Congestion in Bristol has been atrocious for decades, and it has been one of the issues on which the present Bristol Mayor, George Ferguson, stood for office at the Mayoral elections. Before his election, transport policy in Bristol with regard to measures to reduce congestion was characterised by constant party-political bickering which basically got the city nowhere.
The Mayor has chosen to act fast and decisively with regard to cutting congestion. A central plank of his policy approach has been Residents Parking Zones (RPZs) which aims to cut parking for free in residential streets, which has the effect of clogging Bristol streets with cars thereby adding to congestion and which is also a menace to cyclists and pedestrians alike.
However, the response has been angry and vitriolic with certain districts of the city, particularly Ashley, coming out in open rebellion.
The debate quickly became very nasty, leading me to suspect that it was being ideologically driven by persons unknown. At one point recently a World War 2 Sherman tank was brought out on to the streets of Clifton as a publicity stunt.
An ideologically driven campaign against Bristol Mayor George Ferguson? Who would be behind such a tactic? One group, Bristol News (known on their Twitter account as Real Bristol News) is clearly in the vanguard with almost every Tweet and Facebook Group post presenting an onslaught against the Mayor.
My suspicions are directed against Bristol’s ‘far left’ community (I should at this point assert my centre left political stance – I am opposed to both the far left and, very definitely, the far right, political positions), particularly the Trotskyist members of the Social Equality Party and the Socialist Workers Party. My reasons for doing so are drawn from a very visible attempt to dominate the debate at Occupy Bristol’s camp on College Green in 2012 where various speakers in debating circles tried to push a 1970’s style far left agenda. This included at the time, a quite aggressive onslaught against Bristol Green Party (and the Green Party in general) of which I was, until just recently, a member. That onslaught was continued over subsequent years following the Occupy Bristol campaign and continues still, particularly in response to the Green Party’s decision to enter George Ferguson’s Mayoral cabinet and thus to work with him as far as possible rather than choosing not to have a voice inside the cabinet. The debate has steadily grown nastier, characterised by quite dirty politics.
This then is the background to the present debate on the issue of RPZs. I am not saying that all the critics of George Ferguson’s policies are potentially Trotskyists, or even of the far left. Far from it in fact. There are some very legitimate concerns with regard to the issue, but the more vitriolic statements against the Mayor appear to be ideologically driven in my view.
Consider this statement, on Twitter, put out today by Real Bristol News:
“@OldMarket @GeorgeFergusonx We will challenge him on each and every thing he does until he’s thrown out by the electorate”
In essence, this statement is basically an admission of a targeted hate campaign against the Bristol Mayor.
So, lets now get on to the issue of RPZs directly, particularly with regard to why the Mayor is resorting to such a strategy. In an explanatory letter within the Bristol Post, Mr Ferguson had this to say:
“WE all need to ask what sort of city we want? Congestion has been threatening business, tourism, health and our quality of life at the heart of this city for 20 years or so. Bristol's transport woes have dominated local headlines with calls to action from every quarter. The residents' parking zones are one part of a big picture including the spending of hundreds of millions on improved public transport across the city region. If we fail to bite the bullet with this relatively straight-forward demand management, we shall be faced with increased congestion and worsening air quality resulting in major fines to the city.
Headlines of 'Gridlock!' or 'Worst congestion in the UK!' will eventually drive business out of Bristol. It is currently estimated that congestion already costs the city region around £400 million a year. To put it bluntly, if we don't sort it out we are stuffed! From the beginning of this debate I have made it clear that we need a flexible approach that is tailored to local conditions, but that the principle, which is a strategic one, is not up for negotiation.
Bristol is now the last city in the UK without an effective network of residents parking schemes, and most cities in Europe have taken a much more radical approach. In Bristol we do virtually nothing to discourage car-borne commuters from treating the city's central residential areas as a free car park. The result is a growing swathe of the city with little or no room for customers and visitors to park during the day. It is dead space that is holding back our local economy.”
