You Can Change The World! Or At Least Your Little Bit Of It …

Next week will mark something of a red-letter day in our neighbourhood. Because, all being well  (and we've learned to take nothing for granted) it will mark another success for people power. Because at last (and I'm touching a big lump of wood here) our new, and long fought for residents-only parking zone will come into force. And, boy, has it been a long, long wait!

For years  now our neighbourhood has been blighted by parking problems. The transformation of the nearby general hospital into our city's main 'Superhospital' – super modern, super efficient and super big caused unwanted and, apparently by the authorities at least unforeseen side effects. Employees, both medical and clerical, began to use the streets immediately surrounding the hospital as a car park. As each new department transferred over, the parking problems worsened. When those streets became so clogged that residents could no longer access their own homes, several of them became residents-only parking zones and this all but solved the problem for those residents. What it also did, of course, was force the problem, and the displaced cars, outward into the surrounding suburb.

For its part the hospital did claim to have provided parking for every employee who had requested it. This provision, however, involved hundred of workers parking on the other side of town and being shuttled in to work. And, of course, if your employer is going to charge you, albeit a nominal amount, to park at work, and there are dozens of surrounding streets to park in for free … It was obvious to everyone who lived in the area that the situation was quickly going to get out of hand and before long, every weekday just about every house in every street, road and lane within about a mile of the hospital had a non-residents' car parking in front of it. The local council made plenty of sympathetic noises, without ever actually seeming to do anything to improve things. Oh, there was plenty of talk about negotiations with the hospital trust. About potential new car parks being built. About schemes to promote the use of public transport. And about the hospital trust finding a few more parking spaces on its own grounds. But it was just talk. Time after time, the local residents voiced first their concern, then their anger, about the worsening situation. And about the need either to provide a huge free car park or bring new traffic restrictions right across the area. But, as anyone who's ever had to deal with bureaucracy can tell you, there's no fast response. Countless letters of complaint appeared in the local newspaper. Even the local television and radio networks covered the story. Locals did everything they could to keep the story in the news but it seemed neither the council or the hospital trust were in any hurry to remedy the situation.

By the time the hospital was finished just about every local street was clogged with the parked cars of thousands of hospital workers. We aren't talking about a heavily built up area, but a quiet suburb with only two main roads and hundreds of small streets, winding avenues and narrow lanes. Our lane is very narrow, with only 30 houses and regularly we've been getting up to 28 non-resident owned cars parked in it – most of them parked in front of the first 20 or so houses. Drive access was narrowed, or even blocked, views were obscured too. As you can imagine even on a light day, with so many cars parked on a narrow lane, and often on the pavement or grass verges (to make room for cars to park on the other side of the lane), it proved difficult, not to mention dangerous, for householders to get their cars out of their drives. One neighbour had had to park his work van on the road outside his house every night because he literally couldn't get out of his drive because of the parked cars. We even saw one hospital worker park her car in front of our house then remove a fold-up bicycle from her boot before cycling down the pavement to complete her journey to work and, presumably, impressing some boss or other with her eco-awareness …  

Enquiries to the council and the local police proved reasonably fruitless. The police were very sympathetic but, thanks to the decriminalisation of parking violations some years ago, were unable to do little other than 'have a quiet word'  unless a drive was completely blocked. And if the law is not only unhelpful, it's also quirky. While it is illegal to drive on to, or drive off a grass verge, it is not illegal to simply be there. So unless such a driver is seen by a police officer, nothing can be done. I know, how do we suppose they got there? Apparently the law doesn't cater for common sense.

Month after month the problems continued, worsened even. People chatted in the streets, debated over garden walls, moaned at bus stops and generally tut-tutted. And continued to protest to the council.  We pointed out that at the very least having the streets so clogged with parked cars was dangerous. To drivers trying to use the roads, get in or out of drives while unsighted and to pedestrians (particularly the children at the nearby nursery and primary school) as they attempted to cross the streets. You simply could not see up or down the street to check for oncoming traffic. And heaven only knew what would happen should a fire engine be required to drive along the lane. But without any actual law-breaking taking place we were rendered mute. 

