The Ombudsman, the council and a cycle lane muddle
12 March, 2020 — By John Gulliver
Nick Harding with his daughter Julia McCormack, crossing Prince of Wales Road
AN extraordinary muddle, involving the Ombudsman, the Town Hall, and senior councillors seems to have arisen over a new Kentish Town cycle lane.
And it has come to light – principally – because of the objections by a campaigning resident, Nick Harding, who first began to pursue them in 2018.
A senior councillor, Alison Kelly, who represents the area covering Prince of Wales Road – the site of the new cycle lane – is the borough’s Older People’s Champion. And she is adamantly opposed to the scheme which will – as she sees it – remove nine traffic islands for pedestrians from the road.
“We should be turning PoW Road into a safe pedestrian crossing street for local people – not a safer track for cyclists and motor vehicles,” she writes. Despite her seniority, her objections do not appear to have persuaded her fellow Labour councillors – including the leading proponent of the scheme, Councillor Adam Harrison – to change course.
Frustrated, Nick Harding then lodged a complaint with the Local Government Ombudsman, basically on the grounds that the council failed to inform the public that nine traffic islands would be lost in the scheme.
You would have thought that once the Ombudsman had accepted the complaint as worthy of investigation – which it did, last November – the council would be informed that it was going to look into it. And you would expect that Cllr Adam Harrison – who, as a kind of “cycle champion” at the Town Hall – would be aware of the judicial investigation then taking place.
Councillors Alison Kelly and Adam Harrison
However, and here there is it seems more of a muddle, Cllr Harrison actually sent an email to Nick Harding last November in which he makes it clear that the “council has not received any official correspondence” from the Ombudsman that it is “investigating a complaint…”
So while the Ombudsman, Rebecca Harrison, was sifting through detailed documents and examining the complaint from Nick Harding, all of which must have taken several weeks – she referred at one point to her “large caseload” – the council, which introduced the “cycle lane” project, is apparently oblivious that its proposal is being independently looked at judicially.
Thus we have two arms of local government – the council and the Local Government Ombudsman – each seemingly unaware of what the other is doing or, at least, unconcerned about it.
As it turned out, Nick Harding’s complaint was rejected by the Ombudsman last month – more on this later.
Now, you may also have thought that while what appeared to be a legitimate complaint was being looked into by a judicial body, the council would have “paused” the works for a few weeks but, again, you would be wrong.
I asked the council’s press office for information about this and a reply, from a “Media and Digital Apprentice” (a name is supplied), says “we were not required to pause works while this was being looked into”. I asked the press office a week ago under what legislation or government regulations this came – but no reply had been made at the time this column went to press last evening (Wednesday).
As is usual in these sort of schemes, a public consultation was dutifully carried out by the council and questionnaires were sent to nearly 1,000 households in Prince of Wales Road – including terraced houses and blocks of flats – and one or two streets off it, including Harmood Street.
The council claim that 78.4 per cent supported the project while 21.2 per cent rejected it.
However, an analysis of the figures by Nick Harding, a former chartered accountant, shows that of the 538 responses only 46 responses were from residents in the consultation area while 247 were from other parts of Camden and 239 actually from outside the borough. If this is an accurate breakdown of the responses to the consultation exercise then the claim of support made by the council needs to be re-examined. At a glance an exaggerated picture appears.
As for the Ombudsman, she finds against Nick Harding, pointing out that there was no “injustice” suffered by him.
Nick Harding’s main allegation that the council’s consultation documents did not include “information” showing the removal of the traffic islands was dismissed by the Ombudsman who said “comments” from the public responding to the consultation showed an awareness that “some” traffic islands would be lost.
She also says there may have been faults with the consultation process but they were not “significant” and no injustice was suffered.
If residents living close to the cycle lane still want to complain about it they can “approach” her, she writes in her findings sent to Nick Harding.
Finally, she emphasises that he would not suffer any “injustice” because he lives too far from Prince of Wales Road, 200 metres away, to be affected. Though she has “discretion” to look at how other members of the public may be affected there was again no “significant evidence” that anyone else has “experienced injustice”.
In this topsy-turvy world inhabited by local government officials and institutions, a world where a complaint by a resident can be dismissed because he lives 200 metres from the route of the new cycle lane, there seems no awareness of the numbers of people, commuting back and forth and up and down Prince of Wales Road, a busy road linking Haverstock Hill and Kentish Town Road.
In a spot check I contacted Father Graeme Rowlands, parish priest of St Silas Church, which lies a few yards off Prince of Wales Road. He is a familiar figure in the area, a priest known to hundreds of local residents, who would be expected to be known both to local councillors and officials. Yet, despite this, no contact was made to him about the scheme – he was only aware of it as it slowly transformed Prince of Wales Road. In a strange way, a symptom of what happens when council officials lose touch with the public.