Happy 10th birthday to the ‘Mini Holland’ poster child

It’s been 10 years since Waltham Forest secured £27m funding from the London Mayor to create a ‘Mini Holland’. The far-reaching success of the programme illustrates the importance of genuine leadership, holding your nerve in the face of adversity, and understanding what the majority thinks, not just what the minority shout, says John Dales

04 June 2024
Clyde Loakes, a protester and, of course, a coffin
Clyde Loakes, a protester and, of course, a coffin
A ‘continuous crossing’, though not a ‘real’ one, according to recent research by Living Streets
A ‘continuous crossing’, though not a ‘real’ one, according to recent research by Living Streets
Orford Road in Walthamstow Village, once full of traffic, now typically full of people
Orford Road in Walthamstow Village, once full of traffic, now typically full of people
Francis Road, after it, too, had received the ‘Orford treatment’ Road scheme
Francis Road, after it, too, had received the ‘Orford treatment’ Road scheme

 

Once upon a time, on my birthday in 2013 to be precise, the then Mayor of London launched his ‘Vision for Cycling’ in the city. I forget what became of the Mayor himself, but I consider that his Vision for Cycling has left an extraordinarily positive legacy for London.

One part of that legacy celebrates its own birthday this year – its 10th – and can trace its origins directly to what the Vision document said on the subject of “‘Mini-Hollands’ in the suburbs”. Noting that, “Cycling in Outer London is mostly low, with great potential for improvement”, the Vision promised to “increase cycle spending specifically dedicated to Outer London from £3m to more than £100m”.

More specifically, the Vision launched a competition for this funding, announcing that, “We will choose between one and three willing Outer London boroughs to make into ‘mini-Hollands’, with very high spending concentrated on these relatively small areas for the greatest possible impact. In many ways, this will be the most transformative of all our policies.

“This is a fantastic opportunity for these boroughs to achieve dramatic change – not just for cyclists, but for everyone who lives and works there. The idea, over time, is that these places will become every bit as cycle-friendly as their Dutch equivalents; places that suburbs and towns all over Britain will want to copy... The main focus will be on replacing short car trips within the target borough(s).”

I’ve quoted quite a few words just there, but I imagine it was the mention of “very high spending” that most caught the attention of several London boroughs.

In fact, I know it did, because I was working for a few of them at the time and, for a while, they could talk of little else. As you may know, there are 33 ‘boroughs’ in London (including the Royal ones and the Cities), but I believe 14 of these are classified as ‘Inner’, so that left 19 ‘Outer’ boroughs competing for the cash. Of these, I seem to recall, that one or two despised cycling so much that they didn’t even bother to bid, and a few others did little more than go through the motions.

My feeling, at the time, was that there were no more than a dozen boroughs really in the running, making it a 25% chance that one of these would scoop a jackpot of around £25-£30m for creating a ‘Mini-Holland’ in their patch. Decent odds for a ton of cash.

Of course, you really had to want it. By which I mean, you had to convince the Mayor, specifically his ‘Cycling Czar’, Andrew Gilligan, that you would use the money well and – most important of all – that your politicians would let you do so.

From what I knew in advance, I would only have picked one of the three boroughs that were ultimately awarded the full funding in 2014. However, I have been pleasantly surprised by how well one of the other two (Enfield) has stepped up to the mark. As for the third (Kingston), I remain unsurprised that one of the flagship schemes in their bid – a floating cycleway in the Thames – was never built (and should never be).

The one borough of the three that I would have guessed would be a funding winner was the one that, I think it’s fair to say, has become the poster child of the entire ‘Mini-Holland’ initiative. Or the bête noire of the whole idea, of course, if you’re one of those people who thinks we should just Carry On Driving, or has something against people starting to cycle because they don’t find the prospect terrifying any more, or thinks ‘cyclists’ constitute an all-powerful lobby group, despite the overwhelming (and, frankly, incontrovertible) evidence to the contrary.

As you will already have realised (from the photos - or indeed the sub-title the editor has kindly given this piece!), I’m talking about the London Borough of Waltham Forest.

A couple of weeks ago, with the aid of the editor’s colleagues, LBWF (as I shall henceforth call it here), celebrated the 10th anniversary of having been given £27m by the Mayor to spend on making many of the borough’s neighbourhoods and busier streets safer, easier and generally more attractive to cycle through and along. Deniz Huseyin gave the event a write-up in the last issue of LTT, and you could do little better than to read his piece, if you haven’t already done so.

One of the things you’ll learn from that article is that LBWF soon realised that, despite the ‘Mini-Holland’ soubriquet for the initiative, there was much more that they could and should do with the massive wodge of cash than focus their efforts purely on cycling.

