Bike To The Future Part 3: The Board Meeting That Wasn’t

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On Wednesday 4th February 2015 TfL held a board meeting. It was one quite different in nature from most, for in essence there was really only one important item to be discussed: Item 7 – Proposed Cycle Superhighway Schemes. Rather belatedly we now take a look at what happened at that meeting and, as far as possible, what has happened since then.

Old news

In one sense it may feel like we are presenting old news, but transport policy is something that always takes time to have an impact. And with the consequences of the decisions made at that rather unusual meeting starting to filter through, it is worth looking back at the arguments presented and re-examining them in the light of subsequent developments.

Superhighway procedural matters

It was approximately 19 minutes into the meeting that the Mayor introduced the main item on the Agenda – Approval for the proposed East-West and North-South Superhighways through Central London, as well as Cycle Superhighways 1, 2 (improved) and 5. It was immediately clear this was not going to be a simple procedural matter when he invited Howard Carter, General Counsel (and in essence the legal supremo at TfL) to address the meeting on the subject of conflicts of interest of Board Members.

Conflicts of interest were always going to be an issue on this particular topic for certain board members. Bob Oddy, for example, is a representative of the licensed taxi trade (black cabs) and a taxi driver himself was the most obvious one but there were others.

On the surface Peter Anderson, Managing Director of Finance for the Canary Wharf Group, may not have had an obvious conflict of interest, but the Group itself had lodged its opposition to the cycle routes (despite not going anywhere near Canary Wharf) and indeed Anderson himself had aired views suggesting a strong opposition. Sir John Armitt, meanwhile, may be well known for being a former Chief Executive of Railtrack and Chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority, but what is probably less well known is that he is currently Chairman of the National Express Group – who would clearly be expected to be unhappy about any proposal that reduced the roadspace available for coaches.

This issue of conflicts of interest had clearly exercised the mind of Howard Carter. He explained that he had already issued written advice to board members and stated that, because TfL could not be aware of the exact involvement of individuals, ultimately it would have to be a personal decision of individual board members as to what they declared. The concern was clearly with people holding senior positions in organisations that had delivered a response to the consultation. Daniel Moylan, meanwhile, stated that he was a councillor in the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea but was not involved in the consultation response, so did not consider that he had a conflict of interest. This did not appear to create undue consternation amongst other board members.

When is a board meeting not a board meeting?

The declarations (or lack of them) were important because procedurally those with a conflict of interest could not speak at a board meeting. Obviously in this instance, given the number of technical conflicts, this was something a problem. For despite those conflicts it was felt that it would not be improper for the board to hear a board member’s views – after all they may have something very valid to contribute, notwithstanding their interest in a particular outcome. In a move of both masterly pragmatism or pantomime (depending, perhaps, on your viewpoint) Carter proposed a solution: At some stage they would declare the board meeting formally adjourned, allowing those to speak who otherwise would be barred from doing so, and then formally re-open the meeting. All this without anyone having to leave their seat.

The proposal was accepted. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Mayor could not resist quoting historical precedent – that of King Baudouin of Belgium. In 1990 the Catholic king briefly relinquished the throne so that the Belgian Parliament could pass a law on abortion without the monarch appearing to be complicit. Once the law was passed the king resumed his position as monarch.

A slick presentation

With a creative issue around conflicts in place, the subject of the was finally addressed. This began with an impressive presentation by Leon Daniels. The tragedy is that, as far as we are aware, the only way of seeing this presentation is to watch the webcast itself and peer at the presentation within.

One of the things Daniels emphasised is that it just was not possible to have a trial of the East-West Superhighway, something that some had complained about. His point was that, whilst is was possible to use railway sleepers and cones to mark out the future layout, it just was not possible to change all the junction layouts as required (something we covered in Part 2: Government, Gilligan and Royal Guards). Furthermore the scheme would only work if all the elements were in place – there was no way one could test a part of the scheme in isolation.

Daniels emphasised that, rather than a trial, the way forward was thus to implement the proposals and, during the implementation phase, closely monitor the impact in order to ensure that the expected outcome was achieved. Any lessons learnt could then be fed into the next stage.

The case for the scheme – but where is the other side of the argument?

