Take a letter

Earlier this year we heard that Spokes, the Lothian cycle campaign, considered their letter writing members to be a valuable asset in their work. As we found out with the Bridge Street consultation, each letter counts.

Sometimes the hardest part of letter-writing is finding who to contact. A superb source of local information is The A-Z of Council Services in Cambridgeshire 1998. A few hundred thousand copies of this were distributed earlier this year. You should still be able to find copies in libraries and council offices. It is also published on the Web:
http://www.camcnty.gov.uk/sub/az/azind1.htm

We have also been collating a list of useful addresses and phone numbers for reporting cycle-related problems in the Cambridge area. The most up to date copy is at the back of every Newsletter.

Last May we were in Edinburgh for the spring National Cycling Conference. We noticed a very well publicised information and suggestions service – the answer for pretty much any transport question or query was ‘Phone Clarence.’ Clarence was a figure like helpful Hector the tax man.

The nearest thing in Cambridge seems to be the Freephone Charterline (0800 243916) which is billed ‘for any enquiry about the County Council.’

If you are seeking facts to back up a letter, the Cambridgeshire Collection, in the Central Library, is valuable. It’s packed with books, illustrations, newspapers and cuttings, periodicals and maps, and even a computerised, searchable, Ordnance Survey map.

The Local Government Information Service, based at Shire Hall, has an archive of Council reports and the staff are helpful.

There are several points to consider when writing letters. Some of these suggestions are taken (with permission) from Effective Letter Writing, a CTC leaflet.

Style

  • Be polite! It might be satisfying to attack someone verbally, but it can be very counterproductive. It’s unlikely to get you listened to. There’s a huge gap between being assertive and being abusive.
  • Be brief. Remember the person you are writing to is probably busy. Long letters and e-mails are unlikely even to get read all the way through, let alone replied to.
  • Write clearly. Avoid complex sentences. Make sure your letter is easy to read and digest.

Content

  • Get your facts straight. A few well-chosen statistics can lend enormous weight to your argument. For example, if you are commenting on lack of cycle parking, count how many times over a week or a month you have been unable to find a place.
  • If you have to cover more than one subject in one letter, use clear headings for each section.
  • Divide your points into numbered or bulleted lists. They are much easier to read, and to reply to.
  • A suggested remedy for a problem is more likely to be effective than a simple complaint.
  • Finish with a clear summary. Be especially clear about what you are asking the recipient to do. Make sure you send your letter to someone who has the power and authority to do it.
  • Think about the likely response. If you think your point might be dismissed with a particular answer, counter it at the outset. For example, ‘I would not accept the suggestion that…, because…’ This might save an entire round of correspondence.
  • Please avoid any statements that might suggest you represent the Cycling Campaign.

General Points

  • Make a point of re-reading your letter before you send it, preferably the day after you wrote it. Does it make sense? Have you checked the spelling?
  • Copying your letters to other (relevant!) parties can be a useful tool. For example, our article on bus driver behaviour was in part suggested by a letter which a Campaign member copied to us, describing a shocking incident.
  • Keep a copy of your correspondence. If you send us a copy of your original letter, please forward a copy of any response, too.
  • Do send a thank you afterwards if you receive help, or if you feel your point of view has been taken seriously. Aside from this being common courtesy, you never know when you’ll be writing to the same person again.
  • Personal letters are important. People expect lobbying organisations such as the Campaign to write. Letters from individuals are an important addition to the argument.
  • The County Council treats letters more seriously than faxes, e-mails and phone calls. Letters are logged, and must be replied to within a certain period. Faxes should be treated as letters, but do sometimes go astray. No formal records are kept of phone calls and e-mails, and these are sometimes not followed up.

It can be worthwhile writing.

For example, one Campaign member complained about the speed of vehicles on Histon Road. The Cambridge Evening News has since credited the use of speed cameras in the area to complaints made by residents.

Another member wrote to Sustrans and WAGN, about (lack of) cycle parking at Cambridge station. We saw a copy, and this spurred our interest in the subject.

So next time you feel like making a suggestion or a complaint, put it in writing!

Clare Macrae