Azara Blog: Cambridge County Council defers decision on Gilbert Road

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Date published: 2010/02/23

The Cambridge County Council proposed "improvements" to Gilbert Road (and elsewhere). The two main parts of the scheme were to make it illegal to park on Gilbert Road and to put speed bumps all along Gilbert Road. The first part in particular attracted some controversy, since most of the residents of Gilbert Road (for obvious reasons) opposed the idea of making it illegal to park on the road. Apparently a lot of them also opposed the idea of speed bumps.

There was a "consultation" about the proposals. Only most people affected by the change would not have heard of the consultation, making it completely vacuous. Indeed, it seems that 566 people responded, of which 196 were residents of Gilbert Road. The day before the consultation finished (on Friday 12 February) the Cambridge Cycling Campaign (CCC) sent out an email to its members urging them to fill in the survey, and so it's likely that most of the 566-196=370 people who were not residents of Gilbert Road were members of the CCC, so their email solicitation obviously had the desired effect of stuffing the ballot box. This is the problem with all such consultations, namely that special interest pressure groups can fairly easily hijack the proceedings.

Apparently around 850 cyclists use Gilbert Road every day (it's not clear if that meant journeys or individuals, probably the former). And around 6000 cars use it every day. Almost certainly most of the car users never even heard of the consultation, so they were in effect disenfranchised. Apparently there is around one accident a year involving a cyclist on Gilbert Road. Well, given that the claim is that there are around 300 thousand cycling journeys and 2 million car journeys per year on Gilbert Road, this does not sound like an accident blackspot that demands the highest attention of the government.

So why the proposal? Well, the CCC has been agitating for years to have the cycle lanes that exist on Gilbert Road made mandatory. And a national quango by the name of Cycling England has offered to throw lots of money at Cambridge for cycling schemes. In the face of this "free" money it's not very surprising that the county council wants to spend it. But just because something is "free" does not mean it is a good idea. So the county council many years ago approved the Guided Bus because it was (a lot of) "free" money, although the scheme didn't particularly make any sense. And the county council also recently came pretty close to introducing a so-called congestion charge (really an access tax) in Cambridge because the national government allegedly had offered bucket loads of "free" money.

There was a county council cabinet meeting at 10 AM today to discuss whether the Gilbert Road proposal (and other ones) should be given approval. Well, the time of the meeting already tells you that only middle class people would be able to attend, but that's who runs the world. One oddity of life in Cambridge is that the county council cabinet has no representatives for any part of Cambridge, because the county council is run by the Tories and there is no Tory county councillor from Cambridge. So it is entirely non-Cambridge people who were making the decision about Gilbert Road. This really is ridiculous. On the other hand, the Cambridge city ruling elite are far worse when it comes to transport (being completely biased towards cycling and against cars) whereas the county politicians are not quite so bad.

The meeting was held in a not-very-big room and what little space there was for the public was packed. First up with a spokesman for the CCC, who was given three minutes to make the obvious spiel supporting the proposal. Then a resident of Gilbert Road was given three minutes to make the obvious counter-spiel opposing the proposal.

Then the politicians took over, and the public had to keep quiet, so they were not even allowed to challenge the dubious arguments being made by the politicians. First up was Kevin Wilkins, who is not on the cabinet but who represents West Chesterton (which includes the east end of Gilbert Road) on the county council and is a Lib Dem. Now the Lib Dems really hate cars, and he just repeated the CCC talking points. And he claimed that he and his predecessor had been looking at this for ten years and they could not see a better proposal. Well, this is rather damning, given that the proposal was far worse than the status quo in most regards.

Rupert Moss-Eccardt, the Lib Dem representative on the county council for Arbury (which includes the west end of Gilbert Road), did not attend but apparently had sent in his thoughts. Apparently he broadly approved of the scheme but had various ifs and buts, although it was not disclosed to the public what these were.

Next up was Roy Pegram, who seems to be the cabinet member in charge of promoting the scheme. He again repeated the CCC talking points, and completely ignored all the flaws in the proposal. For example, never once did he (nor anyone else, for that matter) mention that banning parking on Gilbert Road would send it to narrower side streets, and that putting speed bumps on Gilbert Road would make a lot of drivers rat-run down side streets. It is rather unbelievable that neither the bureaucrats nor the politicians promoting the scheme could see any downsides at all.

Pegram also rattled off various statistics to do with the consultation, as if that mattered at all, given that it was totally unrepresentative of the users of Gilbert Road.

At this point it looked like the meeting was going to be a stitch up for the scheme. But every politician after that took a different view. First was Mac McGuire, who said that although we should encourage cycling, it should not be "at any cost". Wow, a politician with some sanity. Anyway, he proposed deferring a decision on the Gilbert Road scheme and sending it to the highway "Policy Development Group" to look at again, to see if there was an alternative option. The other politicians who spoke (Peter Brown, Martin Curtis, John Reynolds, David Harty) pretty much followed suit, and the leader, Jill Tuck, pretty much accepted it then and there.

It's not quite clear what this means. The county council bureaucrat, Phil Crack, who attend the meeting and who answered some questions from the politicians, was fairly visibly upset about this. There was even some talk that the "Area Joint Committee" would have to look at it again, and apparently their next meeting is in July. Crack said that if that happened then it would be difficult to finish with the proposal before the Cycling England money was lost.

It is not at all obvious what input, if any, the general public will be allowed into this new procedure.

The non-Gilbert Road proposals, for Cherry Hinton Road, Madingley Road, and the Tins, were approved without discussion.

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