Dave Hill: Do ‘Liveable Streets’ policies penalise the poor?

Dave Hill: Do ‘Liveable Streets’ policies penalise the poor?

A couple of weeks ago, Tower Hamlets Labour councillor Puru Miah drew attention to concerns raised with him by some residents of his Mile End ward about proposals for reorganising local streets to encourage more cycling, walking and public transport use. The Labour-run council’s Liveable Streets programme, whose genesis pre-dates the Covid crisis and Sadiq Khan’s Streetspace schemes responding to it, provides funding for 17 parts of the borough overall, covering around 60 per cent of it. Tower Hamlets Mayor John Biggs says the schemes “will dramatically change the look of local areas, reduce congestion on our roads and improve health and wellbeing”. So what is Councillor Miah’s problem?

In a video (embedded below) he argued that divided views among residents about Liveable Streets should not been seen simply as “cars versus bikes” but as reflecting issues about “class and inequality”. Miah is a confirmed Momentumite, seemingly undeterred by Labour’s string of election defeats under Jeremy Corbyn. It is, then, unsurprising, that he interprets disputes about Liveable Streets in terms of working-class and ethnic minority disadvantage, recruiting to them to familiar Protest Left narratives about “social cleansing” (which I regard as simplistic and misleading populism) and “gentrification” at the expense of the least affluent (ditto). Moreover, I cannot tell how representative of the views of local people those he reports are.

But for all that, Miah articulates anxieties about the types of measures the Liveable Streets programme entails that aren’t uncommon – anxieties that cycling activists and environmentalists can sometimes be too quick to dismiss or even ridicule. He makes the point that a low income family’s car can be an “entry point” source of income and the only really practical form of transport for large families. “It seems like the poorest in our community are being asked to bear the burden,” he says. He also argues that Liveable Streets-type changes have the effect of pushing up property values, making private sector rents and homes for private sale more expensive.

At one point Miah refers to the Waltham Forest “mini-Holland” programme, which was funded by Boris Johnson when he was Mayor. It is an interested case study. Large claims are made for its success, but not everybody is convinced by the research. The social composition of residents who protested against its introduction was pretty much unmissable. And there seems little doubt that special cycling provision and low traffic neighbourhoods appeal to the sorts of people who can afford higher rents or own a house (cycling in London is, after all, overwhelmingly a transport choice of the more affluent). If more such people are attracted to any neighbourhood, it is unlikely to push housing costs down.

None of this argues that Miah and unhappy Tower Hamlets residents are necessarily right. Miah himself has asked only for an equalities impact assessment to be conducted, rather than for the Liveable Streets programme to be dropped. Also, there are well-argued cases that the least well-off and powerful actually have the most to gain from the types of changes to London streets that Mayor Biggs wants to make in his borough. He argues his position here. In Islington, even Corbyn has been an advocate.

Experience and Tower Hamlets political history suggest that Biggs and his close colleagues will have long been alive to the possibility of objections such as Miah’s, and made provision accordingly. Meanwhile, the Covid crisis has created its own problems. It will be interesting to what happens next. But we can already reflect that such objections are not confined to Momentumite agendas. Champions of “living streets” values sense that the pandemic has given them an opportunity to advance their cause. They need to take seriously those who feel they will lose out from the changes they have in mind if they are going to make the most of it.

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Categories: Analysis


  1. John J White says:

    In a nutshell the Liveable street schemes will lead to cleaner air and the cost of this is a small amount of inconvenience to some residents who may have to drive a bit further.

    Cycling isn’t a question of choice for many it is a financial necessity.

    Liveable Streets is just getting going in Tower Hamlets. Those opposing it have been very vocal, but I guess that is always the case.

    Key objections being rolled out are: “anti-democratic (it was prominently in the local Mayor’s manifesto so that doesn’t hold up); it is being rushed through without adequate CONsultation (the CON emphasis is used prominently in campaigns) when in reality consultations have been going since at least July 2019; it will divide the community (parallels with the Berlin Wall and Palestine have been made on numerous occasions) and yet one would think getting people out of cars brings people together?

    The black taxi lobby is a key element of the “anti-campaign” and has produced a video “The Only Way is Bow” emphasising the negative effects on business. But all homes and businesses will still be accessible under the Bow scheme. Journies may be longer in distance, but not necessarily in time (local residential streets will be a lot emptier without the rat-running traffic on them.

    Claims that the pollution will be moved onto roads where the poor live actually don’t hold up to examination. City Hall data shows if anything the opposite will be true as the two key roads likely to see an increase are Mile End Road and Grove Road which have many “posh” townhouses on them.

    The streetscape schemes popping up over London in reaction to COVID-19 aren’t massive capital cost projects and neither too are the Liveable Streets schemes. They can quite easily be adjusted and fine-tuned when they go live.

  2. Not a cyclist says:

    ‘Those opposing it have been very vocal, but I guess that is always the case‘ A rather dismissive statement mouthed off without regard to the people who it affects

  3. Concerned resident says:

    This has also happened in Islington where there has not been appropriate consultation. Large areas [East Canonbury] has had local roads closed, resulting with isolating vulnerable residents and journeys being pushed to major roads which are now becoming gridlocked

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