Canterbury resident and campaigner Jim Titheridge explains what York can learn from his city’s traffic trial
A couple of years ago, Canterbury City Council decided to trial a new road system that would mean closing Westgate Towers, the ancient gateway to the city.
They also planned to widen pavements in the quaint little village suburb of St Dunstan’s just outside the city walls to encourage more footfall for traders. They would close a couple of roads and planned that everything would flow seamlessly along a road called Station Road West.
Their motivations were many and noble: a reduction in pollution, tidier street scenes, less congestion. Who could resist?
Well, a few did. Initially, there was a general sense of curiosity about the scheme and its effects. In the absence of any traffic modelling, it was an unknown quantity, but this was just a trial so why not suck it and see?
We couldn’t have been more wrong. The first day brought what many of the naysayers predicted and worse. Drivers were confused, gridlocked, frustrated and angry.
Part of the new layout provided what the council called a “shared space”. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a space shared by soft, squishy pedestrians and hard, fast cars.
A controlled crossing was also removed, making access virtually impossible for visually-impaired and disabled people. Eventually, someone was knocked over and seriously injured.
The campaign begins
Local resident Steve Coombs set up a Facebook group demanding that the trial be stopped. He expected 20 or 30 people – friends and family – and was shocked when more than 1,000 signed up in support.
Three months into the trial – during a particularly quiet time in Canterbury’s year – the traffic was worse around the entire city. It was clear that the road closures were having an enormous knock-on effect.
Well, of course they were. Traffic doesn’t dissolve, it just takes another route.
One evening around a pub table, Steve Coombes, Brian Buggins, Marcus and Jules Bentley and a local councillor sat down and decided to make a stand. They started attending council transport meetings, put in requests to speak and encouraged others to attend and support them. And the people came.
Petitioning the council
Meanwhile, Brian discovered you could force a council debate on a given issue if you produced a petition of at least 3,000 names. In the end, he got more than 4,000 signatures.
The day of the council meeting came and The Guildhall was packed with local people. The petition was handed in and the chamber agreed to debate it for 20 minutes along with a second petition supporting the trial which was signed by just 23 people.
This is when Get Canterbury Moving was born. It wasn’t just about the roads; it was about questioning what seemed to be a foregone conclusion.
Some cyclists, green campaigners and business focus groups came out in favour of the changes. Others supported the council’s scheme because it meant a significant rise in the value of their house.
And in the meantime, the trial continued and the traffic got no better. Politicians declared it a success and public resentment grew and grew.
Trouble on the buses
Stagecoach, our local subsidised bus company, announced that unless the trial continued it would be unable to provide a bus service to the suburb of St Dunstan’s due to European Union legislation.
Canterbury Independent Traders Association (CITA), set up to represent local traders, demanded to know what laws would stop it. Stagecoach said it wanted to continue using the profitable route but needed a change in the road layout as its vehicles were too wide to fit through Westgate Towers.
Finally it was clear. It wasn’t all about cutting pollution, saving the towers or easing congestion – there was a commercial angle too.
Focusing on pollution
In the meantime, Get Canterbury Moving (GCM) began learning the laws, regulations and methodology of pollution monitoring to challenge the council’s findings.
Of course, pollution decreased in the roads that were closed, but what about the surrounding highways? A councillor claimed in the local media that pollution had been cut by 50 per cent. GCM asked where he got his figures from. He eventually admitted he didn’t know.
As the trial drew to a close, local people were asked to fill in a consultation document drawn up by the council. GCM had the document analysed by experts at the University of Kent, who declared it biased and poorly constructed.
Despite this, the council used statistics gleaned from its questionnaire to extend the trial.
Focusing on pollution
Then, from nowhere, the county council, responsible for local highways, forced the city council to abandon the trial. The original road layout was mostly restored and traffic seemed to run better than before.
Pollution levels also improved, partly because Stagecoach carried out its plan to stop running buses through St Dunstan’s.
We’d won! Only, we hadn’t really. Post-election, the county council decided to run a proper consultation with a steering and re-generation committee and nominated stakeholders.
GMC was a designated stakeholder, but our 4,000 petition signatures and 1,000 members only secured us one vote and no access to committee meetings, which were held in private.
And so the fight goes on.
This trial has revealed far more about our city council and the disparity between executive members and those they were elected to represent than anyone could have predicted.
On a positive note, it’s also motivated large numbers of residents to get involved, to go to council meetings and to put councillors under real scrutiny.
How to run a campaign
Use social media, create co-ordinated groups on Facebook and Twitter, set up a website, keep people informed and build up numbers.
One person can’t do everything. Find what you’re good at and do it, then find what other people are good at and encourage them to do that.
Start a dialogue with other groups and campaigners, find common ground, learn more about your community and feel encouraged that other people feel like you do.
Don’t accept what you’re told, ask for evidence, use Freedom Of Information requests, get the details, don’t be fobbed off and insist that all statistics are sourced and verified.
Meet at least once a month, set actions (and do them), have an agenda, be flexible and know your ideal outcome (so you celebrate when you achieve it).
Go to council meetings, speak out, question members, tell them how unhappy you and your group are, hold them to account and remind them who pays their wages.
Find new allies, talk to the local papers (fill their letters’ pages), meet with councillors who support your views and go higher to city or county level.
- More on the Get Canterbury Moving campaign on their website. on Twitter and their Facebook page
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