How we did it: Testing the water for a cycling scheme

New digital engagement techniques proved key to securing public approval for a London borough's cycling scheme, says Mark Wilding.

 Consultation team: (left to right) Commonplace chief executive officer Mike Saunders, Waltham Forest Council director of highways and traffic management Vala Valavan and Waltham Forest Mini Holland programme manager Mark Bland
Consultation team: (left to right) Commonplace chief executive officer Mike Saunders, Waltham Forest Council director of highways and traffic management Vala Valavan and Waltham Forest Mini Holland programme manager Mark Bland

PROJECT: Mini Holland, Waltham Forest

ORGANISATIONS INVOLVED: London Borough of Waltham Forest, Commonplace

In 2013, London’s outer boroughs were invited to bid for funding as part of the mayor’s "Mini Holland" initiative. The London Borough of Waltham Forest, along with Enfield and Kingston, was selected to receive £27 million to carry out work aimed at replicating the cycle-friendly conditions seen in the Netherlands and encouraging residents to get on the saddle.

Waltham Forest Council proposed 13 interconnected schemes. These included new cycle routes, bike stands, segregated cycle lanes, free cycling training and "Copenhagen crossings" — raised walkways that slow down motor vehicles and reinforce pedestrians’ right of way. At the start of the project in 2014, cycling accounted for around three per cent of journeys in the borough. The council hoped it could increase that to ten per cent by 2020, while reducing the number of car journeys from 40 to 35 per cent. "We wanted to give the streets back to the people," says Vala Valavan, Waltham Forest Council’s director of highways and traffic management.

Public consultation looked set to be a challenge. The number and variety of projects being proposed led the council to explore methods that went beyond the traditional leaflet drop or drop-in session. Commonplace, the company behind an online consultation platform of the same name, was brought in to help oversee the process and develop a strategy that would allow the council to gather views from residents about a series of diverse projects in different areas.

"The amount of information to be conveyed to residents was substantial" says Mark Bland, the council’s Mini Holland programme manager. The online Commonplace platform offered the authority greater scope and flexibility than traditional consultation techniques, he says: "It meant we could provide a lot more information and give residents a chance to comment on more of the detail," he adds.

Commonplace allows a large number of individual consultations to be hosted on one website where residents can view summaries of proposals, alongside drawings and photographs, and respond with their views. Feedback is published in real time, allowing future respondents to interact with previous comments or add their own opinions. The platform provides the consulting party with a dashboard that displays comments and engagement levels, and offers tools for data analysis

The team also relied on more traditional methods, organising more than 100 community events during the programme, including "pop-up" engagement sessions. While residents still had the option of providing feedback using paper forms, the vast majority chose to respond online, according to the council. It also says that the speed with which residents’ proposals could be analysed meant the Mini Holland team could quickly incorporate suggestions as part of the project design process.

Some of the Mini Holland proposals proved controversial. In particular, a number of residents and businesses objected to the council’s plan to close certain roads within the borough. A campaign group, E17 Streets 4 All, was formed and made vocal representations. However, analysis of responses made via the Commonplace platform found that 42 per cent were positive, 28 per cent negative and 30 per cent neutral.

Waltham Forest Council believes it was able to avoid the consultation pitfall of having the results skewed by a minority of loud voices. "A small number of people made a noise and it was very negative," says Valavan. In addition, the authority says that the approach taken allowed it to identify the views of residents that lived close to the proposed works, who it saw as the most important stakeholders.

These assertions were put to the test when E17 Streets 4 All launched a judicial review of what it described as a "sham" consultation process. In November 2015, Mr Justice Holgate ruled there was "no merit" in any of the allegations and ordered the group to pay £10,000 towards the council’s legal costs. "It is plain that the parties involved were fully able to make their objections and concerns on these matters known to the council," he said.

Almost 16,000 residents took part in the consultation over 18 months, according to Commonplace. Work is now underway to implement the agreed plans. Three of the borough’s 13 schemes have been completed and approximately seven miles of segregated space for cyclists had been provided by summer 2017. Initial results suggest the changes are having a positive effect. On Ruckholt Road, where a segregated cycle lane was installed in 2015, the number of cyclists using the road every day has increased from 341 to 641, according to the council.

In June, the scheme won the award for stakeholder engagement in the Planning Awards. Judges praised the innovative use of "real-time data collection" and noted an "impressive number of people involved in shaping their neighbourhoods".

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