To be quite candid with you, I never much cared for the ‘Mini-Holland’ moniker, either. Apart from anything else, I’m not a fan of anywhere trying to be like somewhere else. I’m a massive fan of somewhere becoming better, and I don’t mind referring to other places by way of saying “better looks like that”. But the funding was to make cycling more attractive in London, not make London like Holland (or, more correctly, the Netherlands).

Then, there was also a high risk that the title would simply provoke a knee-jerk backlash (which it did) along the lines of “London’s not Amsterdam”, which, in all fairness, it isn’t (and, repeating myself, should never be).

I also, as many of you know, have something of a horror of calling perfectly decent ideas “a thing”. So-called “shared space” is such a thing and so, too, are many things known by TLAs (three-letter acronyms). I’d also put “15-minute Neighbourhoods” up there.

They’re really just “Neighbourhoods like many of us grew up in, especially those of a vintage who later became car dependent and now fail to realise that their yearning for the ‘good old days’ is at odds with their visceral dislike of anything they can construe as likely to make driving less convenient”. Good luck with the acronym for that.

Anyway, perhaps for these reasons and/or perhaps for others, LBWF soon changed the branding of its programme to Enjoy Waltham Forest. The longer version is Walk – Cycle – Enjoy Waltham Forest, but the shorter version sums up what the focus of the whole endeavour is, or at least became: to make LBWF a better place in which to live, work, be, invest, and get around in ways that are healthier and better for everyone (even those who later became car dependent and...).

That’s the thing, isn’t it? Transport is a means to an end (a derived demand), or so the transport planning mantra goes. It’s not about travel so much as it’s about the places we travel to and from. I love cycling, but if it weren’t also good for towns and cities, as well as for the health of those in the saddle, I’d simply call it a hobby. As for walking, its value in terms of public health (both physical and mental), social cohesion and economic vitality, goes alongside – and possibly transcends – its value as a mode of transport.

Almost no-one in LBWF (or anywhere) defines themselves in terms of the means by which they move; they’re just interested in getting about in the way that seems best to them, and in enjoying wherever they happen to be.

When more people are able to walk, wheel or cycle more often, the places they move through – including the streets where they or others live – become better because of the reduction in motor traffic. And here’s a thing that those who claim to speak on behalf of ‘drivers’, as well as those who resist the reduction of traffic on one street because they claim it must make traffic worse on other streets, fail to grasp (knowingly or otherwise).

There is only one way of dealing with all the downsides of motor traffic – congestion, pollution, road danger, greenhouse gas emissions, social inequity – and that is to have less motor traffic.

Anyone who claims otherwise, or who objects to any given attempt to reduce traffic without having more credible alternatives, is not seriously interested in making things better.

There’s a saying, often incorrectly attributed to either Confucius or George Bernard Shaw, that goes, “People who say it cannot be done shouldn’t interrupt those who are doing it”. And there’s another saying, correctly attributed to the fictional character Yoda, that goes, “Do, or do not. There is no try.” Both carry with them the idea that actions speak louder than words.

And so it has been in LBWF. Over the past decade, there have been many naysayers on the subject of the Enjoy Waltham Forest project, and some are still ploughing their futile furrow. It’s not that everything has been perfect, or that there haven’t been some mistakes along the way.

But the project was not only necessary in principle, it has been shown by study after study to have had remarkably positive effects in practice. The latest such study, published in the Journal of Transport and Health just this March, covers all three of the London ‘Mini-Holland’ programmes.

So much has been written about the LBWF and other initiatives, indeed, that I wasn’t at first sure what more I could add that would be worth your reading. In the end, I thought I’d leave the conventional evidence to others – the data and the objective findings – and dwell on the more human factors, of which there are plenty.

You may recall my having noted, above, that one of the key factors determining who got the ‘Mini-Holland’ millions was the extent of buy-in to the project from the key politicians. In this regard, it’s hard to over-estimate the positive contribution that Councillor Clyde Loakes has made to the success of the LBWF project. It was his name is under the Foreword of the December 2013 bid document, and it’s he who has provided leadership to and cover for officers and their consultants and contractors over the years since then. Without Clyde, all the good that has been achieved in the past decade may well not have come to pass.

If I recall correctly, he had responsibility for the programme because that was his job, as Deputy Leader of the Council and Portfolio Lead for the Environment, and not at all because he was ‘a cyclist’ or any form of what might now be considered an active travel evangelist. His initial lack of knowledge and experience relating to the kind of measures the programme embraced made him unprepared for the kind of concerted, vehement and sometimes nasty opposition that the idea of closing some neighbourhood streets to through traffic or taking space on busy streets for cycle lanes provoked. Some of the protests involved marchers carrying a coffin as a sign of their fear that ‘traffic filters’ installed to cut out through-traffic would be the death of the shops and other businesses on a particular street, Orford Road.

