The Politics of Envy. The Politics of the Playground. The End of Democracy?
Residents living in Grove Park and Strand on the Green have long said they feel separated from the rest of Chiswick by the A4 but nothing has divided Chiswick more than the current supposedly temporary road closures and cycling schemes.
For many, it’s the arrogant attitude of the anti-car brigade, harping on about the perceived selfishness of single occupancy cars, and criticising what they consider to be non-essential journeys (in both cases without knowing why people are driving), that has created such bitter division between us, splitting our sense of community.
For many others, the effect of Hounslow closing roads and pushing traffic onto Ealing roads – gridlocking Ealing residents’ lives – has created a them-and-us chasm that only the boundary-obsessed approve of. Ealing’s Southfield ward is just as much a part of Chiswick as are the three Hounslow wards of Chiswick Homefields, Chiswick Riverside and Turnham Green. The shared W4 postcode binds us together. The boundary barrier doesn’t exist when we bump into each other, shop, have a coffee, get a haircut, eat out, take a pet to the vet. What was an invisible division is now a deep and wide canyon with Hounslow punishing Ealing.
All this has led to even more unpleasantness on this website’s discussion forum and on Twitter. The formerly kinder gentler NextDoor, where posts about lost cats, found keys and restaurant recommendations were the norm, is now the trolls’ new home. New names crop up – because the closure of Fisher’s Lane at South Parade is an action taken by Ealing council – with members of the Ealing branch of the London Cycling campaign taking on the role of attackers-in-chief (though the Chiswick branch hasn’t exactly gone silent).
I’ve heard from one person who has been moved to use her car less frequently but everyone else I’ve met, had emails from or heard from by phone, has said they already choose walking or cycling first; then the bus, though for some the tube is as popular; only when it’s absolutely necessary do they turn keys in ignitions (if they have a car, and not everyone does). The environmental agenda – the climate emergency – does not only exist in impassioned cyclists’ lives.
Huge numbers of us live within easy walking distance of the shops, cafés, pubs, restaurants and service businesses we use – so walking is inevitable. There are pockets of Chiswick where reaching a bus route is prohibitively long, particularly for people less able to walk or carry heavy shopping, but overall our generous network of buses (with some inconveniences from relatively recent changes - the shortening of the 27 bus route, for example) means we hop on and hop off routinely. And when we use our cars, we do so because we have to, combining several essential reasons in one big journey. As one resident wrote on one of our social media platforms the other day, people choose to live in Chiswick because of its travel connections to the world beyond us: not just the tube, not just the buses but also the M4, the M40, the M3, the M1 and the M25. You can’t walk or cycle along them; they were built for cars. Commuter journeys or, as in my case for many years, trips by car to visit ageing parents (taking heavy shopping with me) and other reasons are inevitable with so many routes close by.
The perpetual hectoring lecturing from those who cannot tolerate lives lived differently – and for whom no good reason for driving is good enough – has turned our polite, accepting, warm community into one of rising anger and, as one person I know put it, “making normally law abiding drivers into offenders out of sheer frustration” adding that “the behaviour of councils is harsh and verging on what citizens of places like China have to endure”. Others have said they feel they are living in a banana republic or Communist state. In the 1980s we called it the politics of envy.
The frustration is making people aggressive. I have heard from one mum of young kids who more than once narrowly missed being rammed into by drivers frustrated by the gridlock. When a few of us flash-mobbed onto the High Road late on Thursday night, one of us witnessed a near incident between an oil tanker, a cyclist and a bus. The next day a resident reported another near miss when her husband had to slam on the brakes to avoid driving into the car ahead which had braked suddenly to avoid a pedestrian crossing the road where the island refuge had been removed, confusing all.
Add to that the fact that many of us feel stressed and anxious as a result of the pandemic, with the constant uncertainty of not knowing what will happen next. That’s made worse by not being in control in our own home-town thanks to councils, and TfL, springing massive changes on us without proper warning. They, and the lack of consultation, have inevitably increased feelings of powerlessness.
Certainly, I feel bullied by the council – and I’m an elected member of it! Seeing photos of self-satisfied cabinet members posing on the pavement with London’s walking and cycling commissioner Will Norman was like looking at a photo of a proud and un-cowed illegal elephant hunter posing with his trophy. The insensitivity – towards us. The lack of respect for the target – that’s us. The smug pleasure – from overruling and ruling over us. My heart rate rose.
It was doubly insulting given that three of the cabinet members – leader Steve Curran; lead member for transport, traffic and parking Hanif Khan; lead member for highways and borough bodyguard-cum-bouncer Guy Lambert – have not had the decency to fix a date, at our (your councillors’) invitation, to come to Chiswick to meet residents and businesses to hear first-hand about the effect of these ill-thought out schemes. There they were, with Will Norman and at least one well-known local cycling tub-thumper, in a safety-in-numbers group, stopping briefly for the sunny-day photo-op then disappearing, leaving their terrible mess behind them like litter louts.
Hounslow Council Cabinet Members get on their bikes with Will Norman
And triply insulting given that I had sent an email marked URGENT to council leader Steve Curran because of the risks we flash-mobbers had witnessed to workers’ safety, drivers’ safety, pedestrians’ safety, businesses’ loss of trade and residents’ loss of sleep due to incompetently programmed work, unsatisfactorily supervised workers, poorly laid out diversions and complex traffic light configurations at the junction of the High Road with Acton Lane during overnight works to install a CW9 bus gate. No time to respond to alerts to safety risks. Plenty of time to pose in the sunshine for photos. It is worse than shabby.
Was it shabby or, as one of my councillor colleagues put it, “insulting” when, instead of answering a reasonable question about money management, council leader Steve Curran chose personal attack. That was on Tuesday, at the first ever and much-overdue virtual borough council meeting. When I asked a supplementary question about the two subjects cited as causing significant losses of income –parking revenue and rough sleeping/homelessness – Steve Curran chose to be rude about my short stint as leader of the Conservative group. Then he criticised me for asking about parking at the same time as the far more important subject of rough sleeping/homelessness (which his inadequate answer had lumped together). This was borough council – the senior council committee. It was a public meeting – a form of accountability. And the subject was money management. Instead of a serious, considered reply we had the politics of the playground.
We have been fighting on the side of residents since we were elected and been ignored. Residents now see they, too, have been ignored. We reflect our resident’s views; the council is wearing dark glasses and blinkers and sticking its fingers in its ears. But we are not giving up.
It’s been quite a busy week.