“Whatever the restrictions they face, the choices councils make are political ones”

Manchester Town Hall. Image: Getty.

How we run local communities, what services are provided and by whom, are deeply political questions. The philosophical traditions of the two main parties in Britain differ greatly on state involvement at every level: national, local and international.

So I take umbrage when people try to divide politics neatly into pragmatism and ideology. This was the argument set forth by Claire Kober, until very recently leader of Haringey Council, and the woman at the eye of the storm over the Haringey Delivery Vehicle programme to build new homes and regenerate old council properties. There are already a million articles written on that topic, so I don’t intend to go into the rights and wrongs of the case here. What concerns me is the framing of politics vs pragmatism that Kober sets out.

It is certainly the case that the left can put unreasonable demands on Labour councils. Local authorities are severely hampered both by austerity and by overbearing central restrictions: few seem to understand this when calling for illegal budget setting or non-statutory services that are impossible to deliver without outside investment.

It’s the case, too, that the reason the system is close to breaking is the pressure put on councils by the extreme ideological cuts to their funding that have crippled them since 2010.

But the opposite of unreasonable is not apolitical. Whatever the restrictions they face, the choices councils are political ones. Claire Kober describes herself as a pragmatic socialist – but as such, the people who agree with her need not just to make the case for pragmatism, but to argue why their pragmatism is socialist too.

Equally, the MPs who have declared no confidence in Northamptonshire County Council need to explain how – under their government’s ‘devolved axe’ – they would do things differently in and for their county. If they believe in letting local government be freer, leaner and less dependent on central grant money, they need to make the capitalist case for that freedom, and the winners and – inevitably – losers that competition creates. How would their national vision translate to Northamptonshire, its local challenges, demographics and needs?

But unfortunately, across the board in politics, we give very little priority to the local. This means that in general, it is not politics that's missing from most conversations about local government, but politics at the right level. Too often, litmus tests on national or international issues decide who a faction of the local party will back when it comes to council selections. In Labour, a person's view on the Middle East might well trump their vision for local service delivery. For the Tories, it's their view on Brexit, not bins, that really matters.


Voters are often the same, punishing local politicians for decisions made by national parties, seeing council elections just as referenda on the government of the day or how they think the opposition is doing. The parties reflect this by running election broadcasts on national issues or national leadership. It wins them votes, so you can understand it – but more and more, we denigrate the understanding of what local government does, who does it, what they do it for and why.

Labour councillors are not making decisions about private investment because they are ideologically wedded to the private sector. They believe, as all socialists and social democrats do, in using the state to improve the lives of the people of their boroughs. They just believe that under current circumstances, the kinds of challenges they face need far greater investment than the government is willing to provide. So, they feel they have to look to the private sector to do so.

Equally, most of the left is not opposing these decisions because they want to stop new housing being built, but because they genuinely believe there are better solutions that don’t lead to a diminishing of public stock. They are willing to trade conditions likely to lead to short term inaction for a chance at better solutions long term.

As to the Tories, they believe that a reduction in state dependency is going to be good for people in the long term. And so, they need to make the case for how that works in areas that fall short as Northamptonshire has, instead of simply playing the blame game. The party of central government and the party of local government in Northamptonshire are the same. If these MPs want to make the case that the failure there isn’t a Conservative one, they will need sharper answers than simply devolving blame.

There may well be answers that speak to both short and long term radicalism. But to find them, protagonists from both sides of Labour’s factional debate or the Conservatives national/local split will have to adopt a better, more open, understanding of where each side is coming from. If local Labour Parties can drop the fights over national issues, it might be possible to allow their shared ideology to come up with a solution that serves their community best. If Tories can work together to support local government struggling to impose national cuts, they might find better ways of delivering at each level. There may well be compromises that can be found through imagination, local action and local knowledge – but to find them, parties will have to set aside their internal differences and do the hard work of agreeing strategy and delivering for the people who elect them.

We need to put ideology back into the local government conversation. As politics has become more ideological again, it is important that the parties are able to offer their communities fierce competition over what they will do for and with them. If Capitalism or Socialism don’t work locally, they can’t work nationally. Big ideas don’t have to be played out on big stages.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.