Friday 26 September 2014

A letter to my member of parliament

To: Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP

Dear Mr Hunt

I am writing to you as my constituency MP to protest at the misuse of grant funds by the New Forest National parks Authority (NFNPA).  You might ask what this has to do with your constituents, but please bear with me:  firstly, as the name implies, a National Park is a national asset, administered for the benefit of the national citizenry, and supported by grants paid for by the same.  And that includes your constituents.  Secondly, some of the grants available to the NFNPA, notably the Local Sustainable Transport Fund (LSTF) are combined with the South Downs National Park (SDNP) as the “Two Parks LSTF”.  The SNDP directly borders your constituency, and is extensively used and enjoyed by your constituents.  Funds awarded out of the Two Parks LSTF to the NFNPA are by definition therefore not available to be awarded to and spent by the SDNPA, and a misuse of funds by the one adversely impacts the other.

The NFNPA applied for, and was awarded, a significant sum, in excess of £2 million, to develop what would probably be the first example of a “Boris-Bike” style cycle hire facility outside a major city.  The cycles would be available for short term hires and could be collected from one docking station and delivered to another, with docking stations next to railways stations and in towns and villages and other points of interest in the South East of the Forest.  The scheme was conceived to be of benefit both to residents, and to visitors to the forest, and to provide an alternative to motor transport which, as I am sure you know, is frequently gridlocked around the forest, especially in summer.

The scheme was abandoned, due – according to the NFNPA – to the hostility of local residents.  The authority has produced no evidence of this hostility, indeed if anything the evidence suggests the reverse, but I’ll return to that.  Now, they wish still to keep the money that they do not propose to use for the applied-for purpose, and use it for other schemes.

If these schemes were in a similar spirit of sustainable transport and in particular cycling facilities, I would have no objection, but they are not.  The largest part of the grant would now, if they get their way, be used to resurface the edges of Rhinefield Drive.  The damage requiring this repair was caused by motor vehicles.  By the NFNPA’s own admission, only 139 cyclists a day use this road, and 1,562 cars drive on it daily.  (Source:  NFNPA )  Clearly the beneficiary of this proposed expenditure, which should come from the road maintenance budget, will be the motorists, which does not fit with the sustainability objective.

Another significant chunk of the grant money is proposed to be used to upgrade cycle routes in the Moors Valley Country Park, a privately-run commercial concern some four miles outside the boundaries of the New Forest national park, largely accessible only by private cars.  This clearly goes against the stated objectives of the grant which are to promote cycling in the National park.

These proposals would replace the original proposal for a cycle hire system for which I understand that a contractor had been engaged to manage the service, apparently on the basis of hostility from local residents.  The NFNPA undertook an online survey, which was responded to by several hundred people, mainly residents of the Forest but also some visitors.  The responses to this survey were analysed in a report to the NFNPA. (Source:  )  Far from indicating significant hostility to the proposals, the survey responses as analysed showed something between indifference and mild tolerance for the proposals and for cyclists in general.  The supposed wishes of the residents not to have this scheme (even if it was only their decision to make, which it is not) are therefore mere assertions, not supported, indeed contradicted, by evidence.

So, to conclude, I would be grateful if you could express your constituents’ views to prevent this abuse of sustainable transport grant funding by the NFNPA.


Saturday 20 September 2014

Pushing water uphill, or building a cycle superhighway

We had our department Off-site last week.  After the obligatory morning session on “Strategy” (yawn) we repaired to the Lee Valley White Water Centre, at Waltham Cross, for a barbecue and team-building activities.

LVWWC was built for the 2012 Olympics and is now open to clubs and the public for white-water kayaking and rafting.  In essence it is simply a humungous swimming pool, in which water is pumped by tremendously high-volume pumps into a high-level pool, from where it cascades down a long winding channel into a low level pool, from which you ride back up, in your raft, to the high level pool on a kind of travelator, and start the descent all over again.  The channel is set with all sorts of soft-ish plastic blocks to create the effect of river rapids and white water.  Provided you follow the advice and ensure that, if you fall in, you float on your back with your feet facing downstream, you won’t come to any harm, and you’ll be swept by the current towards sets of steps where the monitoring staff will fish you out again.

Most of us opted for white water rafting, while some opted instead for a raft-building competition, using big plastic drums, poles and rope.  I can certainly recommend white-water rafting by the way, as a team building exercise.  It was also tremendous fun – as long as you (a) don’t mind the occasional swim, (b) are not of an excessively nervous disposition, and (c) aren’t self-conscious about being seen in a wet-suit.  (Only the positively anorexic could not look fat in a wetsuit.  I am sure the staff sized me up and picked the size with extra gussets).

