The ongoing controversies surrounding Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) and road closures under cover of COVID have exposed the true extent of Camden’s ‘local tyranny’, but also its utter incompetence. Only Camden’s arrogance can be blamed for the spectacular failure of its schemes.
Throughout history, one of the defining characteristics of a dictatorial regime has been the abuse of emergency powers to further a political agenda.
As far back as 48 BC, Julius Caesar used his emergency dictatorial powers to impeach his political opponents and inundate the senate with his political allies. In more recent times, Adolf Hitler used the Reichstag fire to enact emergency legislation which instituted Nazi Germany as a legal dictatorship.
And today, in 2020, Camden’s cabinet are using the emergency of the coronavirus pandemic… to force unnecessary road closures and cycle lanes upon its population.
But long before the onset of COVID, rumblings began in Bloomsbury which were to set the stage for the controversial manner in which Camden has conducted itself in recent months.
The Tavistock Place saga is something which is now ancient history in Bloomsbury terms. But the way in which it came about and the way in which Camden dealt with its problems gives valuable insight into the ‘local tyranny’ which has presented itself more fully in recent months.
It began in 2015 when residents of Judd Street and the surrounding area awoke to find their usually quiet roads jammed with traffic. Following investigation it was found that without any consultation, Camden had changed Tavistock Place into a one way road. Previously it had been two way, and one of Bloomsbury’s main east-west routes. The displacement of traffic on to residential streets, subsequent confusion and lack of proper alternative routes and signposting had caused chaos on Bloomsbury’s roads.
In this case, Camden had imposed an Experimental Traffic Order (ETO), something which permits local authorities to make changes to traffic overnight and without any consultation, with the intention being that over a six month period, people using the roads can come to an opinion on the changes and then partake in a consultation on whether to keep or revert them.
However the implementation of an ETO needs to follow a set legal process to be valid. Camden had failed to follow this process properly, omitting to put up certain legal notices in the Town Hall and in the area. In simple terms, Camden had implemented the ETO illegally. Anticipating threats of a legal challenge, Camden volunteered to be investigated by a public inquiry.
A shrewd political move, as a voluntary inquiry is non-binding: its recommendation need not be followed.
This inquiry was a huge public affair. Comprehensive submissions were made from a number of local groups, including BRAG and the BCAAC, yet not a single councillor attended the inquiry, while all throughout this time the one way system was left unchanged. Camden’s cabinet proved themselves wilfully oblivious to the ramifications of their actions, choosing to instead communicate their superiority to the inquiry process by simply ignoring it. The inquiry report ran into 92 pages, yet it was clear that the cabinet did not read a single one of them.
The inspector recommended that the changes should not be made in their current form, recommending the one way system flow westwards rather than eastwards, citing increased traffic and pollution on the roads surrounding Tavistock Place, and an increased danger to cyclists and pedestrians if eastwards was chosen. The report warned that sticking with the proposed changes, in the long run, would lead to more deaths.
In late 2019 the cabinet proposed to discuss this report and whether to follow the recommendation during a meeting. But even at this time, the cabinet had created such a reputation for itself that there was no great question about the outcome: the recommendation would of course be ignored.
I was there at that meeting, observing the strange way in which Camden’s cabinet conducted itself. Cllr Adam Harrison, the driving force behind these changes, would sit at his desk in a very assured and superior manner, surveying the room before him with haughty eyes, but when required to speak would suddenly slouch over and talk into the floor, barely audible. Strangely, the council chamber was set up with the cabinet on one side, and the officers on the other, as though the two were competing against one another. Questions would be asked of the officers, but these had been supplied in advance, so that the officers had already prepared their answers. Perhaps reflective of the cabinet’s desire to control everything, the whole meeting had been more or less rehearsed, leaving no room for anything unexpected to arise.
The only departure from the rehearsal followed BRAG’s deputation, excellently delivered by Nicky Coates, leading to a momentary flutter of indignation and alarm among the cabinet’s members, before they remembered they could simply ignore it and continue as planned.
