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Roads to Nowhere

Sean helped to win a new cycle bridge

When a major new road severed the cycle route from his village into town, Sean Kelly decided to take action.

Sean lives in Wing, close to the border between Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Adults and children alike used to enjoy cycling the three miles from Wing into Leighton Buzzard, until a new dual carriageway was built, severing the cycle route.

"The route became very dangerous very quickly," says Sean. "Parents were now telling their children that they couldn't cycle into town." Wing is a village with few facilities, so without good transport links, Sean says, "People are trapped".

At first the county council said that it would like to build a cycle bridge over the new road, but when the road ran over budget, plans for the bridge were scrapped. Sean was shocked by the decision, and so were his neighbours.

"Everybody agreed we needed a safe crossing," he recalls. "We felt we had to make a big fuss."

And that's exactly what they did. Along with his neighbours, local cycle groups and South Bedfordshire Friends of the Earth, Sean organised the Campaign for Wing Hill Bridge. After an energetic media and political campaign, and one year on from a high-profile demonstration, Sean and friends were successful. Bedfordshire County Council at last agreed to fund the cycle bridge in April 2008.

Here Sean shares the secrets of his campaign's success.

"It's about creating the impression of organisation, intent and momentum so everyone takes you seriously."

Local support is crucial

Why did this campaign succeed where so many fail? Sean has no doubts: "We won because we had strong local support."

Sean found parents especially sympathetic: "I'm a father myself," he says, "And I want my kids to be able to cycle into town".  Now he just needed to turn that sympathy into action. "One mum said to me: 'When are the authorities going to do something about this?' I said: 'They're not – unless you do something'."

As well as talking to parents at the school gates, Sean put an information sheet in the local newsletter, handed out flyers and displayed posters in shops. Villagers didn't need much persuading: "It's a good cause, an obvious cause, and no-one can really be against it. In comparison to more controversial campaigns, that made our job easy!"

Get politicians on your side

Sean knew that getting local MPs and councillors on side was vital. He planned to put out a press release in advance of the demonstration, and he wanted it to include as many statements of support from politicians as possible. He got in touch by email, and found them sympathetic.

"I quickly learnt how you get an MP to send you a statement of support," Sean says wryly. "You write the statement yourself and get the MP's secretary to OK it!"

Over the following months, Sean kept up the pressure. For instance, when someone was knocked off their bike trying to cross the new road he encouraged them to email the politicians. "Never miss an opportunity to remind politicians of the issue," he advises.

Sean also reminds campaigners to say 'thank you'. "What politicians are after in the end is good PR. It's no good to them if they deliver and no-one thanks them!" So when the campaign for the bridge was successful, Sean made sure he gave credit and thanks to the politicians who'd supported it.

Give the press what they want

"It's the local press that matters in a local campaign," Sean says. He built a websitewhere journalists could find out more about the issues, and got a friend on board who knew about press releases.

When sending out press releases about the demonstration, Sean always attached photographs. This worked a treat: "If you find a good angle and attach a photo, local papers will often print your press release almost unaltered." But a warning note: weekly papers may not like to print something that the dailies have already printed, so make sure you give them a different press release and a different photo.

After the demo, Sean looked out for opportunities to keep the issue alive in the press. When a motorist was caught driving at 129mph on the new road, he wrote a letter to the newspapers reminding readers that the road was still without a safe crossing.

So why all this focus on the web and media? "It's about creating the impression of organisation, intent and momentum so everyone takes you seriously."

When running a demo, preparation is key

In April 2007 Sean organised a demonstration. This was local people's one big chance to show their support for a cycle bridge, and he was determined to get it right. He decided that the demo should take the form of a cycle ride and 'human bridge' across the new road, and made a number of placards that fitted together to form a message. That way, just a few people could line up to make something 20 feet long: the perfect 'human bridge'. Sean's exclusive placard-painting tip is to paint your background light grey, not white, "For photographic reasons. A white background 'burns out' in photos." His creativity paid off when all the local papers published the 'human bridge' image.

But to run a successful demo, you need to be practical as well as creative. "It's important to ensure your demo is both effective and safe," Sean cautions, "So talk to your local police in advance and tell them what you plan to do." In Sean's case two officers came along and stopped the traffic, and four campaigners also acted as stewards in high-visibility jackets.
After all that preparation, Sean slept badly the night before the demo, worrying that no-one would turn up. But his fears were unfounded. As he approached the demo site he saw: "A stream of people on bikes and on foot. I was so happy and relieved – I can't explain how good it felt." In total over 100 people took part.

As a final touch, Sean had produced a flyer especially for the motorists who were held up by the demo. "I wanted them to have sympathy for us, not be against us," he explains. The flyer included politicians' email addresses and at least 20 motorists sent emails supporting the bridge.

The sweet taste of success

In April 2008, Sean was on holiday in Ireland when he received a crackly phone call. It was the news he'd been waiting for: the council had agreed to fund the cycle bridge. "I was elated. It was a fantastic feeling. It's scarcely believable, but our campaign has succeeded."

So how did Sean celebrate that success? True to form, he laughs and admits: "I put a press release out!"

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