I attended a meeting of Northamptonshire County Council’s Cabinet for their discussion of the re-opening of Abington Street in Northampton town centre to traffic.
I went to County Hall yesterday afternoon silently supporting the Cycle Touring Club (CTC) Right-to-Ride Officer who was going to exercise his right, as a member of the public, to address the Cabinet. (An individual is entitled to up to three minutes to make his or her points. This happens at the start of an agenda item before the Cabinet Member with responsibility for the item speaks.)
John and I met in Reception and parked our bikes in the 18th-century Courthouse Room before being invited into the Blue Room to attend the meeting. Seven members of the Cabinet were meeting and the room was packed with other councillors. I was a little surprised at this but a journalist from the Chronicle & Echo to whom I got chatting said that our item was the one which had attracted them. I’d wrongly assumed it would be the item after ours – about HS2!
In the absence of Cllr Jim Harker, the Council Leader, the meeting was chaired by Cllr Heather Smith, the Deputy Leader. She took the meeting briskly through the first five items, all procedural ones. Item 6 was a review of Special Educational Needs Units (which I sort of found interesting as a retired teacher). And then it was Item 7 and John’s turn to speak.
John was very good. He opened with CTC’s objection to the making of St Giles Terrace one-way for all vehicles (severing the west-east cycle route from the Railway Station to Billing Road), following up with observations on the opportunity to make the town centre more cycle-friendly (this time by allowing two-way cycling in Abington Street) in preparation for the re-location of the university to the town centre.
He reminded Cabinet that they had adopted a Cycling Strategy in 2013 to encourage cycling in all schemes – and yet here was the Highways Department entirely forgetting this.
Very soon John’s three minutes were up and, from the floor, he received a loud round of applause! We were both surprised and delighted at this. Later, however, it became clearer that the applause – from opposition party Councillors – was politically motivated and may not have helped our case with the ruling party on Cabinet.
Another member of the public – an Abington Street trader – used his three minutes to suggest reducing the use of disabled parking bays in the proposed scheme.
Cllr Michael Clarke then introduced his report. He made one concession: St Giles Terrace will remain two-way south of The Ridings (hence preserving the current cycle route). But he then spoke against two-way cycling in Abington Street (missing, in our opinion, an opportunity to enhance provision). Nevertheless, a concession gained – and gained, I feel, thanks to the number of my fellow CTC members who had e-mailed the consultation process with our objections! (Cllr Clarke: “This is a listening Council …”)
The floor was then opened to other county councillors. Liberal Democrat and Labour councillors spoke against the TRO. Their objections, however, were not against the details of the arrangements but against the scheme in principle. In fairness, this had already been decided by the Borough Council and was in the Conservative manifesto for the Borough Council elections. Cllr Smith, in the chair, reminded them of this but they were having none of it! You can read the Chronicle and Echo’s report here. (“Further criticism for plan to reopen part of Abington Street to traffic”) This is when I realised that the applause for John’s comments were not in support for cycling but a bit of party knockabout.
Last speaker from the floor was the leader of the Borough Council, David Macintosh. He was heckled by opposition County Councillors. And Cllr Smith was, in my opinion, a little easier on him when he strayed away from the TRO onto the scheme in principle! (The relevant gist: a marvellous TRO and Highways Department had been wonderful …)
Then something happened that reminded me of rowdy teenage boys in a classroom! The councillors on the floor began to argue amongst themselves, swearing loudly! I think the chair was a little non-plussed at this. She asked for an end to swearing. ”You tell him off for swearing then! He swore at me first!” said one – clearly finding his inner thirteen-year-old. Amazing!
None of the other Cabinet members contributed and the discussion concluded with Cllr Smith declaring that the report on the TRO was passed.