A Busy Road with Protesters Standing by

Local Politics – Apply Pressure, but Keep Your Eyes on The Prize!

I became involved in a road safety campaign after a friend was involved in a nasty incident on the main road that cuts through our village. It quickly propelled me into the world of local politics, local media, and human behaviour. But did we pick the right struggle?

‘Keep your eyes on the prize’ has its origins in Gospel Singing and was echoed by the Civil Rights Movement in America in the ‘50s and ‘60s. It highlights a significant danger that every grass-roots campaign face; Don’t get distracted. While decision makers find them unsettling, people are much stronger and more productive when they keep their focus on the big picture and don’t get side-tracked into solving problems that belong to individuals amongst them. I know it is all very well evoking a historical struggle against oppression, but we have a dream too. To make our village a safer place for everyone.

The B4030 is a fast and busy road that runs between Bicester and Chipping Norton and serves a busy industrial estate and a large employer. This road runs through Middle Barton (population 1500) as North Street, cutting the village in half. Middle Barton Primary School and Pre-School are on one side, the majority of homes built in the last sixty years on the other. Many families must cross this busy road twice a day. A limit of 30mph is in place within the village but other than signage, it is not enforced. The village’s Lollipop crossing service was recently reduced to mornings only. Oxfordshire County Council traffic counters show 3600 vehicles a day entering our village in 2018, an increase of 16% over the last five years. This increase in traffic, new and proposed developments within the village and nearby and growth predicted in West Oxfordshire District Council’s Local plan 2031 have made traffic control through Middle Barton an urgent and critical issue.

We launched Safe Roads for Middle Barton at a Parish Council meeting. Our online petition calling our elected representatives to take urgent and decisive action to address the problem of speeding vehicles through our village by January 31st had 100 signatures in its first two weeks. What quickly became clear was that this is a longstanding and complex issue.

Guidance from Local and National Government and the Police dictates that without meaningful data, speeding traffic must first be considered as a ‘perceived’ problem. At first, I saw this as dismissive and parochial, a clear attempt by decision makers to kick the issue into the ‘long grass’. Such predictions are often dismissed as ‘project fear’. But after listening to people and reading their impassioned comments on our petition, I realised that everyone has their own perception on the causes of, and solutions to, the problem.

Sometimes, it’s about who you know and how much money you have. Our Community Liaison Police Officer told us about a small traffic calming scheme in a neighbouring village that was completed very quickly because the entire scheme was privately funded by a resident who was married to a former Government Minister’s daughter.

Another problem is the perception of the individual driver. For all of us, the other cars are the traffic jam or the congestion, we are on an important journey. When we grind to a halt in traffic, we become part of the problem. This also a difficulty for group activism. By their nature, people focus on their little part of the problem and lose the overall aim of the group. They have their own issues and dominate meetings, lobby and agitate to resolve them – and then, their work done, they quietly disappear. Without clear focus, people will spend an entire meeting arguing passionately about what the wording on the poster calling for the next meeting should be. I have been to lots of meetings like this.

We distributed a press release just before Christmas and it was picked up by the Oxford Mail and the Banbury Guardian and The Dorn Free Press, our local magazine. For once, I was pleased with the dramatic headline in the Banbury Guardian: ‘Enough is Enough. Someone Will Get Killed, Say Villagers’. The foreshadowing of tragedy reinforced our frustration.

Delivering our petition

With all of this exposure, our petitions had 352 signatures and I formally delivered it to Oxfordshire County Council’s Cabinet Meeting on 21st January. The meeting was interesting. Under the ambitious ‘Connecting Oxford’ initiative, revenue is generated by charging for workplace parking. Resident only parking zones are increased and bus-gates that close an entire road to traffic except buses operate on routes into Oxford. The revenue is used to operate a fleet of Hybrid buses. The object is to ‘encourage’ commuters to use the bus and reduce emissions and congestion. Although public support for this innovative scheme was good, it was still beset by individual objections and concerns.

Hoping that our community would show more togetherness, we called on our supporters to support the ‘Community Speedwatch’ initiative starting in our village. Members of the community work with Thames Valley Police to monitor speeding traffic. Members of the community passes record speeding traffic and pass the information they gather to the Police. The Police use it to send warning letters and modify their own enforcement activities in our area. We saw this as a chance for our community to come together to prove that speeding traffic through our village is more than a perception. About thirty people came to the meeting, some only came to say their piece. There were some apologies but nobody under forty. I grew up in a time of protests and marches – I wonder why we haven’t engaged young people. Still, this turnout represents a concerned community and is more than enough to get started.

We haven’t been distracted, divided or set against each other – yet. We’ve kept our focus. Or is there a bigger picture here? Should we be looking at slowing traffic down in all villages around the Oxfordshire, or the Country, or the World? Should we be pushing for a total ban on traffic on all residential roads? No, not yet. Keep your eyes on the prize, you can also lose focus by setting your target too high.

Our Campaign will continue. It is clear to me that some stakeholders would be much more comfortable if our Campaign took a more passive, information gathering role. We will support our Community Speedwatch operation and contribute to the forthcoming traffic survey, but we will also continue to work with local media to keep the pressure on decision makers. We will keep our message strong and clear. We await a response from Oxfordshire County Council. Once we have proved that speeding traffic through our village is not a perception but a real problem, we will do whatever is necessary to make our roads safe. Even if we have to raise the funds ourselves.

Richard Brown

January 2020

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