Or at least we thought we were. Eventually, having been bombarded daily for months on end by emails from irritated voters, our local councillors announced that a solution was in hand and that the issue would be discussed at the next council-organised neighbourhood forum. Hundreds of locals attended, determined to put our case to the council, the police and the hospital trust and eager to learn what they intended to do. The presentation was all very pretty. The councillors seemed very proud of it. A map of the area was displayed with various coloured lines marked on many of the streets. A quick check with the key told us that streets so marked would either be declared no-parking zones, or restricted parking zones or even painted with double yellow lines. But an even quicker glance at the map showed that a number of streets - our lane and an entire housing estate nearby among them - were to have no extra provision whatsoever. And several of those that did faced measures entirely unsuitable for their location. One lane where only two houses had off-road parking was listed for double yellow lines. To be honest it looked as if a council official had let their six-year-old loose on it with a box of crayons. Although, on reflection, they'd probably have made a better stab at it. 

What just about everyone wanted was a residents-only parking scheme, like the one introduced years earlier to clear the streets nearest the hospital. And it seemed the least likely measure to be taken. One local councillor tried everything in her power to dissuade us. The 'conversation' went something like this. 

It was difficult. Well, couldn't we at least look into the idea?

It might be refused. But it might not! 

It would take a long, long time. So hadn't we better get started then?

Eventually, under a barrage of frustration and anger she agreed to 'begin the process'. We were warned it might take a year. It's now taken more than two and in that time a situation we were convinced could never be worsened certainly was. And there have been setbacks. Eventually, eighteen months ago, the council sent each household a questionnaire, or consultation document as bureaucracies like to call them. It outlined the plans for our residents-only parking zone and gave us the option to vote yes or no, and to express any concerns. Thankfully, despite a few hitches along the way - certain streets voting 'no' en masse, objections of principle and so on, the restrictions were approved, locally at least. Then came waiting. A lot of waiting while layer after layer of approvals were passed and random objections dealt with. Even after the scheme was passed there were delays, and an initial introduction date of January stretched to April, then July. The most recent delay caused by re-surfacing works where temporary parking restrictions were put in place for two days so that work could be done to allow permanent parking restrictions.

The thing is, it would have been all too easy to give up. Accept our fates and forget ever having our quiet residential streets restored. As it is, we may never return to the way things were. We now get more traffic than we used to. And litter dropped from passing vehicles. But at least the heavy parking wills cease. We persevered. If anything, stepped up our campaign, made our voices heard. And, on this occasion, got something done. As we did a few months later when the local bus company wanted to remove our bus service from the city's bus station. It won't always work, but people power is pretty strong when we join together.

And what have we learned these past few years?

If you don't complain no-one else will. It takes someone to start it off. Others will likely follow. 

That if you and your immediate neighbours feel strongly about something, the chances are that lots of other people do too. One person complaining to the council, or the police, or whoever about something is a distraction that can be shrugged away. Two hundred people doing it is something that needs dealing with. Properly.

If you don't at least register your disatisfaction you stand no chance of getting a decision reversed or a measure introduced.

Don't be fobbed off by fluffy or nonsensical answers from those in authority. If they fail to answer your question, ask again. If you sense they're giving you the usual spiel, ask for more detail. If their answers don't seem to make sense, tell them why and ask them to rethink. 

It will be tough. It's not like it is in the movies. Real-life campaigns take months if not years to bring to fruition. You need to be patient. But if it's important enough, you can be patient enough.

Writing letters to the local paper is a great way of garnering support. And of encouraging likeminded people to speak out too. 

Keeping in contact with your local councillor, on a daily basis if necessary, serves two purposes. You can keep up-to-date with what's happening (or not) and they can't forget your issues. Make yourself the most irritating part of their day if necessary. You'll be surprised how urgent something becomes if it never goes away.

Speak up clearly, be respectful and polite at all times and you'll be surprised how willing people are to listen. Be rude and rant and you'll be ignored.

Accept that, despite your efforts, it may not work. But you have to make the effort to make a change. And, at least you tried your best.

We are all more powerful than we think. We may not hold high office or make laws, or even enforce the laws, but we count. We matter. We just have to make our voices heard.

I'm thinking of starting an organisation: People Power : We Get It Done … this time at least.