Our group was 45 people, ranging in age from 23-year-old graduate recruits through to one 59-year-old senior partner, but in our pyramidal structure I would say that half were in their twenties and a third in their thirties.  There were 18 women, 27 men.  That is a fairly representative mix for a London Big Four accounting firm, or indeed most City institutions really.

12 of the ladies, and only one gent, opted for raft building, which was entirely dry – the rafts had to be tested in competition against each other at the end, but the wet-siders did that, one team of partners against another team of graduate recruits.  The partners won – not, I hasten to add, because the juniors thought it politic to let us win, rather because our raft, while appearing at first sight to be the flimsier, actually held together for the paddle out and around the green buoy and back, while the other team ended up swimming along pushing the pieces of theirs before them.

There was, apparently some grumbling about the choice of activity from the ladies.  Many did not want to get wet or have to get themselves together again in their finery for the evening’s entertainment, making cocktails at the Rebecca Hossack Gallery.  

This was evidently not a consideration which troubled the men.  It would be easy to fall into sexism here, so apologies if you think that is what I have done, but our female staff are generally more careful of their appearance, dress and grooming than our male.  I might add that it would be no bad thing if the men upped their game on grooming and dress – accountancy is still quite a traditional profession and clients tend to have more confidence in well turned-out staff.  It’s not that our men don’t wear suit and tie – they do – it’s just that they all too frequently look like they have slept in it.

Will I ever get to the point?  Well, looking around that 60/40 split of male and female staff, I recognised a sizeable number of men who come to work by bicycle.  Only one (plus one other who was on holiday at the time) do I know among the women who does the same.

I understand that one factor, if perhaps not the most significant, is the perception that cycling to work has an adverse impact on grooming and dress.  Having to change out of lycra, applying the slap in the ladies’ at work, and getting “helmet hair”.  As I say, not something which much troubles the men, although perhaps it should.

Is this a fair argument against cycling?  Who am I to say it is not?  In any case, it is not hard to see why people would think that, when they look at the cycling environment we face every day.  Probably a more pressing concern is that people (not just women) often don’t feel safe on the roads.  I know that the statistics suggest that this is not the case, that cycling is less dangerous than, say, tennis or golf, but that is not how it feels, especially when the strategy adopted by our government to encourage people to cycle, and to assure them that it is safe, is to say “wear a helmet and high vis”, and to push the Franklin tome on cycling - “Cyclecraft” - with its exhortations to keep safe by matching the speed of motor traffic, occupying the slap-bang centre of the traffic lane, and keeping a high cadence so that you can quickly achieve “sprint speed” at roundabouts.

But who says it has to be that way?  Can we not cycle in ordinary clothes, business attire even, if we ride the right type of bicycle?  Instead of getting up like a fluorescent canary and riding “choppers” (bikes cut down to the bare essentials, removing weight-adding stuff like fairings and mudguards), can’t we ride practical machines which protect our clothes, including, if you like, your Shalwar Kameez, as mentioned in that excellent feature in the Birmingham Post the other day?  Of course we can, but you would have to be super-fit to do that Franklin-style and not find your business suit wringing wet by the time you reach the office.  Most people would prefer to proceed rather more sedately, in gentlemanly or lady-like fashion.  For that, we need proper infrastructure.  Not blue paint or broken white lines, but concrete, kerbs and medians, and bollards and planters, to keep us apart from the danger which we either avoid altogether by not cycling, or adapt to by cycling like prats.

The Elephant-Kings Cross route at Ludgate Circus. That tree in the middle
is where I would get off, 100 yards from my office

In that Birmingham Post article, Councillor Deirdre Alden, who made the remarks which provoked this response, has clearly still not “got it”She still thinks cycling discriminates in favour of young white men.  She still confuses cause with effect.  I doubt she is by any means alone in having such misconceptions, so how to convince her, and her ilk?

All the more reason for pushing hard and fast for the Mayor of London’s proposals for a North-South and an East-West segregated cycle superhighway.  This is, you might say, the canary of mass, inclusive cycling, not just in London, but eventually around the country.  If it dies, it tells us that the mine is toxic to humans too.

