Mile End Road, Colchester: Poorly thought through infrastructure can be dangerou
Mile End Road, Colchester: Poorly thought through infrastructure can be dangerous and discourage cycle use

Miles off! The battle of Mile End Road and what it means for campaigners nationally

Two years ago, Essex County Council proposed an infrastructure project that they believed would encourage cycling and walking. Following a two year battle, the local cycle campaign group have proved that the infrastructure was substandard, unnecessary and a misspending of public funds - but was it all worth it? Cycling UK member and local cycle campaigner, Will Bramhill, explains.

It was a beautiful day in summer 2015 when Chris and Alan of Essex County Council and Paul, my cycling campaign colleague, met in my back garden.

We’d known each other for years. Yes, we frequently disagreed but generally we worked together quite well.

Paul and I were worried because the cycling forum that had been going for 20 years was petering out. Chris and Alan explained that the relationship, and funding, was changing. Schemes would be coming forward that we would not agree with, but we may like some.

As we said goodbye, Alan dropped a bombshell: the footway outside my home was to be converted to shared pedestrian and cycle use to cater for people moving in to the huge new estates up the road.

I said that was daft. And more to the point, no one had asked for it.

While the road is far from perfect, it is relatively quiet and on a steep hill, which means cyclists pick up speed on the descent. There are regular driveways and cars park right next to the kerb. A shared use path would endanger both cyclists and pedestrians – and would likely not get used.

Far cheaper – and more effective – would be to reduce traffic volumes and speeds, for example, by enforcing a 20mph limit or introducing a bus gate.

We agreed to disagree and he drove off.

It quickly became clear that Essex County Council (ECC) was set on this scheme. The money had come via the South East Local Enterprise Partnership under a funding system devised by Whitehall to involve local business people in transport decisions.

Somehow, some genius had come up with the idea of a cycle path in Mile End Road — and the money had to be spent by a set date.

Our campaign group tried everything: we put forward different plans, we pointed out the flaws, we highlighted cycling guidance and the Equality Act, we called in John Thompson, our Cycling UK rep.

Before we knew it however, the diggers moved in, extending the width of one path by 700mm and narrowing the other likewise. Work overran and the cost jumped from £750,000 to about £1m.

At that stage, we made a formal complaint to ECC and then passed the case to the Local Government Ombudsman, the watchdog for local councils.

The complaint was one of the hardest things I’ve had to write – and I’m a national newspaper journalist. In the end, I spent an evening going over the paperwork with my wife and Paul, and we bashed the document into shape. The process showed the value of logging every comment, every fact, on a spreadsheet.

The Ombudsman kept us informed of progress, including the fact that ECC was being tardy over releasing some paperwork, which led to a site visit and interviews. In the middle of the process, a senior councillor stepped down: whether this was because of the complaint, we cannot tell.

The adjudication found that ECC was “partly at fault” (the Ombudsman said we would have to take some issues to court).

Nearly two years on from the meeting in the garden, was the hard work worth it? On balance, yes — simply because you cannot let councils get away with sloppy work.

Will Bramhill, Cycling UK member and local campaigner

The council was criticised for the conflict between its strategic approach for the area when compared with national and local cycling guidance and strategy. It was also rapped for failing to provide evidence of its claim that it had considered on-road alternatives.

Nearly two years on from the meeting in the garden, was the hard work worth it? On balance, yes — simply because you cannot let councils get away with sloppy work.

Sadly, the “agreed action” is negligible, showing perhaps how much the Ombudsman lacks teeth. The council has reviewed and updated its cycling design guide (which it was doing anyway); the path remains in place; the council officers haven’t been sanctioned (as far as I can make out), and the local enterprise partnership appears to have escaped without criticism.

The whole business is not even a blip on Whitehall’s radar: what is the misspending of £1m compared with the entire budget?

However, by going to the Ombudsman, we proved that we were right to complain. And we hope the verdict will prevent similarly poor decisions being made in the future. It is also a useful case study for campaigners to show other local authorities and say: “I do hope you wouldn’t fall into this trap.”

Here in Essex, we’re making a fresh start. The new cycling officer is a former Sustrans employee so he does at least understand good practice. I’ve still to get back to the relationship where Alan and Chris meet cyclists informally, but I do hope we’ll get there.