Thursday, 27 June 2013

Acceptable passions

About ten years ago the then Regional Development Agency, Yorkshire Forward, launched a scheme to promote urban renaissance. The basic premise was that if the local authority set up a body to consult locals about the future of the town then they would stand a chance of getting Yorkshire Forward funding to put at least some of the schemes which emerged into place. The lure of cash was enough to bring about the formation of what was called Scarborough's Urban Renaissance. Led by a Town Team, originally composed of a selection of the great and good but later by whoever turned up, and supported by Action Groups for things like Arts and Culture, Urban Space and Tourism, we went to work on a Masterplan for the town with our discussions led by, and then turned into pretty plans, a Dutch group of urban designers. All very cosmopolitan.

Now I knew that the original idea for urban renaissance had come from the architect Richard Rogers. His fundamental hypothesis was that improving the urban environment makes a town a more attractive place to bring not only yourself but your business and your money. He was also clear that one of the major failings of UK towns and cities, as opposed to those in more progressive parts of Europe, was the way in which we'd allowed motor cars to dominate much of our public space. In short, we needed to make our towns and cities much more attractive for walkers and cyclists.

This was clearly not on the agenda of the conventional late middle aged men who tend to lead such bodies. What they were really interested in was using the renaissance process as a way to bring forward a few major projects which were already in the pipeline. To get around this I set up another action group, this time dedicated to walking, cycling and public transport. initially this was called the Walking and Cycling Action Group but later it became the Active Transport Group.

We did manage to get a few things done. For example, with support from the local health service we produced and distributed 10,000 copies a map showing all the areas which were within 15 minutes modestly paced walk of the town centre, and I became a member of the grandly titled Renaissance Executive. This body was made up of precisely the same sort of people as were parachuted into the original Town Team and served as the executive body of the new democratic Town Team. In other words, the old power structure couldn't help but reassert itself.

Because we're a relatively small town, but with a strong sense of identity and a tradition of civic engagement, Scarborough's Renaissance began to be seen as a model for similar schemes elsewhere. So much so that a few years later Yorkshire Forward decided to show off the renaissance process with an exhibition to be held in the town and all the action groups were given a deadline to produce a power point display of their work.

As far as I know, we were the only group to produce a display on time and ours took the theme of Active Transport. It began by explaining what it was and why it was beneficial and went on to look at examples from the town of both good and bad practice and ended up with a case study illustrating the institutional barriers that we faced when trying to implement one particular project (the provision of a simple poster telling visitors and residents which bus left from which stop).

Our display was rejected on the grounds that was was wanted was "promotion not education" and they replaced it by a series of generic slides showing people walking or cycling.

I remained Chair of the Action Group but felt that I had no choice but to resign from the Executive. And here's where we get to the point of this post. A few months after my resignation I spoke to a friend who had been there when my resignation was announced. It seems that a good number of them had been pleased because it was obvious that I must have been building a power base..

I can't imagine that you haven't noticed by now that I can become quite passionate about things that I think can make a difference. The first thing I realised from this affair is that people find it difficult to believe that other people might have motives that differ from their own. The second thing was that passion about anything other than money is suspicious.

In an earlier post "When winners write the rules" I considered the way in which the cynical view that all of our behaviour is ultimately self serving and competitive has been imposed upon us by the self declared winners.

Because this is an honestly held belief it means that anyone who "pretends" that they have other motives is bound to be being deceitful and is therefore not to be trusted.


  1. I guess the real question is, would the outcome have been different if you hadn't let your principles get the better of you, and had stayed on the executive rather than resigning?

    N.B. Gemma was recently in M√ľnster, Bicycle Capital of Germany and voted "most liveable city in the world" 2004. Ever been?


  2. My continued presence on that executive wouldn't have made a lot of difference to anything that eventually happened. On the whole they found it hard to pay attention to anything that didn't have 6 figure sums attached and my interests were always regarded with a certain bemusement.

    The situation now is strange in that some of the Action Groups keep going, people turn up and discuss things, but Yorkshire Forward has been abolished and the Council was only really interested in this sort of participation because they needed to do it to get the money.

    I've never been to Munster but there was a recent article in the Observer about Vienna ( supports the idea that making a city fit for cycling is a necessary pre-condition for making it fit for civilized life.