Despite the precipitating factor for the whole inquiry being that Bloomsbury’s communities had been sidelined throughout the whole process and their consultation responses disregarded, hardly a word was spoken on such problems. After the unanimous vote had been cast, Cllr Jonathan Simpson simply said: ‘I know the community felt a bit left out on this one.’
Cllr Simpson is Camden’s cabinet member for communities, while also being a ward councillor for the area affected. For the extent of his representation of community concerns in his own ward to be a mere comment that the community ‘felt a bit left out’ is quite apt. It demonstrates that genuine involvement of the community in changes meant to benefit them is entirely superfluous – for whether they actually were left out is irrelevant – the best that Camden’s cabinet can do is to make communities feel involved, without actually involving them in any real decision-making. The only failure the cabinet could admit to was that they had failed in engineering the illusion of community involvement.
Five years on from the Tavistock controversy, traffic circulation has settled down, and visiting Tavistock Place today, there are no obvious remnants of the five-year battle and the initial traffic jams on the surrounding roads. But its relative calmness belies a number of serious problems that have been caused by this simple re-routing. This road had been the only westbound route in Bloomsbury, meaning that anyone wishing to travel westbound now has to take a number of circuitous and bizarre routes – including emergency services. The vast majority of car journeys therefore take much longer, create more pollution, and create more congestion on purely residential roads. The cycle lanes on Tavistock Place, flanking the road itself, mean that Veolia’s waste collection vehicles simply have to cruise along the street and cause massive congestion as they collect waste, as they cannot pull over to the side. These were all problems raised during consultation but largely ignored, and they have now become a reality.
The aim of reducing traffic and pollution is a noble one. It is not the intention at fault but the way in which that intention was executed that was grossly offensive to local democracy and the rule of law – and indeed counterproductive in the sense that reduction in pollution was not achieved. One would think that Camden’s cabinet would have learned this lesson from Tavistock Place: that it is better and simply easier for things to be done properly, for consultation to be done properly, and for changes to be made in collaboration with communities. That way problems that may come to pass are found and addressed early, and communities are not indignant but a part of the changes being made to their neighbourhood.
The problem is that Camden’s cabinet have adopted a dictatorial strategy in which liaising and engaging with communities is seen to be a sign of weakness. In Camden’s struggle to appear competent, the cabinet much prefer to deliberately ignore community concerns and force their schemes through using brute force, in a demonstration of their political power. It distances them from accountability while reinforcing a belief that they are politically untouchable. This is the essence of Camden’s ‘local tyranny’.
In many ways, the recent actions of Camden’s cabinet and Cllr Harrison in particular are in no way different from those taken five years ago – only the true extent of their total disregard for local interests and the rule of law have been put on show precisely when responsible and mature leadership were required.
Over some months we have all become accustomed to arguments made by the powerful cycling lobby and by Cllr Harrison himself that cycle lanes are somehow crucial in the fight against COVID, with those opposing such arguments being shamed and attacked in a fashion so familiar to those acquainted with the ruling Camden Labour Party.
But one has to take a step back and recognise that indeed, there is absolutely no reason why new cycle lanes and traffic circulations do anything to fight against COVID, and that consequently the very real emergency presented by the COVID pandemic is simply being used as a political vehicle to further one man’s political agenda.
Nowhere was this phenomenon better demonstrated than at Brunswick Square. Changes proposed there had come up against great resistance and had been approved anyway, years in advance of COVID. Works had begun at the beginning of 2020. When lockdown hit the works stopped, but then started again – the only difference being that the construction workers wore jackets with KEY WORKER printed on the back, and signs were put up stating: ‘Essential COVID-19 Works’.
To use a deadly virus as a vehicle to advocate and force pet schemes upon the population must surely be taken as the grossest incompetence and irresponsibility in the face of emergency. It exposes the true extent of Camden’s ‘local tyranny’ – even natural disaster, economic turmoil, suffering, and death are simply interpreted as a political opportunity to exert greater political power and further the political agenda. As demonstrated by the case of Brunswick Square, it has become a convenient excuse to put a moral spin upon controversial works to try and take a moral high ground against those who oppose them.
