Saturday 18 April 2009

Southwark - a pedestrian paradise?

Southwark has been named the most pedestrian friendly authority in the country.

I can’t say I’ve noticed. But don’t worry, next time I’m in Southwark I shall make a special effort to take note of its walking wondrousness.

Southwark were chosen as the best local authority as a result of their pro-pedestrian and pro-road safety initiatives. In addition to a 20mph scheme being considered locally, one of the most successful projects in Southwark was the changes made at Walworth Road, which involved widening pavements, making crossings safer, removing guard railing and improving lighting.

Tony Armstrong, Chief Executive of Living Streets said: "We were really impressed by some of the changes already made in Southwark and we are delighted by some of the plans for the future. Walworth Road is a fine example of a scheme which has transformed an area that was once just seen as a traffic corridor, into a people friendly public space.

It sounds mouthwatering.

Not that I’m entirely sure I believe it. Living Streets replaced The Pedestrians Association in 2001. The P.A. was set up in 1929 as a mass campaigning voluntary organisation. Its golden days seem to have been in the 1930s. It was a democratic organisation with a network of branches. I’m not sure what happened in 2001 but the Pedestrians Association imploded. Its elected governing body was terminated and its local branches were cast off (though some seem to have lived on as independent entities). It was replaced by Living Streets, a slick unelected self-perpetuating body. In short, the Pedestrians Association seems to have been Sustranned. Whereas the P.A. was an entirely voluntary organisation, with just one part-time secretary, Living Streets is run by paid staff, with annual staff costs of £756,606 (see the accounts [PDF format] here)

The problem with organisations like Living Streets – and the same applies to Sustrans, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth – is that they have no democratic accountability. A self-perpetuating clique determines the goals of the organisation, not a membership which elects a governing body and turns up for an annual general meeting. What happens, I would argue, is that campaigning loses its critical edge, and funding grows in importance to those who run the organisation and depend on it for their agreeable salaries. And if you are soliciting funding from government, local authorities, the Lottery or corporations, you want to talk about niceness not about crap. And while it’s right to support good practice, it’s important to keep a sense of perspective and see the wider and often crappier picture.

And as I’ve suggested before, Living Streets can, at times, be completely useless in promoting the interests of pedestrians.