The row around Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) is heating up. On a march last Saturday through Hoxton and Islington, anti-LTN campaigner Jody Graber told protesters that Labour councillors “should be scared” by the upsurge in people power as he introduced a slate of Independent candidates for local elections. Meanwhile, Hackney Council Cabinet Member Jon Burke, who is a leading proponent of the schemes has struck back, telling On London that attempts to make the issue a front in the culture war don’t withstand scrutiny, and warning against turning consultations on LTNs into referenda as it will lead to “bad outcomes for vulnerable groups”.
LTNs, as previously reported by On London, are groups of residential side-streets which block motor through-traffic, redirecting vehicles onto main roads instead. While varieties of LTN have existed for decades, a wave of them has been enthusistically introduced by London boroughs since the summer under Experimental Traffic Orders, following Transport Secretary Grant Shapps providing emergency funding to promote walking and cycling after the pandemic and instructing Transport for London to spend at least £55 million on an “ambitious Active Travel Plan” including road closures. Consultation is to follow the installation of the schemes, rather than preceding them as is usual.
Islington Council has announced four LTNs (which it calls “People Friendly Streets”) and is set to introduce three more. Hackney before the pandemic had 120 individual traffic filters, among the most of any borough. Since May it has brought in three LTNs and five more filters and says it will launch further filters in the coming weeks. The arrival of LTNs has been welcomed by some residents and the Hackney Cycling Campaign hopes to see 32 of them across the borough. But it has sparked anger among others, with a proliferation of social media groups and campaigns protesting tripled journey times, disruption to emergency vehicles and a lack of warning about the changes.
At the start of Saturday’s march, residents’ association chair Trevor Hankins, who will stand in the by-election for the Bunhill ward to be vacated by Claudia Webbe when it eventually takes place, warned the crowd, mainly Islington and Hackney locals, of the impending closure of the north-western arm of Old Street roundabout where they stood (a scheme in which TfL is partnering Islington and Hackney). “If you are a tradesperson, if you are delivering goods, you are not going to be able to get here. The bottom line is this: no-one at town halls throughout London are thinking about ordinary working people,” he said.
Rebecca Kelly, up until now a life-long Labour voter who says she will stand alongside Graber in Canonbury ward at the full council elections in 2022, said her motivation to fight against the road closures isn’t directly self-interested: “I don’t even drive. I don’t want to live in a ghost town.”
On the march, Jenny, who lives off Essex Road, told On London that pollution from idling traffic since the LTN came in has made her elderly wheelchair-bound mother’s asthma worse and that the closures had turned the streets into a “mugger’s paradise”. Postman Wayne doesn’t know if there will be enough places for Liverpool Road residents to park, with 98 spaces due to removed, while HGV driver Christina said the closures mean she has to find a place to turn around her 26-tonne vehicle in the road, which is “extremely dangerous”.
Graber (pictured above in white shirt), a Finsbury-born-and-bred former child actor, has gladly taken on the role of media front-man and demonstration MC for the Islington campaign. He says the organisers came together eight weeks ago when they met outside the Town Hall: none of them previously knew each other. They have held eight protests since. There are seven members of the steering committee and the campaign, which has gone under various names, will shortly rebrand as We Are Islington (with a heart in the “o”).
Dismayed by what he says was intransigence from council leader Richard Watts when he met him earlier in the month to object to two LTNs, Graber is at pains to stress that We Are Islington’s platform isn’t (simply) about road closures any more: “You poke the hornet’s nest of democracy, they come out and sting you in the bum. You need people to step forward and make sure democracy is looked after for the next generation.”
He dismisses “weird” claims that the protest is dominated or fomented by the black cab trade – he’s an ex-NHS administrator and ex-council employee and says he’s never been a TfL-licensed taxi driver. Donations to the campaign have come through a GoFundMe fundraising page. On Saturday, Graber hailed the ethnically diverse crowd as “a whole broad church of people – left, right, centre, whatever”.
However, Burke, Hackney Cabinet Member for Transport, Energy and Public Realm, emphasises that, “Nobody is restricted getting to their destinations” by LTNs. An energetic and outspoken supporter of motor traffic reduction measures, Burke hopes to see national or city-led road-pricing to challenge the “powerful hegemony” of the car. He adds that the introduction of LTNs should come as no surprise, as they were in Hackney Labour Party’s 2018 election manifesto (they were also in Islington Labour’s) and that there will clearly be a period of adjustment as rat-running drivers discover they’ve lost the ability to take their favoured routes.
He wants LTNs seen in the context of a doubling of cars in the UK to 40 million in 30 years, an overwhelming majority of emissions coming from private vehicles and only 1% from buses. Prior to the introduction of the new LTNs, he says, Hackney had the sixth highest mortality rate from air pollution of 418 local authorities in England and, according to Living Streets, the highest pedestrian casualty rates in the capital. “People forget that months ago, I had deputations saying the buck stops with you as Cabinet Member,” he says. Burke argues that Hackney Labour has been elected on a large majority to implement its programme and that vulnerable groups who can’t lobby, like children suffering from air pollution, “are at the forefront of my priorities”.
He tells local people living on main roads who need a vehicle for work or might drive to visit their mum across London that “the last thing we want is to inconvenience [you] in any way,” and that the council’s focus is through-traffic that doesn’t even stop in Hackney. To locals “who like driving 500 metres to the shops”, his message is: “I don’t think it’s reasonable for you to expect me to make it as easy as possible for you. The purpose of LTNs is to make you think – is my journey necessary?” And he wants to reassure tradespeople and cab drivers that once other vehicle movements are reduced, there will be more road space for them. He also points out an adjustment already made to one traffic filter in Hoxton following feedback from residents.