Exactly when the population of Camden should be uniting to fight a common cause – to defeat and resist COVID – Camden’s cabinet are using the opportunity to sow even deeper political divisions among its population, and to elevate itself even further above accountability and proper governance.
But this is no mistake – it is exactly how Camden’s cabinet have always operated. They have a very strong sense of what is right, and the opinions and experiences of those opposing their schemes are completely irrelevant. Just as the very real effects of the Tavistock Place saga were irrelevant, whether or not the COVID traffic schemes exacerbate the extraordinary difficulties of the pandemic is irrelevant. To behave as though one is legally and politically immune makes the population believe they are indeed immune, when they are not.
The harm that these schemes have done should not be underestimated. One only has to venture onto the realm of Twitter – the world’s greatest social archive – to observe and understand the social implications of these schemes. Putting the lack of consultation aside for a moment, the ramifications have been quite severe.
For years London cabbies have been under increasing pressures thanks to the infiltration of Uber into the London market, it sidestepping both regulations and undercutting prices. Uber’s very economic model is to run at a loss in order to kill or seriously maim the competition – in this case the London cabbies – before putting prices up and making a profit. The GLA, Sadiq Khan, and national government have singularly failed to address this deliberate assault upon one of London’s most important and iconic trades. Following COVID, rather than address this problem, individuals like Adam Harrison are actually locking out London taxi drivers from increasing swathes of London, and in some cases (like on Euston Road) overnight removing the right for taxis to drive in bus lanes. Individuals and families relying upon that trade are being frozen out of Camden – punished for driving – as a direct political response to a global pandemic. In what world does this make sense?
Every day one sees videos recorded of emergency services struggling to make their way through the miles of traffic jams caused by these new schemes. Recently there have even been recordings made of fire services using angle grinders to cut through bollards to make it through unnecessary and un-consulted road blocks. Ambulance drivers – including those for Great Ormond Street Hospital – are frequently seen stuck in gridlocks. People may well be dying or suffering unnecessary medical harm as a direct result of these schemes, but not a single comment has been made by Cllr Harrison or the cabinet in response. What communicates the impression of tyranny more effectively than an apparent indifference to an increased risk of suffering and death – even that of children?
Any reasonable person would go to great efforts to ensure that even if they were to implement traffic changes overnight, sufficient provision would be given specifically for emergency services to navigate or shortcut these changes. But Camden’s cabinet are superior even to this. They have already shown that they are willing to weaponise a global emergency to further their political fantasies – so the individual emergencies of Camden’s residents are hardly more important.
It all comes back to the same point: that the problem is not so much what is being done, but the way in which it is being done. I don’t think anyone has an inherent problem with the aim of reducing traffic and pollution. The intention to eliminate unnecessary car journeys and encourage people to walk and cycle is a good intention, but the way in which these intentions are being executed not only fail to achieve their desired ends but have hugely harmful side effects for life in the capital. And to force such harmful changes upon the population exactly when it is at its most vulnerable is grossly offensive and boasts only of a total disregard for reality and responsibility.
But looking back to Tavistock Place as an example once again, not a glimmer of concern was shown for the effects that Camden’s actions have upon its population. The COVID emergency has not revealed Camden’s tendency to tyrannise over its communities, but simply revealed the full extent that Camden are willing to go to in order to implement their political agenda, totally regardless of harm caused to their communities.
And while Tavistock Place was at least planned and executed in broad daylight, the number of schemes implemented over the pandemic can only be described as disgracefully opportunistic. 18 months ago, who could have predicted that not only would Camden be paralysed by a deadly pandemic, but that Camden’s cabinet would be using the paralysis and chaos caused by that pandemic to paralyse its road systems even further and force through pet traffic schemes?
