Thursday, November 6, 2014

Democracy - Get on-side

The BBC is doing a series of news reports on cycling. Today's focuses on New York. I wrote a post a couple of years back on how New York was starting to invest in cycling, and it attracted one comment that New York was still crap and dangerous. Well, judging by the BBC's report, it is certainly getting less crap, and that is because the NY Mayor is in a position to actually get things done. He doesn't have to negotiate with boroughs like Westminster, or the City of London. No-one it seems can slow the New York mayor down if he sets his mind to do something.

Early in the report, we had the City of London's Michael Welbank saying of the proposed new East-West and North-South Cycle Superhighways:  

"Cycling in towns is here to stay,and is going to grown, and we don't resist that, we try to accommodate it...but normally...major infrastructure, you really want years to get everybody on-side...not just one group, you want everybody on side".

So I am not sure how that works. Cyclists have never, ever been "got on-side" in any London roads project I can think of, including many run by the City of London (see for plenty of examples). So the idea that normally we get everybody on-side doesn't stand up to even the most casual scrutiny. In fact, cycling and to a large extent walking have been pushed off-side systematically over recent decades, and what is happening here is cycling is (belatedly and by degrees) being brought on-side. That is the whole point of the project - it is to bring some semblance of proportionality into the allocation of roadspace.  This is not a new cake that needs to be divided up fairly between all groups - the whole existing cake is in possession of a limo-driving royal family and a small piece of it is being given to the starved masses. Quoted in The Guardian 2 months ago, Welbank said:

"All road users should have equal opportunities. At the moment [with these plans] we believe the cyclists are having priority to the disadvantage of other users."

That's a bit like saying that in South Africa in  1994, black people were having priority to the disadvantage of whites.

Now, what you should know about Welbank and his fellow City Corporation representatives is they are not democratically elected. At least, the City is not a democracy in the sense that you or I would recognize it - while there are elections, it is largely corporations (banks and financial companies in the main) that appoint the voters  - and the rank-and-file employees within the companies don't get a say. Be in no doubt - this is a quango.

So why, in a 21st century liberal democracy, do we face a situation where a democratically-elected mayor pursuing a mandated policy (decent cycle infrastructure) can be obstructed by an undemocratic quango? To that extent, why is it that Westminster (with 150,000 electors) can obstruct the Mayor's cycling policies that serve his constituency of 6 million electors?

It seems to us here at Cycalogical that with the Scottish Referendum bringing up the question of local devolution and accountability, now is a good time to think about how London is run. There are some issues that are unique to local conditions, and need to be decided locally. But there are plenty of other services, like refuse collection, that are pretty much commoditized. Currently services are managed in theory by each of the 33 councils. That means London has 33 different organizations doing what is a very similar job...except in fact they don't anymore: some councils have already figured out there is a lot of cost and not a lot of point in this duplication and have set up organizations such as the South London Waste Partnership, which manages your old newspapers and tin cans if you live in Sutton, Merton, Croydon or Kingston. But the problem with this of course is there is no overall accountability - if you live in Merton and you think your rubbish service is -er - rubbish, your local council has only limited influence and control over the service being provided. So there is a democratic deficit, caused by the fact that London's democratic structure is out-of-date with the realities of how an increasing number of services are provided.

Transport is of course a different matter. We already have Transport for London, controlled by the Mayor, which is in charge of London's transport, only of course it is not. TfL only controls the major roads, and all others fall under local borough control. Except the royal parks and some commons, which have their own little organizations looking after paths and access...oh and of course central government, which has put in place over the years lots of primary legislation that makes it much more difficult and expensive to get perfectly reasonable transport measures in place. Another danger is that left to lots of local boroughs, there is no consistency or coherency to policy. If one borough tries to reduce traffic by restricting parking, drivers can just go to a neighboring borough that enables parking to try to revive its ailing high street.

Transport is by its very nature a cross-borough issue. It makes no sense to have great bus or cycle routes in Sutton, which stop as soon as you get into Croydon or Merton. And it is cycling that is the biggest victim of our current multi-layered approach to government: there are formidable obstacles set up by the labyrinthine bureaucracy comprised of the various bodies that have to be involved, consulted and brought "on-side" if the London Mayor wants to construct a meaningful network of cycle routes fit for purpose and worthy of a first-world city. What is most toxic about the current set-up is that local boroughs now (with the Health and Social Care Act 2012) have responsibility for public health. And the easiest way to improve public health is to get people doing more active travel - which is very difficult to do at a borough level. If you want people cycling to work and to school, you need a city-wide network of cycle routes.

Surely the most sensible arrangement for London is to have more powers for the Mayor. Mrs Thatcher abolished the GLC, leaving London without leadership. Labour then set up a Mayor who is little more than a glorified transport commissioner who is not even in full control of transport and is not properly accountable, with an assembly that is just a talking shop. We can and must do better. This city needs to be an attractive and healthy place to live in. If the Mayor wants to reduce the incidence of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and a long list of other common but preventable diseases, thereby saving the health service a sack of cash enabling him to hand back the savings in tax cuts or better services, and reducing traffic congestion, pollution and noise, while making better use of public space, it is not reasonable to ask that he has the power to do this?

[As a footnote: we are not claiming to have the solution for how best to run London or the UK - but we do believe that the current system has all the problems you would expect given that it dates from a time when most people didn't own cars or telephones, the net was something you went fishing with, tuberculosis rather than obesity was the disease of choice, and the NHS didn't exist. We think that a horse-drawn, quill-pen, gas-lit democracy could be a little out of step with the information age. Let alone the City of London Corporation, which dates from an era when gas light (and democracy) was the stuff of science fiction... ]