Why the government must start consulting locals before building

Photo: Getty

It should go without saying that any new infrastructure should have the largest impact on those living within its immediate vicinity. It would, let’s be honest, be a giant waste of money to build a new road or railway line if the locals weren’t being benefited. Yet all too often these large infrastructure projects, particularly those originating from the top echelons of government, have a history of silencing local voices.

One such example of locals being excluded from the decision-making process can be seen in the plans for the High Speed Railway 2.

Not only has the project already been denounced by a 2006 joint report for the Treasury and the Department of Transport, which instead argued for the upgrading of existing rail routes, but 17 local authorities lining the vast majority of the Phase 1 London-Birmingham route are also ardently opposed to the project. These councils, which collectively represent 3.2m people, are using everything at their disposal, from legal challenges to petitions, to put the brakes on long before the first train has departed.

One would think that governmental overruling of local authority opposition is perhaps the result of a larger majority of the general public backing the plans, but alas. Of the almost 55,000 respondents to the initial consultation on HS2, 58 per cent did not feel that a high speed rail network would provide the best value for money for enhancing rail capacity and performance. Less than 30 per cent felt that it would. Despite this, the first phase received parliamentary approval in February last year and surveying work has begun.


This same top-down approach can be seen with the proposed Oxford-Cambridge Expressway. This ambitious road-building project is part of a wider scheme to encourage economic development and, most importantly, house building across the “Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford arc”.

According to proponents, the Expressway is vital for the building of a further one million homes by 2050. But once again, the inhabitants of these regions are not being consulted on the issue. In December last year, Oxfordshire County Council carried a motion by 49 votes to five, with one abstention, criticising the lack of public consultation on the “need for the road or the local impact of any particular proposed route.” Last month the “preferred” route was confirmed by the DfT but there still has been no consultation.

By omitting public input, a vital opportunity to catch any potential oversight is missed and money is misspent, with big projects in under-invested regions dropped in favour of ones nearer the capital. Almost symbolically, on the same day the parliament voted in favour of the third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport, a move hugely opposed by local residents, the government rejected the Swansea Tidal Lagoon, which had significant backing from the Welsh government.

But this is hardly surprising when you consider that between 2012 and 2017, London and the South East, regions home to just 32 per cent of England’s population, received almost half its total public spending on transport. And with the new runway and the Oxford-Cambridge Expressway on the horizon, the next five years are predicted to similarly favour the area.

A government required to actually listen to the public when it comes to infrastructure investments is a government more likely to distribute wealth fairly. If democracy played its part in these decisions, government ministers would not only be able to act on valuable local knowledge but would also be encouraged to look further afield than the capital and its surrounding regions.

 
 
 
 

“Every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap”: on the rise of the chain conffeeshop as public space

Mmmm caffeine. Image: Getty.

If you visit Granary Square in Kings Cross or the more recent neighbouring development, Coal Drops Yard, you will find all the makings of a public space: office-workers munching on their lunch-break sandwiches, exuberant toddlers dancing in fountains and the expected spread of tourists.

But the reality is positively Truman Show-esque. These are just a couple examples of privately owned public spaces, or “POPS”,  which – in spite of their deceptively endearing name – are insidiously changing our city’s landscape right beneath us.

The fear is that it is often difficult to know when you are in one, and what that means for your rights. But as well as those places the private sector pretends to be public space, the inverse is equally common, and somewhat less discussed. Often citizens, use clearly private amenities like they are public. And this is never more prevalent than in the case of big-chain coffeeshops.

It goes without saying that London is expensive: often it feels like every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap. This is where Starbucks, Pret and Costa come in. Many of us find an alternative in freeloading off their services: a place to sit, free wifi when your data is low, or an easily accessible toilet when you are about in the city. It feels like a passive-aggressive middle-finger to the hole in my pocket, only made possible by the sheer size of these companies, which allows us to go about unnoticed. Like a feature on a trail map, it’s not just that they function as public spaces, but are almost universally recognised as such, peppering our cityscapes like churches or parks.

Shouldn’t these services really be provided by the council, you may cry? Well ideally, yes – but also no, as they are not under legal obligation to do so and in an era of austerity politics, what do you really expect? UK-wide, there has been a 13 per cent drop in the number of public toilets between 2010 and 2018; the London boroughs of Wandsworth and Bromley no longer offer any public conveniences.  


For the vast majority of us, though, this will be at most a nuisance, as it is not so much a matter of if but rather when we will have access to the amenities we need. Architectural historian Ian Borden has made the point that we are free citizens in so far as we shop or work. Call it urban hell or retail heaven, but the fact is that most of us do regularly both of these things, and will cope without public spaces on a day to day. But what about those people who don’t?

It is worth asking exactly what public spaces are meant to be. Supposedly they are inclusive areas that are free and accessible to all. They should be a place you want to be, when you have nowhere else to be. A space for relaxation, to build a community or even to be alone.

So, there's an issue: it's that big-chain cafes rarely meet this criterion. Their recent implementation of codes on bathroom doors is a gentle reminder that not all are welcome, only those that can pay or at least, look as if they could. Employees are then given the power to decide who can freeload and who to turn away. 

This is all too familiar, akin to the hostile architecture implemented in many of our London boroughs. From armrests on benches to spikes on windowsills, a message is sent that you are welcome, just so long as you don’t need to be there. This amounts to nothing less than social exclusion and segregation, and it is homeless people that end up caught in this crossfire.

Between the ‘POPS’ and the coffee shops, we are squeezed further by an ever-growing private sector and a public sector in decline. Gentrification is not just about flat-whites, elaborate facial hair and fixed-gear bikes: it’s also about privatisation and monopolies. Just because something swims like a duck and quacks like a duck that doesn’t mean it is a duck. The same can be said of our public spaces.