“In the few areas of Bristol where schemes have been implemented the worst fears have not been realised, adjustments have or are being made as a result of experience and businesses have generally found that residents parking does not kill business. I understand that in Cotham Hill, pay and display is so successful that some businesses there have asked for it to be extended to Saturdays! There is clearly a need for more flexible arrangements when residents' parking applies to 18 more neighbourhood areas, some with very different characteristics. I have studied the initial proposals put forward by officers, which some people seem to think are set in stone, and expect the revised cabinet report to include more measures to support business movement and to resolve boundary issues, among others. If I could muster up a solution that allows unlimited free parking and freedom of movement AND resolves parking congestion, traffic congestion and air quality, I would. But I'm afraid that such an approach simply does not wash.”
“We have to accept that road space is at a premium, that the citizens of Bristol, young and old, are owed a healthier and safer future, and that if we don't start reclaiming our streets for the local community, we shall watch Bristol fall into decline. I shall simply not let that happen.
Mayor of Bristol”
The question is, did the Mayor REALLY have any other option?
I posted a question on the Bristol Cyclists Facebook Group asking people what they thought of RPZs. Out of a sample of 17 replies on the thread (there are more than that now as it’s a continuing debate) four were against RPZs and five were in favour with seven other general comments about buses and other transport issues. I would have expected a cyclists group to be overwhelmingly in favour of RPZs this didn’t seem to be the case, but neither were they overwhelmingly opposed either, the point being is that responses seemed to be fairly balanced, as I believe is the general opinion on this issue throughout Bristol. However, to read the debates online you would think that most people are opposed, and I simply don’t think that is the case. Even amongst the opposition, it is simply more admirable to conduct the debate in a reasonable and polite manner rather than indulging in personal attacks and vitriol.
Looking at the bigger picture however, what is really going on is a big game of ‘divide and rule’ on the part of central government. It works like this.
Central government is basically biased towards the gigantic global motor industry and is also subjected to lobbying by pro-car motoring groups such as the RAC and the AA. The deregulated, privatised bus companies are businesses, which means they have to make a profit which in turn generates dividends for their shareholders. Bristol City Council, like other local authorities across the country, suffers from the fact that its hands are tied by central government legislation and also that it’s subjected to cuts in local transport funding. This means that it can only do so much to improve local public transport. The rest is up to the bus company (First) and central government.
So, what happens, in effect, is that the the bus company and the government, push the matter of congestion on to local government and local communities, and then watch as council versus cyclist versus motorist indulge in seemingly endless squabbles with no perceivable end thereby enabling the bus company and the government to maintain business as usual.
Some people accuse the Mayor of being a dictator. Perhaps he is. Perhaps he has to be in order to get something done.
Because there are a certain proportion of motorists, outside those who can’t change their travel behaviour for legitimate and understandable reasons, who WON’T change their travel behaviour.
And then, when there are efforts to improve the situation by council or government legislation, they are all too willing to dehumanise other road users, particularly cyclists, and whine about ‘a war against the motorist’. Some motorists, thankfully a minority, are also apparently all too willing to indulge in personal attacks, even occasionally physical violence, against cyclists. This has got to stop.
I think the Mayor is choosing RPZs and other tactics simply because the government and the bus company have left him with very little other choice, other to just let things carry on as they have been and let Bristol stagnate further into a mass mess of congestion, the adverse effect on business that results from that and the continuing war between motorist and cyclist.
Let’s actually have a closer look at the constraints under which Bristol City Council has to operate with regard to its public transport policy.
The government’s spending review in 2010 cut funding to local authorities for transport spending by 28 percent. It was also announced that the Bus Service Operators Grant (BSOG) would be cut by 20 percent from 2012-13. Furthermore, the Department for Transport (DfT) changed the formula for funding local authorities for the statutory free travel scheme for older people and for those with the disabilities. According to the Campaign for Better Transport (CBT) this has resulted in an overall cut in transport funding for local authorites of £60 million.
These cuts in turn mean that local authorities have to implement cuts in services in their local area.
According to the Campaign for Better Transport, in Bristol there have been overall cuts to bus services of around 4 percent since 2011. In general Bristol has maintained a good and constant level of spending on bus services without cutting services. The Mayor did look into making cuts at one point but changed his mind following campaigns by local groups. Nevertheless the budget for bus services in Bristol has fallen from £3,169,770 in 2011/12 to 3,040,430 in 2013/14.
