It’s a dispute that’s had everything from competing neighbourhood visions, to political turf tussles, to green ribbons wrapped around plane trees. The Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea’s rejection last week of Transport for London’s intended redesign of Notting Hill Gate and Holland Park Avenue – consecutive sections of the A402 – to include a two-way protected bicycle lane has thrown into relief an array of tensions and conundrums about not only transport and environment policies but also the relationship between different layers of London government, how public opinion is solicited and assessed, and the differing lifestyle desires of some of London’s more influential activist groups. Furious accusations have been made and fiercely held opinions have clashed. Amid the fog of streetscape war, perspectives can become fogged, significant facts lost and flimsy arguments made. Let’s bring some of the larger themes into the light.
This dispute first caught my notice when Kensington MP Emma Dent Coad expressed support for a petition against the proposed felling of trees to make way for the cycle lane. As I write, over 6,500 people have signed it (where they are all from I cannot say).
Which trees, where and how many? Reports have been inconsistent. The raiser of the petition said 19 faced the chop. The Guardian’s Peter Walker, a fervent advocate of cycle lanes, wrote that there were objections to “the removal of 23 trees for the scheme” but that “TfL says two trees would be affected”. In a subsequent piece, he said “up to two dozen” would be cut down. However, on the night of the public meeting at which the borough announced that it would not support the scheme, TfL’s Nigel Hardy said that 27 trees in all would have to go.
Most of these are relatively young fir trees – about 25 years old, according to a man from the Kensington Society – and stand in the central reservation of Notting Hill Gate. The ones with the protective green ribbons round them, mentioned above, are on Holland Park Avenue at its junction with Campden Hill Square. They are, by any definition, stately and mature London planes. So, a couple of very elderly trees, many others less so.
Why the surprise?
Hardy and the Mayor’s cycling commissioner Will Norman expressed surprise and later, in Norman’s case, anger at the announcement by RBKC’s leader Elizabeth Campbell and its lead member for transport and planning Johnny Thalassites straight after their presentations that they would not support TfL’s plans. But even if the firmness of this position caught them unawares, there had been warning signs.
For example, Thalassites issued a statement last month saying he and colleagues had “heard from huge numbers of residents with serious concerns about the current plans” and that they believed TfL “can and must review the parts of their plan that have caused these concerns”. Despite this, Thalassites believes it was still legitimate for last week’s public meeting to go ahead, giving Norman and TfL a chance to hear from local people and perhaps think again.
Could this whole process have been handled more collaboratively and therefore more productively for all concerned? That is hard to judge. Thalassites insists that RBKC is bike-friendly borough and says a low profile, non-TfL scheme linking Kensington High Street with Notting Hill Gate has been broadly welcomed by much the same demographic as has rebelled against the big TfL one.
Norman, commendably, has recognised in the past that the approach of his predecessor, Boris Johnson’s journalist friend Andrew Gilligan – who some found, shall we say, a little overweening – might have caused more problems than it solved. That said, he and TfL are under an obligation to keep Sadiq Khan’s cycle lane promises and surely know any falling short will be pounced on by the large and famously assertive social and mainstream media cycling activist network. Thalassites says that the more “early engagement” with local people on this type of enterprise, the better.
Whatever the rights and wrongs, RBKC is the highway authority for the stretch of road in question. That means TfL must go back to the drawing board.
How do local people actually feel?
The Guardian’s Peter Walker has reported that RBKC told him it received 450 emails from local people expressing opposition to the scheme. Walker is dismissive, calculating that 450 bits of email correspondence represent 0.28 per cent of the borough’s population and that even more than double that number would be “almost the dictionary definition of nimbyism”. How strong is that argument?
My initial thought was that 450 emails is an exceptionally high number for a local authority in London (or anywhere else) to receive objecting to a single proposal – even 100 would have been so. RBKC says that the 450 were to the council leader and Thalassites says that when those sent to him and other colleagues are counted too, the number hits 1,000. Walker’s article didn’t mention how many emails had been received supporting TfL’s plans. The borough tells me there were no more than “a handful” of those. If, for the sake of argument, we accept that even 450 emails against the scheme are hopelessly unrepresentative, then the number in favour must by definition be even less so.
Walker expresses disapproval of RBKC taking its decision before the consultation was even over, let alone its findings analysed. Presumably, that means he considers consultation findings more representative and therefore more valid than numbers of emails sent to local councillors. So let’s apply his population percentage test to a past TfL consultation.
The Old Street roundabout is presently being reconfigured with the aim of making it more agreeable for cyclists and for pedestrians too. The formal TfL consultation for that scheme attracted 1,300 respondents of whom 949 said the scheme would improve things for them. The consultation report said a majority but not all those people were from the general area of the roundabout, with the rest from elsewhere in Greater London.