In many ways the presentation represented an impressive argument for the case for Superhighways. This does, however, pose a rather concerning question. Is this really what a TfL board member should be doing? TfL must be aware of the disadvantages as well as the benefits of such a scheme. Whilst board members were supplied with data concerning various current and estimated future journey times and some of the banned turns, at no point were any of the possibly more controversial issues raised by TfL directors so that Board Members could be more aware of them and take an even-handed view. The lack of a right turn from Westminster Bridge into Embankment for general traffic, for example, did not get a mention.

One would have thought that the duty of the directors was to present the advantages and disadvantages of the scheme and then add their recommendation and reason for it. If a criticism could be levelled at the approach here it would perhaps be that this approach was not taken here.

At the end of the presentation the Mayor, unsurprisingly, gave it his strong endorsement and rather informally suspended the meeting to allow the individuals with a conflict of interest to speak.

Time out: the taxi driver’s case

Bob Oddy used the opportunity to point out, as he saw it, TfL had, at a late stage, miraculously managed to double the road space available – which in his eyes meant that the scheme was not properly thought out in the first place. Leon Daniels stated that this simply wasn’t true, and that at various pinch points they found they were able to fit in an extra general traffic lane by a slight reduction of pavement widths and of the Cycle Superhighway itself. This reduced some of the delays which the initial modelling had highlighted, which had previously been considered to be unacceptable.

What seems remarkable, given that Mr Oddy is specifically appointed to the board to represent the taxi drivers’ interests, is that he failed to point out specific facets of the scheme that would severely disadvantage taxi drivers when he had a golden opportunity to do so. As well as the banned right turn at Westminster Bridge into Embankment (and the corresponding banned left turn in the other direction) there was the making of Horse Guards Road as a no through road, which would deprive taxi drivers of a very popular taxi route via Horse Guards Road into Great George Street and onto Parliament Square.

Time Out: The case of Canary Wharf Group

The other person who took advantage of the formal suspension to speak and point out his concerns was Peter Anderson, who raised a number of points.

Anderson felt that the scheme had been rushed through without going through the normal procedures (e.g. initial presentation to the Finance & Policy Panel, a subject to which we will return). He also pointed out that many people and organisations had concerns and wanted points addressing, and he and they felt that more time was needed to properly scrutinise the project and address individual concerns. He drew attention to a response from the Metropolitan Police who “raised a whole host of issues” about the scheme. The clear impression he gave was that the Metropolitan Police was not happy with it.

His next point was that traffic was doubled on “the westbound” but remains single lane on “the eastbound route”. He regarded the single lane as insufficient for the amount of traffic that “needed” (in his own words) to go down that road and expressed particular concern regarding businesses.

Anderson’s final point was that whilst the other Cycle Superhighways had a positive cost benefit analysis, the East West one was very much the exception. According to TfL’s own figures it would cost £38m to build but produce disbenefits of £200m per year. He did not think the TfL board had ever previously approved a scheme where the annual disbenefit was around six times the initial expenditure.

In conclusion he wanted much more consultation and a trial, dismissing the notion that this wasn’t possible. He also challenged the notion that the modelling shown by Leon Daniels in his presentation was representative of traffic at 0900 and expressed concern about traffic that would be “gated” (kept back by means of traffic light interventions) to keep traffic at a reasonable level in the centre of London. He seemed particularly concerned about deliveries, specifically that more delivery vans would be necessary to deliver the same quantity of goods.

The board reconvenes

Having heard the men’s comments, the meeting was reconvened. The Mayor resumed proceedings by addressing the issue of the Metropolitan Police’s concerns. Reading from a briefing provided to him by the Metropolitan Police themselves, the Mayor stated that they “support these proposals which they believe will significantly improve the safety to cyclists particularly at the many junctions on the route”. He stated he did not detect any opposition from the Metropolitan Police and he found it curious that it should be advanced as an objection.

As to Anderson’s concerns as to feedback from other parties, the Mayor commented:

You also note that various bodies and commercial interests have been writing in. That is indeed true. Some of them have left the reference to the Canary Wharf response on their letterhead accidently. I congratulate Canary Wharf on the solidity of the campaign they have been running against this and I understand their concerns.

He then went on to say that TfL have worked incredibly hard to address the concerns raised about delays. He added that this scheme would represent a general improvement for cycling and the general quality of life in London.

The Mayor also challenged the notion that the scheme was rushed. On the subject of a trial he backed up Daniels’ argument that it simple wasn’t practical. He also raised the issue that if it was known to be a trial then people with vested interests may well change their travel habits to skew the result.

