David Williams, national motor journalist and road safety award-winner
As you drive around, do you ever get really, really, fed up with a silly new road junction, badly-timed traffic light, dangerously placed kerb, useless council signing, wrong speed limit – that kind of thing? I do and – occasionally – I do something about it. Like the times I reported dangerous potholes to councils, faulty traffic lights to Transport for London, and so on.
But this week I was deeply struck by what can happen when a community pulls together to do exactly that – when they really get angry. I live in south London but what occurred could have happened anywhere; anywhere a local council presses ahead, doggedly, dictatorially, with a scheme that, it seems, almost nobody wants. The first I heard was when I caught a taxi and the driver said: “You won’t be able to drive along here for much longer; they’re closing the junction’.
What unfolded was a plan by Lambeth council to close to traffic a major junction used by 13,000 vehicles a day to make that area a ‘destination’ – and allow only cycles through, apparently at the behest of a relatively small number of people. Despite counter petitions by a greater number and energetic, widespread opposition by people living slap bang in the area affected by the closure, which included the closure of numerous other roads – Lambeth passed the scheme.
At the final ‘Scrutiny’ meeting when councillors could have seen sense and held back, or at least listened to businesses who said they faced ruination, they pushed the plans through. But not before they’d allowed three members of the public in support of the scheme to speak in favour – and barred all in opposition from saying a word. Truly shocking. What really angered local residents was that the consultation was ineffective. I know from experience that it missed out thousands of people directly affected. The result? Widespread, unpleasant, dangerous, ongoing chaos over a wide part of my neighbourhood, which happens to be Brixton. Nose-to-nose tailbacks, emergency vehicles stuck in gridlock, mounting fury – and car journeys that now take twice as long.
Residents, for once, decided not to take it lying down. Rallied by a brave lady living on the affected council estate they planned a public meeting, distributed thousands of leaflets at their own cost – and nervously opened the doors to the ‘Loughborough Centre’, expecting maybe 20-30 people.
They got about 500. What a magnificent sight. The nervous chairlady had a fight on her hands; so many people turned up they were spilling onto the pavement and it was a challenge to keep order. Bravely, she stood on a chair, outlined why residents were fighting the council – and invited members of the public and businesses to speak.
What unfolded was heart breaking; businesses going bust because trade was driven away, mothers unable to drive to school, events, child-carers or relatives. Even the London Ambulance Service weighed in, warning that 999 vehicles were becoming bogged down in the gridlock.
Hundreds of residents pledged to fight on, backed by an MP, a small group of councillors – and righteous indignation. Will they win? Will Lambeth see sense and scrap this disastrous scheme that’s sending thousands of vehicles speeding along previously quiet, residential roads and disrupting a way of life for thousands of people in a densely populated area?
I really don’t know. But the people have given it their best shot by getting off their bums, doing something positive, fighting for what they believe is right – and giving the council a bloody nose. It shows what can happen if you try. So next time you see the result of bad planning, a gone-wrong council decision, a bad piece of highway engineering, maybe a potholed cycle lane, don’t just sit and fume – swivel your dash cam round, film the evidence – speak to people and take action. You never know where it might lead.