Tuesday 16 September 2014

A tragedy foretold

Firstly, I should declare an interest.  The incident I describe below occurred on an event organised and sponsored by the firm of which I am proud to identify myself as a partner.  This annual JoGLE/LEJoG event has about 800 participants, drawn from our partners and staff, clients and members of the general public who commit to raising sponsorship money for charities.

My senior partner, David Sproul, is a keen cyclist, who has participated in this event himself.  A significant number of his senior board-level colleagues are also keen cyclists.  About a dozen of our partners took part in the event this year, and many more of our staff – a certain number of the places are set aside for the firm’s partners and staff and they are always heavily over-subscribed, such that some staff get the opportunity to take part only by forming “relay teams” who share the riding each day.

My firm is committed to cycling in many other ways.  Our London offices have space for more than 600 cycles in secure parking – for a complement of about 7,000, many of whom spend weeks at a time working at client offices, so this represents in effect more than 10%, well above the new, and especially the old City of London planning standards for cycle parking.  With the parking comes lockers, showers, and even fresh towels for those willing to pay a nominal charge for them.

I talk about “describing” the incident but actually I can’t – the information so far in the media is sketchy.  We know that Sally Preece was involved in a collision with a “car” on the A82 somewhere near Loch Earn, but we don’t as yet know more about the circumstances – whether it was at a junction or not, for example.  (One of the comments on the article speculates on  sudden emergences of a car from a side road, or a cycle ditto, but in that respect the BBC website article could be misleading – it shows a google image of a junction on the road, but that may signify nothing more than where the road closure to deal with the incident was set up, after all a traffic diversion would require a junction to turn at). There will presumably be an inquest and that is the proper place to determine the facts.

A tragedy was in fact foretold, and perhaps it was inevitable, indeed it has been pointed out that statistically, there should have been one by 2012, so the inevitable  was delayed by two years.  Whatever the underlying reasons, the cause was interaction of a motor vehicle with a vulnerable road user.  (One might well question why the selfish pricks who form the “A82 Partnership” could not just accept that, for less than a half day in this year and possibly alternate years, the passage of 800 cyclists raising millions for charity might trump their selfish need-for-speed, but there you have it).

Now move south, to London, and the ongoing consultations on the East-West Cycle Superhighway, the so-called “Crossrail for Bikes”, and its North-South companion.  These proposals would not have helped Mrs Preece.  They are a matter of London government alone, and sadly there is so far not much sign of other metropolitan areas, or indeed counties, following suit.  However, the dangers cyclists face, in having to mix with fast-moving motor traffic on the roads, are very much the same.  It is my sense that my firm, while supportive of staff cycling, are concerned that they should not push them into doing anything which might put them in peril, so facilitation of cycling falls short of active encouragement.  The two new proposals would specifically address that concern in very large measure, especially as our offices are literally a hundred yards away, on a quiet cul-de-sac which is permeable to bicycles, from the North-South route, and less than a quarter-mile from the junction of the two routes at Blackfriars.  Staff could travel to work from four points of the compass in comfort and safety, and arrive at their desks with the fitness, alertness and vitality that the firm knows comes with active travel to work.

In contrast to the generally welcoming response from cyclists, academics, some NHS bodies and a so-far small group of contrarian businesses, we see an overtly hostile reaction from the City Corporation and from  London First, a membership organisation which purports to speak out for London businesses.  Don’t be fooled by the terminology – anyone who talks about “balancing the needs of all road users” is in practice arguing for the hegemony of the motor vehicle, as has been seen countless times over the last many years.

"benefit all road users" - that tired old canard again

Now, London First purports to represent the interests of its paid-up members but the distinct impression I have gained is that they did not consult any of their members before they launched their offensive against the proposals.  Certainly I don’t have the impression that my firm, with its generally supportive policy on cycling both as sport and as commuter transport, and its Corporate Social Responsibility policy which includes commitments to minimise travel by car or taxi, was canvassed for its opinion in advance.

I am only one of over 700 partners, so I have no authority to speak on behalf of the firm.  Our corporate position will of course take into consideration a whole host of commercial considerations as well as our CSR policy, HR policy, and the interests of the clients we advise.  I think – I hope – that none of this prevents them from coming out firmly in favour of the proposals now.  I know that I am not alone in this.

Update:  in one of those serendipitous events, the Evening Standard has reported on a statement of the bleedin' obvious - most London workers can't find time in their busy lives for proper exercise, but they could sort it out with active travel to work.  The superhighways are just what the doctor ordered.