For years residents of Camden have been complaining about a lack of proper consultation. While officers have actively tried to improve consultation exercises over the years, Camden’s cabinet have proven themselves entirely contemptuous of community involvement in changes directly affecting those communities. The opportunity presented by the COVID pandemic has also been disingenuously weaponised as a reason to completely dispense with community involvement in decision-making.
Is it better to be consulted and ignored, or not consulted at all? The latter saves a great deal of time and at least dispenses with the illusion that community involvement matters whatsoever. Obviously Cllr Harrison favours the latter approach and has seized the current global emergency to implement changes largely ignorant of community involvement and views.
There is nothing that proves Camden’s ‘local tyranny’ more effectively than this. Communities often see public consultation as an opportunity to ‘defeat’ proposed changes, erroneously believing that a majority opinion against changes should result in the plans being scrapped. While this is not true, and while Camden very often permit the ‘rigging’ of their consultations by lobby groups, public consultation is certainly the pinnacle of so-called localism and the proper involvement of communities in decision-making and local affairs. It should be championed and encouraged by any reasonable council.
But beyond this, anyone who has actually undertaken a consultation exercise will know that it doesn’t matter how thoroughly you have assessed something, new facts and opinions will always come to light during consultation, and these pieces of information are vital in coming to an informed decision. To bypass consultations on such sweeping changes as are being pushed by Cllr Harrison proves his utter contempt for not only the communities he is elected to serve, but for the process of proper decision-making itself.
What I am trying to say is that not only is Cllr Harrison in contempt of his own communities – a great insult in itself – but in contempt of actual fact and reason which may be seen to contradict the righteousness of his schemes.
While researching this article I came across an inspirational quote on Twitter which demonstrates the point quite well.
First I got thinking on exactly which people are the ones who ‘like it’ and ‘get used to it quite quickly’ considering the indignation shown on the likes of Twitter and in the Camden New Journal. But more subtly – who exactly decides what the ‘right reasons’ are for changing a street – especially when you aren’t actually discussing those reasons with the people living on that very street?
This is the essence of Camden’s problem of ‘local tyranny’ – the cabinet is so certain of itself and the righteousness of its political agenda that their reasons for action do not stem from opinion, politics, or belief – they apparently emanate from reason and fact themselves. And so opposition to a scheme need not be investigated, validated, or resolved – because it is not an opinion but simply wrong. And if those opposing your schemes are wrong, what is the point in giving them a voice?
Refusing to consult with those residents so unfortunate to be wrong is only the natural progression of allowing those residents to express their opinion but then be told they are wrong – or be simply ignored.
All of these problems would be far mitigated if the cabinet were competent and made responsible and beneficial decisions.
Not all dictatorial regimes are defunct – China for example, is a dictatorship, but the current leaders of that dictatorship are remarkably competent, and so give China a strong competitive edge over western democratic powers.
But indeed the point of proper democracy is not to furnish a place with the greatest and most efficient political leadership – far from it. The essential point is that a democracy is politically stable, with no overly extreme political views being afforded power, proposed changes taking a long time to implement (by the necessity of involving the whole population in their implementation), and the death or change of a leader or political crisis not precipitating a national crisis. The death of a king can spark a revolution, but the death of a democratic leader only triggers an election.
The problem with Camden’s cabinet moving towards a dictatorial style of leadership is that unfortunately, they are simply not competent, and continue to make provably absurd decisions that do nothing except cause suffering and inconvenience to the people of Camden and London.
In other words, Camden’s cabinet are not only dictatorial but incompetent. The two mixed together make for the worst kind of government.
One only has to examine the effects of their cycle lane schemes to observe this. While some of the older, well-prepared and researched schemes – such as the ‘Cycle Superhighways’ – have almost overnight served a new demand for cycling – the number of schemes implemented across Camden in recent months have been only embarrassing in their utter failure. There have been countless examples of traffic changes and new cycle lanes causing traffic jams throughout residential roads surrounding the new schemes, while not a single soul has actually been observed using the new cycle lanes. In fact councillors, cycle lobbyists, and supporters of these schemes have resorted to making a great deal out of single individuals seen cycling. Opponents of the scheme, when showing videos of the cycle lanes being completely empty but adjacent to miles of stationary traffic, have been attacked by cycle lobbyists pointing out a single cyclist in the far distance or a single cyclist using the same lane the day before, and so forth. Truly, it is the theatre of the absurd.