How representative were the views of those 949 people? The Old Street scheme affected two adjoining boroughs – Hackney and Islington. If we pretend that all 949 live near the Old Street roundabout (which they don’t) and apply Walker’s percentage test to Hackney alone, 949 amounts to 0.36 of that borough’s population. If we apply it to those of Hackney and Islington combined it comes to 0.19 per cent. Are those consultation findings really more representative of local feeling than RBKC residents’ emails to their borough?
You’re right – this is a silly game and Walker’s percentages argument is thin. There are a range of ways of gathering and gauging local opinion on a planning issue. Taking note of the volume of email correspondence and the balance of viewpoints expressed in them is not unreasonable. Formal consultation processes themselves can be done in different ways, they attract different levels and kinds of responses for a variety of different reasons, and interpretations of them can be biased and subjective.
All indicators of local opinion short of a scientific poll should be treated with appropriate caution, and the findings of TfL’s consultation on its Notting Hill Gate/Holland Park Avenue proposals, which closed at the weekend, will be no exception. The same applies to soundings taken by and opinions expressed to local elected politicians. It is worth noting, though, that both the Conservative Thalassites, who is a councillor for Holland ward, and Labour’s Dent Coad have attested to the strength of opposition to the scheme they have encountered. This isn’t something either they or outsiders should ignore.
What are the main objections to the scheme?
Trees, trees, trees. That really is the biggest one, I’m told. Dent Coad has gone big on the two planes. The man from the Kensington Society said the less mature majority were planted as part of a project they had been involved with and are greatly prized locally. Norman and TfL said they intended to replace the trees, but some objectors clearly think them irreplaceable: the planes form part of long rows of them down either side of the Avenue, which unquestionably beautify this London street, and the others are there as a result of local civic endeavour.
But is this really about motorists resenting a loss of privilege? The objections of Jeremy Clarkson hardly lessen such suspicions, especially as his Twitter claim that “they” are going to cut down “all the trees” is clearly false. Some people at the public meeting complained that greater traffic congestion would result and that more pollution would result from this. Such points may or may not have been “petrolhead NIMBY garbage”, as one London academic temperately put it on Twitter. Whatever, their argument was firmly refuted by Norman, who says this type of belief is a data-proven myth.
Champions of the scheme, who managed to get some points across at the meeting despite being heavily outnumbered, lay great stress on lanes increasing safety. Hardy produced police accident figures from the last three years and highlighted two fatalities in the last ten years on Notting Hill Gate, one of them that of cyclist Eilidh Cairns who died after a collision there with a lorry. A ghost bike commemorating her is attached a pedestrian railing on the central reservation, next to one of the trees that would have gone under the TfL plans.
(It has been claimed on Twitter that a woman in the hall who spoke against the scheme introduced herself as Cairns’s aunt. A cycling website has since accused the woman of lying and reported Cairns’s sister saying there is no such relative. I was at the meeting and have an audio recording of it. For the record, the woman in question began speaking as follows: “It’s difficult for me not to be emotional because Eilidh Cairns was a relation of mine”. She then listed her objections to the scheme and concluded: “I’m sure Eilidh would be very upset at the thought of such a stupid idea”.)
Other complaints against the rejected scheme include Dent Coad’s fears that it would be a commuter route for fast-moving cyclists and therefore unsuitable for more vulnerable riders, and the loss of two bus stops along the route, an issue raised by RBKC which describes this as “asking bus passengers to accept a huge reduction in access to the bus network”. TfL counter that extra and improved pedestrian crossings would have been provided along with new pedestrian space.
This story has illuminated several important things about London and how it and its governance set-up works. These include the limits of mayoral and TfL power to get boroughs to do what they want them to – a different example of what neighbouring Tory Westminster did to them over the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street. It also highlights the influence of activism in relation to planning decisions about transport, streets and the broader environment.
Every such scenario is different, and this one is distinctive in that the conflict has been between two of the most determined and effective pressure groups in London: cycling activists and residents’ campaigners in well-heeled areas. They have important things in common, notably social class – London’s cycling demographic remains very affluent – and an unshakeable conviction that they are in the right.
Will Norman and TfL clearly feel aggrieved about what has happened and the Mayor has today backed them up. However, they are now left with little choice but to reflect on how they might do better at winning over communities likely to put obstacles in their way in future. It would be good if some of those hundreds of RBKC emailers helped them out with that, though at this stage that might be hoping for too much.
As for the cycling activists, the response of some of them has been predictably unhelpful – sanctimonious, windy, rude and intolerant of any solution to safety and air quality problems that doesn’t involve giving them their own separate bit of road. At times, they are their own worst enemies. It will be interesting to see what happens next.
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