In Islington, Executive Member for Environment and Transport Rowena Champion says: “We have been listening to local people’s concerns. People know their streets better than anyone else. We have launched a Commonplace webpage to allow them to share their comments and ideas. In addition, they will have the opportunity to have their say during formal consultations on each of the people-friendly streets neighbourhoods”. So far, the Islington Commonplace webpage has had more than 22,000 visitors and 5,000 comments.
Tempers are running high: in Hackney, bollards have been removed and signs defaced. At Saturday’s rally, Mohammad Rakib – among a handful of campaigners from further afield – made a full-throated condemnation of LTNs on the same basis as his opposition to property development and regeneration schemes in the East End. “For five years I’ve seen a well-organised, imposition gentrification hit-squad attempt to silence locals by putting you into small and manageable boxes,” he said. “What we see today on the streets is a physical manifestation of that in bollards. We are openly betrayed by yuppie infiltrators and their yes-men collaborators in our town halls.”
Former Hackney Green Party candidate Alastair Binnie-Lubbock asked members of an anti-LTN Facebook group for positive suggestions about how to improve air quality and reduce traffic as an alternative to LTNs. “But I was met with more negativity and when I reported to an admin that another member had said to ‘shute the mayor’. I was banned from the group”. A number of social media users have expressed online their disappointment that road closure measures have galvanised such protests above racial and social equality or environmental causes.
Economist Doug McWilliams of the Centre of Economics and Business Research, headquartered in Islington just off City Road, condemns “a well-paid, fairly job secure bureaucrat sector declaring war on the private sector at a time when it is scrapping for its life”. He argues that self-employed manual workers are hit hardest by LTNs and people working for councils who set them up have “no conception” of their struggles. (Graber says that he’s had emails of support from across the social spectrum – from “lawyers and funeral directors, to people writing in slang to get their point across”).
Dani Ventura – whose Horrendous Hackney Road Closures has attracted 4,000 members within ten days of setting up – says since her local LTN was introduced she has been unable to get her two children to school or her adult cousin, for whom she is a full-time carer, to her day care facility and has needed extra help. She accuses Burke of having “tunnel-vision”. Her friend Kelly Hayday, who lives on a main road in Hackney, is an area manager for a pubs and hotel group. “How do we get to work?” she asked Saturday’s rally. “Let’s not do work – let’s do school runs and mess about!”
From the Corbynite Left, Hackney-based Lindsey German would like councils “to adopt a less high-handed attitude” and thinks “the reaction against LTNs symbolises a sense of loss of control and alienation from the councils which have spent recent years cutting services and backing property developments which have forced out many working-class people”.
Jennette Arnold, Labour London Assembly Member for the North East constituency (comprising Islington, Hackney and Waltham Forest), is a supporter of closing minor roads to through traffic and flags up the handling of opposition to Walthamstow’s pioneering “Mini-Holland” cycling scheme. “We need to learn from mistakes that were made re consultation and taking residents with you when introducing schemes that impact on their daily lives,” she says.
Former Liberal Democrat London Assembly and 2019 general election candidate Ben Mathis spent last Sunday removing anti-LTN graffiti from roads in Clapton. “While I personally think that feeling is being channelled against the wrong measures, I totally get it,” he says. “People in Hackney are so used to being ignored – scrutiny of the council from within is all but non-existent, consultations are routinely ignored. I’d like to see more effort put into involving residents, in particular working-class and BME people, way before the big envelope full of consultation documents drops through the letterbox”.
On the other hand, Hackney resident and Hackney Cycling Campaign co-ordinator Jono Kenyon – a local business owner who “genuinely sympathises with people” to whom LTNs came as a shock – suggests campaigners can sometimes mislead themselves, adamant that they haven’t received information when a postal tracker reveals a leaflet has come through their door. And he rebuts claims that LTNs are alien to Hackney and Islington: in Brownlow Ward south of Finsbury Park where he grew up, gates were installed across side-streets in the early 1980s to stop curb-crawling, creating an early LTN. They were “deeply divisive at the time but after a while became immensely popular”. A recent survey of residents showed 90% would keep the gates.
Coming from “quite a working-class background” in Liverpool, Jon Burke doesn’t think much of suggestions that councillors are out of touch with ordinary people’s lives and maintains that working-class communities stand to gain most from reducing air pollution. He’s fired up by how “an angry minority bullied my predecessor and the Mayor of Hackney” into reversing a previous LTN in London Fields, and doesn’t want to see consultations over the current schemes become an exercise in direct democracy, which he think would kill nuance and fairness.
The cynic in him wonders whether the implementation of the LTN in Tooting, now withdrawn by Wandsworth Council, was intentionally botched in an attempt to rubbish LTNs more generally. Meanwhile, Jody Graber says that the government’s Covid U-turn, calling again for people to work from home if they can, undermines the whole case for bringing in LTNs now to limit post-lockdown road traffic. And he assures On London that even if Islington scales back or scraps its LTNs, he and his colleagues will stand for election to the council and he will also encourage candidates to put themselves forward in other boroughs. With such passion abounding, this issue is not going to go away soon.
Photos from Islington protests by Joshua Neicho.
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