Colin's Cornucopia

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The Road Campaign

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Chapter 20

The Road Campaign

Coventry City Council issued a report early in 2001 proposing the provision of new traffic lanes at the junction of Hearsall Lane and the Allesley Old Road in Coventry. The chief officer of City Development addressed the Spon End Forum at least twice in the year preceding this and did not explicitly indicate their intentions.

For our part the Forum, of which I was chair, indicated very strongly the importance of the row of medieval houses in Spon End and their viability as shops and houses. I have, on a wall in my house, copies of three paintings which, at a casual glance, look very similar. They are all paintings of a row of medieval cottages. The first is of The Shambles in York which is very well cared for and is an internationally renowned national treasure. The second is of Butcher Row in Coventry which was bulldozed by Coventry City Council in 1936 to build a flower bed. The third is of Spon End which is just as pretty as The Shambles but is under threat from expansion of traffic flows on the major road which runs five feet from its frontage. The Forum set as a priority the protection of this treasure.

The City was offered £100,000 by the West Midlands Travel Authority to spend rebuilding the Hearsall Lane junction with a view to easing the passage of its proposed Bus Showcase. The principle behind this is that the Authority cannot persuade people to use its existing services so proposed to spend many millions introducing expensive new buses that few will use. The proposed  “improvements” would reduce passenger transit time by a few seconds at most and a sensible cost-benefit analysis showed a payback time of several thousand years.

The Forum determined to fight and prepared several strategic documents for presentation as a petition and at the appropriate scrutiny committee meetings. In the event the Forum was prevented from making its presentation because its opposition did not turn up to the previous council meeting and it was ruled unfair to allow the Forum to speak when its opposition had not.

The opposition, the Rivermead Residents Association, were actually a constituent member group of the Forum which caused much bitter infighting.  This group had been advocating the demolition of a row of watchmakers’ houses in the Allesley Old road, known as Stanley Terrace, which had been a fine example of modern housing when built in the late 19th century but were now somewhat the worse for wear.

The Rivermead group claimed the semi derelict houses were reducing the amenity value of their estate and attracting rats and squatters. One of the houses had had its front demolished by an ancient bus in 1948 and two adjacent houses had been demolished after one was wrecked by a gas explosion around 1965.

One of our local councillors, a good and active man, put together the offer of money from West Midlands Travel and the demands for demolition from the local residents and made a strong case within the council for reworking the junction. The city engineers, who had had it in their plans to turn the road into a major highway since 1945, seized upon the opportunity.

A plan was prepared and presented for “Public Consultation”. This term is council speak for “take no notice”. The plan as going ahead now is identical to the original plan with a few very minor concessions on the colour of paint for fencing and the landscaping of the area left after demolition of the row of houses.

The only thing that did happen was that the council and councillors learned that local people, effectively organised and determined, can cause much trouble for local government. The battle commenced.

There was a precedent to this battle. Some years earlier the council had proposed to demolish the Black Horse public house that was once in the same row of houses as Stanley Terrace. The councillors did not realise that a group of reporters from the local newspaper watered regularly in there and they conducted an unbeatable campaign to oppose the demolition of their pub. A senior council officer has stated several times in public that the council will not touch the Black Horse.

This effectively makes any plans to increase traffic flow through Spon End impossible as there is a severe restriction to two narrow lanes caused by the Black Horse. In addition we won a concession from City Development that all the existing development lines along The Butts and Spon End and Hearsall Lane would be removed after the Bus Showcase realignments. There is simply no way that more traffic lanes can be created under these circumstances. The juxtaposition of the Spon End Arches complicates the matter still further.

Any development of the Butts and Spon End would require backtracking on two major promises by the City, the demolition of the Black Horse, the purchase and demolition of two large commercial garages, the re-alignment of the road through the Arches and then the demolition of the whole row of medieval cottages, or building major carriageways so close to the buildings that they would become unusable.

All of the cottages are currently well used and house some beautiful homes as well as numerous viable businesses. Any further traffic enhancements will destroy this.

This was essentially the platform that I, and the Forum, took to battle. The council announced an exhibition in a local building to explain the scheme to citizens. I found out three days before the event and I went along and booked the room next door so that anybody wishing to visit the council exhibit had to pass my door first. Within 48 hours I had produced a counter-exhibition showing numerous photographs of the area and its architectural features and social benefits. I added slogans and exhortations and produced a worthy contender for the minds of visitors.
The council officers took it in good part and we actually manned each other's exhibitions to allow short breaks and I made some good friends amongst the staff. All-in-all the exercise was well worth while and numerous visitors eventually joined us as activists and helped create another centre of community.

The council called two public meetings. One was intended by them to be a closed affair involving only half a dozen of their chosen invitees. We caught wind of it and took around twenty of our supporters. There was much debate and some of it quite acrimonious. The internal Forum split became quite acute and tempers flared. A photographer took a picture of one of the Rivermead group and sent it to me labelled “Mr.Nasty”.

One of the senior council officers said something to me that offended others amongst our supporters although I was not particularly offended by his comment. A formal complaint was put in against the officer and I was interviewed by two council officers acting as investigators. I stated that I had not been offended but others had. The matter was eventually completed without action against the officer concerned who is a good and honest man and, like all strong people, able to rub others the wrong way.

The second public meeting was a much bigger affair and held in the Railwaymens Club in Spon End. The meeting was very well attended and was chaired by officers from City Development so that its outcome was foregone. Nevertheless, the objectors gave the councillors and officers plenty of food for thought.

Another major meeting was called by the Forum. We pushed notices through every door between Spon Gate bridge and the top of the Allesley Old Road. Our theme was that the council intended to turn the Allesley Old Road into a major highway and I still believe this is their long term objective. They have made quite clear their intention to downgrade the Holyhead Road so there is no alternative. The meeting at the Maudslay public house on the Allesley Old Road was packed and I did all the speaking for the Forum. I had prepared a good photo presentation and spoke for nearly an hour. We were well received and our efforts ensured good attendance at subsequent protest and opposition meetings.

After this meeting we were talking with a group of people who lived in the immediate area of the junction and advised them to start their own community group. For several weeks after this both we supported them to form a community group known as the Chapelfields Area Residents and Traders Association (CARTA). This body is to feature much in the following chapters of this narrative.

The road battle was fought by numerous people for a period of over six months. The outcome was inevitable. The watchmaker’s houses were demolished and the new road junction was implemented. The councillor who had been the main supporter for the scheme lost his seat at the May election that year and the other councillors and officers learned not to mess with the few remaining medieveal features of the city.

The situation now is that two lanes of traffic will sweep from Hearsall Lane round a two-lane corner and immediately come face-to-face with the Black Horse. One day an out of town driver in a 40 ton truck is going to come round that corner alongside a bus and one of them is going to go right through the Black Horse. The council will then have no need to seek a compulsory purchase order and will save much of the cost of demolition. It will be very interesting to see what happens then.

So ended my most militant period.


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