On Friday 27th April we attended the Environmental Hustings for the council election on May 3rd organised by GREN (Greater Reading Environmental Network). The aim of the Hustings was to grill the main political parties about their environmental policies. To improve the local environment transport policy is key. This is an area where councils can and do make a real difference for better or for worse. So, it is no surprise the biggest part of the Hustings was dedicated to transport issues and luckily that is what we wanted to hear about.
Participants on behalf of the four parties were:
- Rob White – Green Party councillor and party Leader
- Ricky Duveen – Lib Dem councillor – and party Leader
- Clare Grashoff – Conservative councillor
- Tony Page – Labour councillor and Lead Councillor for Strategic Environment, Planning & Transport
Rob White opened with his vision for Reading in which cycling played a big role. This included calls for a Low emission zone in the town centre and reserving part of the transport budget for cycling infrastructure. Unsurprisingly he also criticized the East Reading Mass Rapid Transport proposal and most of the attendees clearly agreed with him.
Ricky Duveen from the Lib Dems also criticised the East Reading MRT proposals supported a Low Emission Zone and the expansion of 20 MPH zones.
Clare Grashoff from the Conservative Party was less clear on her position on any of these matters other than that she was pro public transport and would really like a better bus service to the Caversham riverside.
Tony Page defended the East Reading MRT plans primarily by highlighting that the Greater Reading built up area is growing and needs better public transport to cope. He specifically mentioned cars cannot be the future for Reading as it is unsustainable from a logistical perspective. That sounds great but at the same time, cycling did not really feature in his solutions to keep Reading moving.
The core of the debate was around the East Reading Mass Rapid Transport proposals. The plan is to build a dedicated bus connection from Napier Road to Thames Valley Park and a to be built park and ride. The discussion became quite heated which is understandable as the sacrifice in terms of green space that is being asked is high. The new road would follow the river Thames through a very beautiful and pleasant area that is heavily used by both walkers and cyclists a-like. A cycle path is included in the plans but as the current towpath is one of the nicest cycle rides in Reading, that hasn’t generated much enthusiasm among cyclists.
SOAR (Save our Ancient Riverside), the campaigning group against the East Reading MRT was in the audience and did a good job highlighting the damage the construction will cause and how the council overstates the potential benefits.
When it was our turn we asked Tony Page if he was willing to commit to a percentage of the traffic budget for cycling facilities. His response was that building cycle facilities cannot always be done as the council has to balance between the needs of different road users. According to Tony the council was doing what it could by building shared use paths and where it can we build segregated paths. We have not seen any plans for segregated cycle paths so that was a surprising statement. He also suggested the cycle campaign was unrealistic in its aims and are just a one-issue campaign group. To make a long answer / exchange short, he dodged the question by answering questions we didn’t ask. There is no commitment to spend money on cycling in any structural way.
Next, a member of the audience asked if the council was committed to providing more electric car charging points. Tony Page was the one who rightfully pointed out Electric cars don’t reduce congestion which I for one, could not agree more with. We want to shift to active modes of transport and that requires good facilities for walking and cycling.
So, what was the result of the evening? Of course, you always end up feeling the things you care about didn’t get the attention it deserves but that is the nature of these types of events. The evening obviously didn’t change anyone’s mind on the issues but that doesn’t mean events like this aren’t useful. Local elections are often hijacked by national debates and it is good to hear local politicians speak about local issues. And sure, don’t forget to vote on Thursday the 3rd of May but perhaps much more importantly, don’t forget to question your councillors all year around about cycling and transport issues. In the long run it does have effect.
Thanks GREN for organising the event!