Saturday 16 March 2013

Is it too hilly for clear vision?

So this time - interestingly enough - it was the other way round. The audience was enthusiastic and energetic, buzzing with liveable city ideas, yet the panel could not take it. But not so fast... we'll start at the beginning.

I was at the Newcastle City Council Cabinet meeting which was held as a public meeting in the eminent Great Hall of Northumbria University's Sutherland Building; and 150 or so concerned citizens attended. The focus was "Greening Newcastle" and a briefing paper had been produced in advance. The panel was the Cabinet. That's the stage set. Ready? Go.

Discussion was quickly revolving around cycling and calls for more space for it, and curbing car use and restricting space for it. It was excellent. I felt I didn't need to say a thing. I sat there grinning. Smug even. Very. The experience is typically the other way round - I try to urge, nudge, elbow and shove debate into a better, greener, healthier, cleaner, happier direction.

This wasn't necessary this time.

The only intervening I did was to provide the audience (and the Cabinet?) with the council's own target of 34% of CO2 reduction by 2030 (on 1990 levels) and ask about the how-question and I provided some useful (but the usual) info on journeys, ie too many short journeys are done by car, so there's a massive latent demand for walking and cycling.

We heard from the Cabinet "but Newcastle is hilly"* as an antidote to people getting too excited about cycling in the city. And something about car ownership, which was as relevant as discussing the price of rice in the Antarctic. It did take me a while to figure out what was happening: the Cabinet could simply not comprehend that the Great Hall was actually filled with "early adopters" - the 20% already in favour of Greening Newcastle. In the mind's eye Newcastle was already whizzing with bicycles, city parks and better air, safer streets - a Greening Newcastle had already been turned into a virtually Greened Newcastle and a let's do it! Now! What are we waiting for? Let's learn from other cities (came up numerous times from the floor).

It struck me, that numbers (statistics, data, figures) have become irrelevant in a society so used to spin, emotive and emotional bargaining and pseudo negotiations, con-consultations and foregone conclusion. A society that's lost faith in politics and politicians, disengaged and mistrusting. Yet the question posed by the Cabinet was how the City Council can engage with the city, its residents and businesses.

Here's the answer. It could not be more simple.

By providing leadership and allowing ample space and time for public debate. The latter sort of happened the former didn't this time.

For any debate to be informed however the experts (engineers, researchers and scientists) must be involved. It's these people society still trusts and they can be the objective observers and contributors from the independent sidelines of the debate.

But the policies, the direction, the vision will have to be set by the Councillors. That's your job. Be brave! And for Newcastle's sake get on with it! People are waiting.

* Note to self: we'll invite Cllr Nick Forbes and his merry Cabinet to another City Chief Cycle Challenge methinks.

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