Brilliant Bedfordshire campaigner Victoria Harvey has persuaded her council to look at alternatives to road building, and won a great bus service for a new estate.
In 2005 the small town of Linslade, Bedfordshire, was the scene of a bitter struggle. Protesters raised banners, blocked trucks and climbed trees in an attempt to stop the building of the Linslade Western Bypass, and two women were arrested for chaining themselves to a digger. One of them was Victoria Harvey.
"After we lost that campaign there was an appalling energy," Victoria says. "I wanted to prove to the people who'd protested in the cold that campaigning can make a difference."
So Victoria redoubled her efforts. Alongside other members of South Bedfordshire Friends of the Earth, and helped by Campaign for Better Transport, she continued to campaign against road building and for sustainable alternatives in Bedfordshire, with a lot of success.
According to Victoria, the qualities that define a good campaigner are: "A capacity for building friendships and a positive attitude." Fortunately for Bedfordshire and Planet Earth, these are two things she has in spades.
Finding real alternatives to road building
"I learnt a big lesson from the Linslade Western Bypass," Victoria says. "To stop a road from being built, you have to get in early." So when plans were announced for another damaging new road, the Wing Bypass, Victoria sprang into action.
When deciding whether to build a new road, local councils are supposed to look at a wide range of alternative solutions too, such as improved trains, buses and cycle routes. But all too often this doesn't happen: "This is where environmental groups can play an amazing watchdog role".
Victoria decided to ask a team of consultants to look into other ways of solving the area's traffic problems. And then, amazingly, she persuaded Buckinghamshire county council to partially fund the work. "The council agreed because we'd built up a relationship with them over time. It's also a good idea to suggest consultants that the council knows and likes."
The alternatives report showed that sustainable transport improvements would be much better for the area than a new road, and cost a fraction of the price. These conclusions came with expert backing, as Victoria had made sure the report's steering group consisted of top transport experts such as Stephen Joseph from Campaign for Better Transport, Lynn Sloman, and Peter Headicar from Oxford Brookes University. Their expertise impressed the council officers and the key councillor in charge of transport. "It really helped them to see transport from another perspective. They realised that a road does not solve everything and that sustainable transport is critical for the quality of life of the whole area," Victoria says.
But the report also had national implications. It showed that the Government's appraisal and funding systems favour road building and make it very difficult for councils to secure money for sustainable alternatives. "We hope it can become a blueprint for a new way of appraising transport projects," Victoria says.
New housing needs sustainable links
"A lot of campaigning is about building positive relationships. Don't always be anti-stuff!"
A new estate of 1,500 houses is going to be built in Leighton Buzzard: one of many new housing projects planned for ‘growth areas' around the UK. Believing that these developments need excellent sustainable transport links, Victoria put together an ambitious proposal for the Leighton Buzzard estate.
"We wanted two things for the estate," she explains. "Transport links should be good enough that families don't need a second car. And it should be easier for residents to get to the town centre and shop locally than to drive to an out-of-town shopping centre."
Victoria proposed that each house in the new estate should have a screen in its kitchen giving real-time information about local buses and trains. Each house should have secure cycle parking, mirrored by more cycle parking in the town centre. And the estate should be served by buses every 15 minutes, taking residents to town and the station. "I'm desperate to have a good bus service in Leighton Buzzard," Victoria laughs: "Then can die happy!"
It took a gargantuan effort, but Victoria managed to bring the council, the developers, the Government and local bus companies together behind the proposal. "If you're working with developers, be very nice to them," she advises: "They have lots of money! And don't assume they won't listen to you: they need community support in order to get planning permission. But beware: this won't take two phone-calls, it'll be more like 200!"
After 18 months of hard campaigning, Victoria secured funding for her ambitious plan: the developers and the council produced £6 million, the Government £1 million. This was an extraordinary coup: "The estate will be a national leader in how little people use their cars".
How to work with your local council
Key to Victoria's campaigning success is her relationship with her local council. "A lot of campaigning is about building positive relationships," she advises. "Don't always be anti-stuff! A lot of people in councils are doing their best for communities and sustainability."
Victoria's top tips for working with your local council are:
- First, build good relationships with one or two council officers: try cycling or public transport officers. They often have considerable expertise and really care
- Moaners are the bane of council officers' lives. Instead, offer to get stuck in and help them
- Never go to the press about meetings you've had with council officers: this is breaking trust
- Council officers can't lobby councillors; you can. This makes you useful to them
- Councillors aren't experts, so explain things simply
- If the council agrees to something you've been campaigning for, don't expect them to say so in black and white. But that's OK: good things are achieved through subtle wording
- When your council does something good, celebrate it
Keep hold of the reins
Working closely with others is vital, but don't surrender too much control. Victoria learnt this lesson the hard way when she organised a public meeting to talk with local people about the Wing Bypass alternatives report. The parish council got involved and turned it into a pro- or anti-bypass meeting: the alternatives report didn't get a look-in. "When running a public meeting, be very clear about who's in charge," she advises, "Even if it means cancelling the meeting."
It's also crucial to keep your eye on the ball when you're working with consultants. "You may think you've got the experts in, but you still need to be very clear about every detail of what you want from them, and remind them constantly. It's a big time commitment."
Put the time in
"The most effective campaigning is very slow," Victoria cautions. "Just because nothing happens for a while, don't feel you're not making a difference." It can also be a slog. "In order to make things happen you have to do the work – for nothing – that other, well-paid people should be doing but will never get round to. You'll make about 20 phone calls to get one officer, bus company or developer to one meeting (I've spent about a year on the phone!), but if the meeting happens you're winning. Don't be put off by the hard work involved. Anything you can do is much better than nothing."
Get the balance right
It's important to find a balance between public and political campaigning. "You need to do the small things that keep you in the press (planting trees goes down a storm!) as consistent press coverage makes the council listen to you and makes it credible when you threaten a hostile press campaign or a sit-in. But you also need to do the big, time-consuming things that make a real difference. A lot of people say I should prioritise, but I think it's important to do both."
And from time to time... stamp your foot!
After all this talk of sober, serious campaigning, you may be surprised by Victoria's last piece of advice... "From time to time, you must be prepared to really scream and shout. At one difficult meeting about the Leighton Buzzard development I literally stamped my foot and burst into tears. I was wearing high heels at the time... I think that might've tipped the balance!"