Last week, to a mixture of dismay and delight, Ealing Council removed all but one and a bit of the nine Low Traffic Neighbourhood schemes (LTNs) it had brought to its streets from July 2020 in line with statutory guidance issued by national government two months before.
The latter’s stated objectives were to “enable social distancing” and to “encourage walking and cycling” by “reallocating road space”. Transport for London, in desperate need of money from the government as Covid wrecked its finances but also broadly sharing the government’s “active travel” ambitions, had torn up its existing programme of support for borough transport initiatives (LIPs funding) and replaced it with its Streetspace programme.
To facilitate the changes it wished to see, the government put weapons in the hands of local authorities across the land in the form of Experimental Traffic Orders, which meant LTNs and other measures, notably special lanes on roads for bicycles, could be brought in at short notice without any prior consultation of local people. That would come later, after the schemes were in place.
Ealing’s leader of that time, Julian Bell, is an enthusiastic cyclist whose influence on transport policy in London continues to extend beyond his home borough: he is a member of the TfL board and of the transport and environment committee of London Councils, the body that represents all of the capital’s local authorities.
But he is no longer the leader of Ealing. Bell’s tenure came to an end in May, having already come close to it last September. He was a keen advocate of Ealing’s instant LTNs and other “active travel” measures. Under his successor, Peter Mason, almost all those LTNs have disappeared.
What happened? The short answer to is that, to torture a metaphor, Bell ran out of road. He’d led the council for 11 years, experiencing his share of scrapes, and the implementation of the new LTNs under his eager command helped tip the balance of the council’s Labour group against him. There were conspicuous and highly-publicised demonstrations against them and a (failed) legal challenge. Councillors were concerned that Bell had lost the plot and that they might lose their seats at the next borough elections.
Mason has justified the near-complete undoing of the LTN programme with reference to a Survey Monkey consultation conducted during July of this year. In all but two cases, one of which had already been radically reduced in size, large majorities of residents who took part were overwhelmingly opposed to the LTNs, as were those in roads at their borders.
Some backers of LTNs question the value of those results, but a previous Commonplace online consultation and the balance of emails to the council about the issues had also generated more expressions of opposition than of support. These figures were considered by the council’s cabinet in December as part of an interim report on the progress of the schemes.
Just prior to this, the government had sent out an update of its guidance, including more advice on consultation and engagement which TfL duly incorporated into its own guidance for boroughs. Having absorbed all this, Ealing then prepared a whole new set of Experimental Traffic Orders, with a new review date set for mid-August 2021.
Despite various efforts to undo the damage, Mason has plainly concluded that he cannot justify keeping in place schemes which, the available evidence suggests, are resented by a significant proportion of residents most directly affected by them. He says he is in favour of street design measures that encourage walking and cycling, but also that his approach will be to secure maximum consent for them before proceeding. Straight after becoming leader he committed to “giving local people control over change in their neighbourhoods” and recognising a need to “take people with us”.
Could this story have had a different ending if Ealing under Bell’s leadership had gone about things differently? A report for the council by consultants Urban Movement, produced last month, indicates that it might have.
The report’s closing reflections include that “the ways the council has engaged (and failed to engage) with local people over the implementation and the future of Ealing’s LTNs has been far from best practice”. It finds that by June of last year, even before the first of the LTNs was put in, the council had “lost control of the public narrative” about them, in part because provisional plans supplied to councillors had found their way to local residents, some of whom had reacted badly and moved fast to make their disquiet known, including about a feeling that, regardless of the pros and cons of LTNs, they were being railroaded.
Urban Movement records that the problem was compounded by perceptions of incompetence on the council’s part and a failure to convincingly address concerns expressed, such as the impact of traffic being displaced from some streets on to others. An identikit two-page letter from the council, delivered to residents one week before the LTNs began to come into effect, contained diagrams and made “a basic case for LTNs” but lacked supporting evidence for the benefits claimed for them, such as “modal shift” away from car use. References to LTNs preventing rat-running were irrelevant to residents of streets that didn’t suffer from it.
The Urban Movement report is not out of sympathy with the council and with officers obliged to react at the drop of a hat to unique pressures stemming from the pandemic. It also draws out the wider context for what went on, notably the muscling of TfL from national government levels: a letter to boroughs from TfL sent in June emphasised the need to swiftly allocate cash supplied by the government for it to allocate to active travel projects because “if we collectively underspend, across London this may well influence the DfT (Department for Transport) thinking on the next rounds of financial discussion”.
What will happen next is not yet clear. The latest update to the government statutory guidance, issued at the end of July, imposed new consultation requirements to be “undertaken whenever authorities propose to remove, modify or reduce existing schemes” as well as when the propose to bring in new ones.
It is no secret that Boris Johnson’s special adviser on transport is a major force behind this: he personally announced that “funding has been stopped, pending further discussion” to Ealing and six other London boroughs which had removed active travel schemes, and has demanded greater pressure be put on boroughs that decline to do what he wants. Such is the control Boris Johnson’s team currently exerts over TfL, with which Ealing continues to discuss future local transport funding.
Meanwhile, the larger lesson of Ealing’s LTN experience does seem to be that bringing about “modal shift” away from private motor vehicles towards walking and cycling requires messaging and engagement of a more sophisticated kind that Ealing was able to muster at short notice, perhaps particularly in suburban areas where frequent car use is more likely to be considered a normal and perhaps inviolate part of everyday life.
Photo of now former LTN street by local MP Rupa Huq.
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