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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