Although we have now become used to the hyperbole that comes with such protests, accusations that some humble bollards were creating a ‘Berlin Wall’ or ‘Iron Curtain’ that made people ‘Prisoners in (Their) Own Village’ and proclaim ‘Don’t get old, ill or have a fire – no-one can get to you’ were new at the time. Although somewhat nonplussed by all this, Clyde held firm, and has been proved right in doing so.

Two particular and very important places in which he’s been proved right are at the ballot box and in the court of public opinion. Concerning the ballot box, you could have a look, as I have, at the local election results in 2014, 2018 and 2022. Focusing on three particular wards – Hoe Street (home to the poster child’s poster child, Orford Road), Grove Green (home to Orford Road’s sibling scheme, Francis Road), and Leytonstone (where Clyde Loakes has stood on all three occasions) – the results make excellent reading for Clyde and his party (Labour). The party won all three seats in all three wards on all three occasions, with its vote share going up notably from 2014 to 2018 and then broadly holding steady in 2022.

As for more general public opinion, one of the presentations at the 10th anniversary celebrations was by Mike Saunders of CommonPlace. He showed a couple of slides that should be of interest to anyone who wants to understand if the noise that often accompanies schemes that promote walking and cycling is representative of how most people feel.

One showed a remarkable, positive change in how people felt about LBWF’s Lea Bridge Road before the scheme there was proposed, and how they felt about the proposal itself. Another showed a generally strongly upward curve of positive public sentiment averaged across all the sites in LBWF at which CommonPlace had assessed this factor each year from 2017 to 2023.

I’ll start to finish by citing some other rather revealing research into human factors related to the Enjoy Waltham Forest programme. In 2015, perception surveys were undertaken ahead of the proposed scheme to introduce protected cycle tracks along the Lea Bridge Road. The findings that I found most revealing concerned how little local business owners know about the travel habits and aspirations of their actual or potential customers.

The businesses thought, for example, that 63% of their customers used cars to get to Lea Bridge Road, whereas only 20% of visitors themselves said they used that mode. Unsurprisingly, therefore, 57% of businesses thought better car parking would help improve access to Lea Bridge Road for their customers. However, this wasn’t in the top four of things that visitors said they wanted, the top-rated improvement being better crossings, followed by less traffic.

Despite this misunderstanding, there was very close agreement between businesses and visitors about the general changes they’d like to see on Lea Bridge Road. In the top fours of both groups were: less traffic, more attractive streets, and more street greening.

So, where does all this get me in terms of my reflections on a decade of the Enjoy Waltham Forest programme? Well, firstly, and perhaps most importantly, I can summarise all the data I’ve seen by the simple phrase “it works”. However, as I’ve hinted, I’m more interested in the general lessons that can be learned concerning how best to ensure that similar programmes, or even single schemes, can be implemented, and sustained, in other places.

This is all the more important given the rhetoric of this (just) present government, which has emboldened those who are resistant to any changes that seem to threaten the ease with which they can drive and park, and indeed has sunk to the level of base national policy on conspiracy theories.

Across the country, schemes that offer the genuine chance for people to walk and cycle instead of going by car are opposed by those who seemingly can’t bear the thought of being inconvenienced in their own car use and who mistakenly think they see the chance for political opportunity. Noise is equated with the ‘voice of the people’ and good, necessary schemes are either stifled at birth or taken out as a result.

I do sympathise with some local authorities in this regard. The opponents of change know that, even though their arguments are self-interested and specious, the noise on social media, the emails, the FOIs, and perhaps the occasional ‘gilet jaune’ protest can simply wear down members and officers, both of whom also have other priorities to deliver on. However, what 10 years of Enjoy Waltham Forest show is that political courage pays off in terms of getting re-elected, generally better thought of and, crucially, achieving the benefits that the schemes were intended to deliver.

The Waltham Forest project also shows us the value of undertaking the right kind of surveys, the findings from which are so important is proving that the silent majority do not share the views of the noisy naysayers and that – who knew? – most people actually want their world, their town, their neighbourhood and their street better to be better places. To drive and park may be the chief end of a vocal minority, but the rest of us would simply love to be able to walk, cycle and enjoy where we live.

We may not have £27m to hand, but LBWF shows us how to go about making positive change, however large or small our budgets might be. Grasp the nettle of what’s necessary; provide genuine leadership; hold the course, while accepting touches to the tiller when appropriate; and make efforts to understand what the majority thinks, not just what the minority shout.

It’s a winning combination, and one well worth celebrating.

John Dales is a streets design adviser to local authorities around the UK, and a member of several design review panels. He’s a past chair of the Transport Planning Society, a former trustee of Living Streets, and a committee member of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety. He is director of transport planning and street design consultancy Urban Movement.

You can read more by John Dales and other leading transport experts here:

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