Railroading east London

SocietyGuardian.co.uk | Society Guardian | Laura Holland: Taken for a ride by a train link that we don’t need

Found in today’s Guardian Society supplement: how the authorities are apparently set on forcing a change to the rail service in east London which residents don’t want or need in the interests of the “East London Gentrification Games” of 2012:

I have spent 13 months trying to discover why it is so desirable to swap a two-mile section of railway from one operator to another, and why it needs £185m of public money for a scheme designed to meet a small proportion of the demand for travel to the venues for the 2012 Olympic games.

Few people can believe that the quality of life, environment and future of residents such as myself can be destroyed so easily. More infuriating is that the only proof the scheme will have any benefit for the area or the public has come from expert witnesses in the employ of DLR or its contractors. These PR-conscious people assure us that impact will be minimal, and that, as a community transport provider, DLR’s commitment is to provide short-distance travel for local people.

Yet the operator’s own environmental statement reveals a different story: it admits significant noise impacts close to homes and schools; loss of playing fields and public space; and the destruction of the unique archaeology at the site of the abbey of St Mary Stratford Langthorne. There will also be major disruption to roads during the four-year construction period. This will all be caused by the creation of three new stations, which are unnecessary in an area that already enjoys excellent public transport.

… There was a public inquiry into the scheme, and the inspector will rule soon, but in retrospect my advice to anyone in my position is not to speak. Even if you are lucky enough to get answers or information, this is followed by professional legal teams working for the promoters who aim to make you look stupid and unreasonable. In my opinion, appearing is pointless unless you can afford an equal number and quality of expert witnesses as the promoter. Worse still, the inspector will not discuss any matter concerning government policy - which covers just about everything.

The loading of public inquiries is a well-established pattern, as George Monbiot notes in an essay on a “consultation” exercise before a “regeneration” project in Southampton in the 1990s:

In November 1996, the ‘biggest consultation exercise in British history’, organised now by a firm of London architects, opened at the British Gas offices in St Mary Street (Southampton). Hundreds of people turned up, and the event split up into workshops to discuss the different components of the district’s regeneration. A powerful consensus began to develop for the expansion of the market and the promotion of St Mary’s as a specialist shopping area, which could draw people in from the rest of Southampton. At the workshop on shopping, the residents appeared to be united in their requests for help to turn St Mary’s back into one of the commercial hubs of Southampton.

‘Then,’ Ian Loveridge told me, ‘this guy at the back of the meeting says “Yes, but there’s boarded-up shops, we’ve got to be realistic about this, there’s not the demand for all these shops.” Everyone said, “Who is this bloke?” Eventually the guy running the event asks him who he was. He said it didn’t matter who he was. “No,” the chairman says, “who are you?” It turns out he was a planning officer on the council.’

The same thing happened at the workshop about ‘the quality of the built environment’. The meeting appeared to be reaching a consensus when someone at the back of the room called for ‘realism’ and suggested that the people’s plans might be unworkable.

… ‘After the planning meeting,’ Ian Loveridge told me, ‘I said to the council, “It’s clear what people wanted,” and they told me, “Oh yes, but there were conflicting views given.” I said, “The only conflicting views were between what the community said and what the planning officers said.” “Nonsense, they said.’

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