The word on the streets

The word on the streets

It takes a lot to prise a career civil servant away from Whitehall, but for Tony Armstrong the lure of campaign group Living Streets was too great to resist.
After spending most of his career in several different government departments, including the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit (NRU) when it formed in 2001, Mr Armstrong says he was ready for another challenge. But he admits his move raised eyebrows in some quarters.

‘Some people have said I must be mad leaving my civil servant’s pension for the voluntary sector. In a way, this is my perfect job because it brings together all those different policy interests that I have.’ In a career that has seen him work on transport issues, neighbourhood renewal and most recently the government’s strategy for tackling obesity, he appears well qualified to head up the UK’s biggest campaign group for pedestrians. One of his priorities will be to get pedestrians’ needs higher up the government’s agenda. He believes that right now, political opinion is receptive to Living Streets’ agenda.

‘What I can bring to this role is the knowledge of how government works,’ he says. ‘The things that worked for me as a civil servant was making it crystal clear the impact of what you’re proposing to do on a number of different policy agendas. ‘If we as an organisation can demonstrate the impact of involving people in the design of their streets then the government will listen to the message because it will help them hit their targets on climate change and sustainability.’

Another benefit that increasing levels of walking can bring is improvement to people’s health, he points out. But he argues there’s little incentive to go out for a walk if the physical environment is unpleasant. He sees many example of poor practice, including around the new St Pancras Station.

‘It’s a fantastic building and it was a good opportunity to get walking built in. But even around there with the road layout you’ve got barriers that mean pedestrians can’t walk across the road. You have to walk across three different roads to walk 40 yards. With a little extra thought at the planning stage, you could easily accommodated good transport systems and pedestrian-friendly walkways. Things like that are a missed opportunity.’

He is a firm believer that streets are better designed when local residents are involved. ‘When local people aren’t involved, the needs of fast moving transport gets prioritised. One of the most exciting projects that we are involved at the moments is the engaging communities project, which is funded by the CLG. We are working in a number of areas of the northeast to get a sense of how communities are taking more of a interest in their local environment and qualifying the impact.’

Mr Armstrong regards Living Streets’ network of active local branches as one of its main strengths and would like to build on it to make sure the organisation can articulate the concerns of local people to policymakers. He also hopes to develop the organisation’s consultancy services, including its community and street audits that are carried out for local authorities. A recent example of this was a study for Transport for London of mainline stations in the capital.

During his civil service career, he saw how improving the physical environment was often one of the first steps to regenerating an area. ‘My experience ofneighbourhood renewal is that in a lot of areas that have multiple deprivation, one of the first steps is trying to get people back at the heart of their streets. At the NRU, we found that those areas that had cracked the local environment were then able to tackle the more difficult problems of worklessness and health.’

While he admits the NRU didn’t live up to expectations in some areas, he believes a lot of good work was done in changing the culture and mindset around regeneration. He is ‘a bit nervous’ about the new focus on worklessness and fears of a loss of emphasis on community empowerment and holistic regeneration. ‘I’d be a bit worried if that got cut out.’ His views on neighbourhood renewal are partly influenced by a stint in front line regeneration. During his time at the NRU he was seconded to EB4U, east Brighton’s new deal for communities scheme. He recalls the experience as being a ‘huge eye opener’.

‘In government, it’s a cliche that you are in an ivory tower,’ he says. ‘It does not quite prepare you for the experience of working with residents in a deprived area. We were working in an office right on the estate in Brighton. There were tensions between what residents wanted and what the service providers wanted, but that worked really well in the Brighton NDC area. They respected people’s opinions and found a common way around problems.’

He is sad to see the back of the now defunct NRU where he spent several years of his career and says it was an exciting place to work in the early years, with a lot of the staff brought in from the outside who had hands-on experience of neighbourhood renewal. He remembers a culture of civil servants working closely with practitioners and community leaders, which he says made it better connected to front line delivery.

‘I think one of the things about the early days of the NRU was that willingness to take risks and accept that some things might not work,’ he says. ‘That always becomes a tension when you are using public money. The Treasury will never be relaxed about this, and quite rightly. You should never use public money for things if there’s a good chance you are going to fail. But I think we got the balance broadly right’