The whole point of these LTNs and new cycle lanes is to reduce traffic on residential roads, get more people cycling and fewer in cars, and ultimately to reduce pollution across Camden. So when nobody is using these cycle lanes, traffic on residential roads is increased, and pollution is therefore increased, who exactly stands to gain from these schemes?
This is where the incompetence of Camden’s cabinet reveals itself. Weaponising a global emergency in order to implement a political agenda is one thing. But weaponising a global emergency and still failing to successfully implement that political agenda is another. The extraordinary powers and opportunities granted to Camden have been flung at schemes notable only for their complete uselessness – leaving only the political division and indignation at Camden’s contempt of their communities behind. Camden have successfully stoked the fire of a political beast they now cannot appease, while securing very few genuine improvements in return. Truly it is a failure on all accounts, and one they will no doubt come to regret at the next elections.
Let us examine the cycle lanes on Euston Road, to take just a single example. While these were implemented by the GLA, Camden were directly involved, supported the scheme, and Cllr Harrison mentioned this as one of his long term goals for the road almost two years ago. Back then TfL were resistant, and with good reason – they have caused utter gridlock on one of London’s most important thoroughfares. Living next to Euston Road and walking on it almost every day, I have not seen a single cyclist using them. In true Camden fashion, Veolia have even neglected to sweep them properly because there is simply no point – it’s just a load of dead space. And now, the GLA have admitted that the lanes have been a failure and will be removed over the next few months.
Perhaps it should be surprising that Cllr Harrison did not see this sort of thing coming. For exactly where is the cause-and-effect relationship between providing cycle lanes and getting more people cycling, or reducing car journeys? It is just as absurd as providing a pavement next to a motorway and expecting that to somehow incentivise more people to start walking. Given that hardly any cyclists use Euston Road anyway, coupled with the plethora of alternative cycling routes throughout London (most of which not anywhere near capacity), why would those cyclists suddenly start using Euston Road, or new cyclists start using Euston Road, rather than another well established route? Why would temporary cycle lanes convince someone using the bus to buy a bicycle and start cycling for a few weeks – during a global emergency?
The Euston Road scheme was utterly devoid of logic. But once again, that is exactly the political style of the cabinet – to dictate changes regardless of logic, regardless of the ramifications of such changes, and to use brute force to implement these changes regardless of consequences or outcome. It is only now that the complete disregard for the way in which changes are being implemented is having a direct effect upon the results of their implementation: the failure to properly consult and consider the merit of such schemes is manifesting as a complete failure in their outcome.
The overarching problem with all of these schemes is a contempt for proper understanding of the actual causes of traffic and road journeys in London, coupled with a failure to understand that London’s economy always has relied upon road journeys, and always will. There is a reason why London has grown along a huge network of roads and its development has occurred along major thoroughfares – and it isn’t because people walk and cycle along them. Deliveries to the huge commercial sector in Central London cannot be made by anything over than van and lorry. London’s buses account for the greatest share of public transport journeys by far. London cabbies will always need to use the roads to carry out their work, while the disreputable Uber will be here for the near future. The worst polluters on London’s roads are actually the old diesel tour buses that clog up roads around London’s major attractions and termini. Providing cycle lanes is not providing any incentive whatsoever to address these ‘problems’.
There will always be a significant demand for road journeys that cannot and never will be totally eradicated, and as London continues to grow and ‘develop’ this demand will of course only increase. 200 years ago the Victorians recognised this, and innovated to create the first underground rail network in the world. Today our political leaders address the same problems by blocking roads and making them smaller. If there was ever proof of the utter incompetence of Camden’s political leadership, it must surely be this.