What do the bus operators themselves say?
Simon Posner, Chief Executive of CPT, had this to say:
“Local bus services are simply the lifeblood of communities up and down the country, and account for over 60 per cent of all public transport journeys. As well as access to work and leisure activities, the bus is often the only way for people to reach vital public services such as health and education. And the benefits of a vibrant, healthy bus industry don’t stop there. Buses make a significant contribution of more than £2 billion to the economy, and provide 124,000 direct jobs whilst supporting many more through the supply chain.
The difficult economic climate has taken its toll on the local bus market. The industry continues to foster partnership working with local authorities believing that this is the key to delivering the very best services for the local area.
However it is a fact of life that the commercial sector simply cannot provide a bus service to every corner of the country. It is very regrettable therefore that local authority budgets have been squeezed to the point where support for some socially necessary bus services has to be cut or withdrawn altogether.”
So in essence, alongside the cuts in funding passed to local authorities, the bus companies themselves are suffering economically from the recession. Robert Montgomery, Managing Director of Stagecoach UK, has also made the point that significantly less public investment goes into buses compared with other transport modes. You can read that as meaning that central government still places road transport as its highest priority.
A recent report by the Passenger Transport Executive Group (PTEG) added that although buses are the backbone of public transport in regional cities they are largely ignored in the national policy debate.
This sets the background for what is happening in Bristol with RPZ’s. In essence, local authorities are having to do more with less. This, understandably, affects the type of policies they attempt to implement.
Critics of RPZs in Bristol have regularly stated that there can be no attempt to restrain car use without better public transport. In one sense they have a point, however Bristol is actually doing better than many cities judging by the Campaign for Better Transport’s Car Dependency Scorecard 2012 in which Bristol local transport planning with regards to schools scored highest. Accessibility to primary schools is actually better by walking or by public transport than be car. If that is true, we then have to look at how many parents actually DO take their children to primary school by car. If is a high number, then, given the findings of the Scorecard, we might then have to look at other factors, such as the issue of time in correlation with work pressures, or perhaps, the issue of laziness. Or in other words, how many parents know that it’s easier to walk or take the bus but choose to drive anyway, regardless? And if so, why?
This same question also applies to commuters travelling into work and to shoppers travelling into Bristol city centre to shop. How many of you genuinely have no other option and how many actually use the car because it is the easier or more fashionable option?
With regard to measures to counter driving and car use, according to the Car Dependency Scoreboard, Bristol is currently (2012) doing relatively poorly, coming in the bottom third (17 out of a total 26) with regard to measures to reduce car use. London, understandably, comes out top with its congestion charge and other measures.
I suspect that is why the Mayor is choosing to adopt the policies he is trying to implement. At a basic level, I think maybe the Mayor may have thought to himself "right, I've had enough of this shit, I am going to do something", and actually, you know what, I am inclined to applaud him for that, particularly as he has, in effect, willing to step into no-mans land and draw some of the fire that is constantly pitched against cyclists. The Mayor has now become a target, and that takes guts.
RPZs might not actually be the right method, time will tell on that, but it might actually work. However, trying to sabotage such measures before they've even been tried out, is, in my opinion, a request to return to business as usual, and it’s quite clear that business as usual is not an option anymore if people want to see Bristol move on and improve.
I also think that the rebellion against RPZs can be seen, in part, as an attempt by some motorists to preserve the dominance of the motor car in Bristol (the measures, be they an RPZ or a congestion charge are basically seen as threats to motorists privileged position which must be eliminated).
The answer is to wait and see. Give the mayor some slack. Allow the RPZs a trial period at the very least. If it doesn't work, we can try something else. But in the face of people not wanting at least to try it out, my rather reluctant response, and it is reluctant because I would much prefer for people in Bristol to work together on transport issues, can be expressed succinctly in a simple word.
Buses in Crisis Campaign for Better TransportCar Dependency Scoreboard 2012 Campaign for Better Transport
This piece also appears on my website: http://robinwhitlock1966.wix.com/robin-whitlock#!energy--environment/c1x9y