Richard Barnes then also questioned the modelling shown and challenged its accuracy. This led to the Mayor stating that he often cycled in the area of Embankment/Northumberland Avenue at the time modelled and he thought it was an accurate representation – if anything slightly worse than the reality.

John Armitt’s concerns

Later on during proceedings John Armitt spoke very seriously, with passion even, about the scheme – one that clearly troubled him. It was also clear that, in this case at least, the board member had done his homework and read his notes. He spoke against the scheme choosing his words very carefully.

Armitt began by stating that whilst one cannot deny the good intent, that the biggest danger to cyclists in London are actually themselves and, given the way that many of them ride, one is surprised that the number of accidents is not far larger. He also stated that cycles may be the largest category of vehicle type in the rush hour, but that they didn’t convey the largest number of people trying to move about. It therefore had to be recognised that what was being proposed was something for a minority and not the majority. He further stated that the business case did not, to a large extent, work and it was being done in the face of the professional organisations that operate on the road network having considerable reservations about the scheme.

John Armitt also raised the point that the volume of papers given to board members three or four days before the meeting was beyond that which one could reasonably expect to read. He expressed concern about the need to keep London moving and stated that the Superhighways will make that more of a challenge “for a minority”.

The Mayor responded that you could forever go around in circles, but at the end of the day “do you do something or do you do nothing?”. His opinion was that the overwhelming majority of Londoners want to do something. The Mayor then restated the reasons why he thought the proposals were a good idea.

Armitt accepted the Mayor’s point and that maybe they should “give it a go,” but he stated that the board should not pretend that this was being done with proper governance or in the normal way of proceedings. On this point the Mayor more or less agreed. The feeling was that sometimes there was more to be considered than the straightforward business case and no-one was pretending the justification for the scheme was straightforward.

The governance issue is a valid one. Under normal procedure items on the agenda are initially scrutinised by a board panel. The cost and financial benefits of Cycle Superhighway Scheme would then have logically have been scrutinised by Finance & Policy Panel. It was claimed that this was not possible because its chairman was Peter Anderson of the Canary Wharf Group, who clearly had a conflict of interest. Curiously, no board member suggested that the simple solution would be to have required him to relinquish the chairmanship (and indeed not attend) a meeting of the panel to discuss the Superhighway proposal.

Leon Daniels was at pains to point out again that TfL would continue to consult with people affected even though the statutory requirement had ended. Furthermore the scheme would be closely monitored as it was implemented and lessons learned. Overall though it was clear that it had been hoped that the governance issue would be something that could have been left unsaid.

Rest of the meeting

Most of remainder of of the meeting covered the issues already raised. One further new topic that did arise, however, was the importance of approving the scheme at this particular meeting. This was because there was a tight timetable for the road works involved that had been carefully co-ordinated with other works in the centre of London. As is often true in these cases it was emphasised that a short delay in decision making would lead to a disproportionately long delay in implementation, as the schedule of works would have to be prepared again from scratch.

The human element of that decision was, sadly, further highlighted towards the end of the meeting, when Transport Commissioner Sir Peter Hendy grimly mentioned he had just received a tweet to say that a cyclist had been seriously injured in Park Lane in a collision involving a National Express coach.

Ultimately, the Cycle Superhighway scheme was approved.

Aftermath

Three months on from the meeting we are now seeing the consequences on the ground. Much was made at the meeting of the need to co-ordinate roadworks, but the underground cable fire at Holborn in April meant threw these into disarray. As Holborn Kingsway northbound is not expected to fully open until later in June (and even then to have a weight restriction in place) Sadly the huge effort to co-ordinate works must have been largely ineffectual.

Even without the disruption at Holborn, the Superhighway road works are causing a lot of congestion at many critical locations. As well as general traffic, buses are being delayed. In most cases the disruption is probably worse than it will be once the schemes are completed but the East-West Superhighway alone will involve considerable disruption until summer 2016.

Judicial Review?

One of the concerns for supporters was the fear of a judicial review. This was less that such an action would succeed but, if there was a good case to be made, that it could delay things.

That such a review would not likely have succeeded is largely down to two factors.

Firstly, it appears that only the Canary Wharf Group would have the appetite and funds to engage in such a process. Even if it were notionally brought by someone else, they would probably be behind it. The courts tend to take the attitude that “he who comes to court must do so with clean hands” and would likely have taken a dim view of an apparent underhand campaign to oppose the proposal.

