Taxis in bus lanes public consultation to be ignored?

NewsTaxis in bus lanes

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Department declines to answer if stopping the ‘proposed experiment’ from going ahead is an option in current consultation

In a worrying development for devolved government and public policy, the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) looks set to plough on with an experiment to permit thousands of taxis into Belfast bus lanes regardless of any public objections to the plan.

Yesterday morning’s BBC Radio Ulster Stephen Nolan Show started with a segment on the taxi experiment, with the introduction as follows:

“What is the point of a public consultation? Is there any point of you ever engaging in one in this country?

“So there’s a public consultation about .. taxis using the bus lanes in Northern Ireland. The Department? Well they’re going to go ahead and do it anyway. They’ve already decided the one year trial, while they’re asking you to waste your time and engage in the public consultation anyway.

“Is that a waste of time, or what on earth is going on?”
The Nolan Show, BBC (26 June 2018)

DfI launched a public consultation on the experiment on Friday13th June 2018 (with no sense of irony, in the middle of Bike Week) but didn’t publicise it or seek views through its two main public-facing social media channels, Facebook and Twitter. The consultation lasts just three weeks, closing at 5pm on Friday 6th July 2018.

Bikefast can also now reveal that £160,000 of public money has already been committed towards the taxis in bus lanes experiment.

In the “DfI Roads Procurement Plan 2018/19” publication released this month, a consultancy contract was listed as awarded in May 2018 for survey work before and during the proposed experiment.

This raises more questions about the nature of the current public consultation exercise – is it just ticking a box for a policy which now cannot be reversed?

Bikefast asked the Department to clarify the situation with the following questions:

  • Will the Department proceed with the experiment, no matter how the public views the matter through consultation?
  • Is it best practice to commit public money (£160k for surveys) to a scheme which you have yet to consult the public on?
  • Is one of the outcomes of this consultation that the Department can decide not to proceed with the trial?
  • If not – if the Department is proceeding regardless – what is the point of consulting the public?
  • What happens to the £160k survey contract if the experiment were not to proceed?

In response a DfI spokesperson said:

“In 2017 the then Infrastructure Minister introduced a 12 week trial that allowed Class A taxis to use the Belfast Rapid Transit (BRT) bus lanes in East and West Belfast and the 12 hour city centre bus lanes linking the two BRT routes.

“The trial provided a snapshot of the volumes of traffic likely to use bus lanes if Class A taxis are allowed in. However, in terms of bus journey times and speeds the findings of the trial were largely inconclusive. The Department’s technical report on the 12 week trial concluded in part that the 12 week trial was not long enough to provide robust data for a study of this nature.

“The Department is now undertaking a more extensive trial which at this stage is intended to last 12 months. The proposed trial will be undertaken as an experimental traffic control scheme which, as permitted by legislation, will come into force initially for six months and be extended to the proposed 12 month period. While legislation would permit a further extension to 18 months, the 12 months trial time period will allow data to be collected on seasonal traffic flows and any other in year effects. It will apply to all bus lanes where certain taxis are currently permitted.

“In deciding to undertake this trial the Department has considered representations received during the recent consultation on 12 hour bus lanes on the Belfast Rapid Transit routes. The Department will also consider all representations received during the current ongoing consultation on the Experimental Traffic control scheme before commencing the scheme.

“The Department has commissioned transport consultants to gather and analyse data in advance of and during the period of the trial. This data will be used to allow a future minister to make a policy decision at the end of the trial.”

To compound the problems with the consultation exercise, the Department’s summary gives the impression to the public that this is a six month experiment, when it’s clear that it will continue on for at least a calendar year and possibly 18 months.

Comment

This is beyond worrying. In fact, the whole thing is a disgrace.

From the very start this policy has been fraught with u-turns, secretive meetings, serious contradictions with established priorities, and running dead against DfI’s Programme for Government commitments.

We’ve already seen that DfI’s unambiguous policy was to deny private hire taxi access to bus lanes, all the way into the purdah period in January 2017, when an unminuted meeting between Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard and party colleague Paul Maskey appears to have changed everything.

And Bikefast recently discovered that DfI concealed that policy u-turn by redacting a key document provided to Bikefast last year.

A 12 week trial went ahead which saw around 50% of private taxis actively avoiding using the bus lanes, and critically a huge PR campaign after just 6 weeks aimed at making the arrangement permanent before any trial data was available. This purely political pressure awaits within this “proposed” experiment, and DfI appear unable to resist such pressure.

This latest trial only came about, as DfI admit above, because of “representations received during the recent consultation on 12 hour bus lanes on the Belfast Rapid Transit routes“. This was a beautifully choreographed hijacking of a legislative consultation which was NOT about taxis in bus lanes – threaten Glider to get taxis into bus lanes.

Finally we have a troubling timeline of a poorly constructed public consultation. The experiment was initially announced only to bus lane objectors in March. In May £160k was spent on transport consultants for the experiment. Then (in the middle of Bike Week) a super-fast 3 week consultation on the experiment was launched with:

  • no public information events
  • the “Ways to respond” section with no active link
  • the “Share this consultation” section with no active link
  • only a return email address for correspondence, no postal address, telephone or textphone numbers
  • a summary which says the experiment will run for “6 months” when it will clearly run for 12 months
  • no proposed start date
  • no proposed end date

Now to top everything we discover through the Nolan Show and the press release to Bikefast that the Department is intent on proceeding with the scheme regardless of any objections received during the consultation process.

The sheer madness of this situation is perfectly summed up thus – the experiment was created as a result of people giving an inconvenient answer to an unrelated public consulation, but can’t be stopped by people giving an inconvenient answer to the actual public consultation on the subject.

There are serious questions here for the Department in terms of accountability in making such a controversial move in the absence of a Minister. DfI Permanent Secretary Peter May, or his senior officials if he prefers to hide behind a sacrifical underling, should be making themselves available to answer questions on the Nolan Show or elsewhere.

And if the public are being ignored by unaccountable senior civil servants, where are our politicians?


Sign the petition and lodge a formal objection – don’t let your voice be silenced

Bikefast completely disagrees with the idea of DfI or any public body using the statutory requirement to consult the public to draw a false veneer of accountability over a seemingly pre-determined course of action.

An objection is an objection and must be either:

  • accepted by the Department
  • withdrawn by the objector
  • set aside by the Department

On that final point lies the sticking point for DfI – is there a reasonable case for ignoring public views so which would stand up to higher scrutiny? This seems more likely to be tested with every clunking misstep in this deeply flawed process.

So make your voice heard, demand that DfI take your view seriously, especially if you agree that this experiment is simply the last step towards a quietly arranged permanent locking of private hire taxis in Belfast bus lanes – and the associated long-term damage to public transport and a liveable city.

Find out how to send your objection (or use our pre-crafted version) here.

Sign the petition and share it widely here:

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