space

And all this space on Brandling Park could be used to designate a Cycle Street