Not so quiet neighbourhoods

Our borough’s successful Mini Holland bid – £30 million from the Mayor to turn an outer London borough into a paradise for cycling (or at least ‘somewhere you can cycle’) – is starting to take effect. What I really mean is that we’ve had another public meeting. This public meeting follows the Shopkeepers versus Cycle Lanes public meeting, which was so traumatic that in this public meeting no one was allowed to use the words ‘cycle lane’ or indeed ‘Mini Holland’. It marked the start of a consultation in our area, as we’re one of the first of 37 residential areas to be given the Quieter Neighbourhood treatment: creating a block of residential streets where walking and cycling and neighbourly interaction takes priority over motor traffic. (At least that’s my understanding.)

I now love public meetings. Until two years ago I had no idea how entertaining they could be. I had never been to one that wasn’t church-related until we first mooted the idea of a play street – which launched me into a meeting of neighbours quite unlike anything I’d experienced before. We’d hired a local theatre to try to debate the various objections that were being raised to the play street idea, some of which were downright bizarre. The opponents of the scheme behaved very badly, constantly interrupting, rubbishing and swearing at anything they didn’t like being said. It all descended into farce when our main opponent stated that she had personally seen a chalk drawing on the pavement after one of our trial events of a giant willie. Not only had she seen it but she had a picture of it on her phone which she was happy to show to anyone who was interested. The shoulders of the play worker who had come to support us started shaking.

‘She probably drew it herself,’ he whispered to me.

Any tension completely left me at that point and I began to enjoy the utter absurdity that is, it turns out, always present in a public meeting – or maybe it’s just the ones I’ve been to. I’ve been to a ‘local area forum’ where councillors take questions from residents, a large residents’ association meeting, and then this recent consultation meeting – and the same rule applied to them all (I failed to get to the Shopkeepers versus Cycle Lanes but I’ve heard enough about it to support my theory): some people seem to come purely to vent their anger issues randomly on everyone else.

So I came to the consultation ready for more of the same, and I wasn’t disappointed. It was made better for the fact that I’m starting to get to know some of the people who regularly attend these meetings, so it was a bit like a soap opera, wondering when your favourite character is going to make an entrance and how.

First the traffic engineer (a new character, with a real gift for theatre and excellent comic timing) gave his presentation on how the consultation will work. It was exciting stuff (considering it was traffic engineering). The council are basically giving us a blank canvas: we can suggest how we want our streets to be improved, and within reason, they will try to accommodate us. They claim to have no preconceived notions about what the solutions are, and it’s fine if each street comes up with a different solution. We can trial things for a short period of time, e.g. using a couple of straw bales to close the road to through traffic, and see how it goes. If we want to paint the tarmac with brightly coloured flowers to see if that slows rat-runners, they’re up for it.

The first question was from a man sitting two seats from me and it wasn’t a question at all.

‘Why are the council imposing their stupid ideas on us? There’s nothing wrong with our streets. Why do you have to change everything?’ etc etc, delivered with real sound and fury.

A few sentences in he was interrupted by one of the Friends of the local park, who has helped transform it and is therefore a bit of a hero (I nearly didn’t recognise him as he’d brushed his hair). He pointed out that the objector had missed the entire point of the traffic engineer’s speech, and got a round of applause. The objector tried to speak again but was waved down by the Chair.

‘Bastards,’ he muttered, and then my favourite quote of the evening, ‘Weasels.’

Two other people spoke who were equally negative, and incoherent. It wasn’t until the fourth question that anything positive was said along with a relevant question about the process. It drew another round of applause, so I can only assume that the people making all the objections didn’t represent most of the other 150 people present.

As usual, it was only afterwards that I thought of the many witty, incisive and enlightening comments I could have made, but never mind. I made them on my consultation form instead, and I’m looking forward to the transformed neighbourhood that will hopefully be ushered in as a result…I’m after closing our rat run to through traffic forever, 20mph throughout the whole residential area and the high street, and loads of signs to the effect that motorised traffic has the lowest priority on the road after cycles, pedestrians, rollerskates, pigeons and cats.

I’ll keep you posted.

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