Secondly was a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court, rather overlooked in the run-up to the election, that the government has failed in its legal duty to protect people from the harmful effects of air pollution. Even if the Mayor was considered, for some reason, not to have reasonably come to the decision he did at the time, this subsequent ruling would seem to make it more unlikely that the Mayor would come to any different decision if he were forced to reconsider the issue.

The good news for supporters is that it seems apparent now that such a review will not happen. Regardless of legal time limits, in practice the scheme is already too far advanced to be stopped.

The subsequent GLA Transport Committee

The relatively brief TfL Board meeting meant that, inevitably, there was a lot going on behind the scenes that was not talked about. It was therefore very enlightening to read a transcript of Andrew Gilligan’s appearance in front of the March GLA Transport Committee meeting.

The appearance of Gilligan covered all aspects of cycling and not just the Superhighways. Particularly relevant to the East-West Superhighway are comments about the Royal Parks. Rather amusingly he recalls:

The Royal Parks’ position in Hyde Park, which we have reflected in our route and as you will see in the consultation, is that the route must run on the roads… The Royal Parks’ position on St James’s Park and Buckingham Palace is the exact opposite, that it must not run on the roads, and that it must run on the paths.

One question raised, but not answered, was on the issue of an agreement over night time use. The issue of the area in front of Buckingham Palace was discussed and it was revealed that this was regarded as “one of the most difficult gyratories in London for cyclists”.

What also emerged is strong enthusiasm from the Mayor’s Cycling Commissioner for the idea of the East-West Superhighway extending to one lane of Westway. He expressed the opinion that they would probably go out to consultation on the scheme in the summer.

A related issue of great concern was the “Central London Grid”. This is intended to complement the central Superhighways and provide various simple junction and other improvements to help connect cycle routes through central London. Mr Gilligan expressed his frustration that in his mind this was the simplest cycling task to do. One presumes this is because each scheme can be carried out in isolation and, because one is away from the main roads, there should not be major traffic management issues to consider.

Other revelations from Andrew Gilligan

Much more recently Andrew Gilligan has been quite forthright in explaining some of the problems and how the Superhighways almost didn’t happen. You can read about them in an article in road.cc. Amongst other things this reveals the reluctance of one borough to co-operate and the threat of what was effectively the nuclear option from TfL. As Mr Gilligan points out:

There is, in fact, a power in the GLA Act in the setting up of a mayoralty which allows the mayor to take control of any road in London, and we have to get the agreement from the Secretary of State so it’s not quite the slam dunk we hoped it was.

However we did contemplate using that power in one or two cases on the Superhighways. We didn’t have to in the end, the threat of it was enough.

With everyone presuming that the borough in question is Westminster it is easy to see the scale of a threat. As aficionados of “Yes, Minister” will know, a government in power hates having to condemn and overrule the actions of a council run by the same political party, especially true before a general election. If such a proposal to transfer a road to TfL was to be put before a Secretary of State the quandary would have been to back up the local council and risk losing a lot of cyclists’ votes as well as being blamed for future cycling deaths, or to overrule the local council and give the impression of a disunited political party.

Meanwhile the cycling deaths continue…

One of the remarkable things about cycling in London is how much prominence is now given to every death of a cyclist. This is despite the BBC reporting the number of cyclists being at a record high and the number of serious injuries and deaths being at a record low. The great change is that there now appears to be a perception that these deaths are avoidable deaths that shouldn’t happen. A consequence of this appears to be very little opposition to the cycle Superhighways already approved.

So far this year there have been six deaths. All have involved lorries and five of the cyclists killed were women.

Uncharted Territory

In Summer 2016 the Superhighway changes should be a reality. As had been admitted by board members from the outset, TfL and London are really entering uncharted territory. Whilst it is unlikely that the schemes introduced will be rolled back, it is not known if there will be further appetite for cycle priority schemes. It could be that the experience of roadworks quells any major enthusiasm for an extension. Alternatively, it might be felt that London has reached a critical mass and that extending the scheme would be an obvious and sensible thing to do. Maybe then we will be closer to deciding whether the whole thing was a failed experiment, a damp squib, or, as we speculated in part 1, the point where London began to re-invent itself as a cycling city.

Written by Pedantic of Purley