The first action of the newly-elected Labour leader of Ealing last month was significant. Peter Mason announced the immediate ending of the West Ealing LTN (Low Traffic Neighbourhood) and a guarantee that any future LTN would be subject to popular consultation and support. Part of the reason was the imminent closure of the adjacent roads on Hounslow for road works, but a 2,000-strong protest march to the Town Hall by angry local residents may well have influenced the decision. As Ealing deputy leader Deirdre Costigan acknowledged, “implementing active travel initiatives without community support is unsustainable”.
Ealing’s about turn mirrored that of Labour-run Harrow (slightly lost in the run up to the mayoral election), which removed not only its LTNs but also its Transport for London cycle lanes, citing a clear lack of local support for either. To these two can be added Labour Redbridge, which, perhaps wisely, withdrew support from proposed LTNs in early 2020. Liberal Democrat-controlled Sutton also stepped back from its programme of road closures and it is noticeable that not a single Conservative-run council in London has supported their own government’s “active travel” policy.
So, has London fallen out of love with the campaign for more LTNs and what comes next?
Advocates for LTNs – and there are many at senior levels of London governance – remain insistent that the policy has been beneficial. But the problem, in part, is that it was never clear what were the benefits were and for whom. At various times it has been claimed that LTNs would reduce traffic, increase cycling, cure childhood obesity, enhance road safety and improve air quality and often a modern miracle cure for all these ills.
Part of the reason for the adverse reaction to LTNs for many Londoners was how they were implemented. Many of the campaigns for road closures were long standing (the controversial West Greenwich LTN had been kicking around for over 20 years) but had failed to progress pre-Covid as they had to meet high standards of public consultation, and many neighbours were concerned about the inevitable traffic displacement. The new “Covid LTNs” simply avoided that problem by ignoring local opinion and using emergency powers to impose them unilaterally.
What made this worse was the attitude of LTN advocates, most notably the London Cycling Campaign (LCC), which treated any dissent with disdain. On occasion it was worse than that: Christian Wolmar, a member of the LCC board of trustees, took it upon himself to write to the Director of London TravelWatch (LTW) describing as “nonsensical” opinions about cycle lanes expressed on his personal Twitter feed by Hackney councillor Vincent Stops, who worked for LTW at the time. “I hope that you can take action on this…” Wolmar’s email said.
As a seasoned campaigner, I was amazed to observe the influence the LCC exerted on the policy process within Transport for London and the majority of London Labour councils. Rather than responding to the legitimate concerns of many local residents, especially those who live on the main roads to which most traffic was displaced, Labour leaders doubled down and simply repeated dubious statistics, such as that only 10 per cent of Londoners live on such roads and, in any case, they were built to cater for large increases in traffic.
Such campaigning failed on two levels. Firstly, although the main residential roads, principally the Red Routes controlled by TFL, account for less than five per cent of the network, they carry over 30 per cent of all traffic. By deliberately forcing more motor vehicles onto them, they increased congestion and delay for millions of Londoners on a daily basis. Naïve polling that points to big majorities favouring LTNs never ask follow-up questions about resulting congestion and delay.
Perhaps most significantly for long-standing Labour supporters, those councils ignored the reality that LTNs primarily displace traffic from the roads of the prosperous to the roads of the poor and disadvantaged, which already suffered from the highest levels of air pollution. The additional congestion and stalled traffic offered no alleviation. It was a policy that went against all the principles of social justice.
While some LTN advocates point to the recent mayoral elections as a justification for pushing on with LTNs, I suspect seasoned Labour politicians will be hesitant. A more detailed electoral analysis shows that in several Outer London Labour seats such as Eltham the less-than-perfect Conservative campaign scored the most first preferences. If London Labour is not careful, it faces being squeezed between a newly-resurgent Green Party advocating even more anti-car measures and emboldened London Tories positioning themselves as the party for hard-working Londoners.
Thankfully, there is a solution. The forthcoming Environment Bill, due in the autumn, is likely to see legally- enforceable air quality limits in our major cities. For the Mayor and London councils, this offers an opportunity.
Firstly, TfL should commit to reducing air pollution and congestion on the Red Routes as its main priority. The original purpose of these designated roads in the 1980s was to keep traffic moving and, given that congested traffic adds considerably to poor air quality, TfL should return them to that purpose.
The government’s new funding package for TfL requires that £100 million is spent on further “active travel” initiatives. TfL should be imaginative and engage with campaign groups such as Choked Up to see how measures such as green walls can provide rapid improvement in air quality for the residents of Red Routes and the millions of Londoners who have no option but to travel along them on a daily basis. It could also focus more attention on cycle “quietways”, which many cyclists prefer to the motorway-style cycleways – formerly cycle superhighways – on the main roads (although how much money will be left for this, given that this part of the funding package must also resolve the Hammersmith Bridge quandary, is a matter for debate).
Secondly, those boroughs which have introduced LTNs using emergency powers should follow the example of Ealing and commit to restoring local democracy by reverting to established processes of public consultation. This should include an assessment of the impact of any proposed LTNs on traffic levels on the main residential roads in the borough, both in terms of the well-being of the residents who live on them and the impact on public transport and emergency services. To recover public confidence and avoid “Covid LTNs” becoming a huge electoral issue in the May 2022 local elections, the whole paraphernalia of planters and traffic cameras associated with them should be removed immediately, and only re-introduced after due process has been followed for all those impacted.
London is going to face many challenges in the next decade over issues of air quality and transport. We need to get a commitment from the government to move towards road-user pricing, a rapid shift towards electric vehicles and hydrogen buses, and a serious discussion about how we end our dependency on road freight, especially with the explosion in home deliveries.
If London Labour is to be part of this debate it needs to rediscover the lessons of coalition-building and engagement. A party transport policy dictated by covert groups of aggressive cyclists and well-heeled residents using emergency powers for their own ends is not a good look – and frankly a divisive distraction – for a progressive party motivated by social justice.
Paul Wheeler is a very long standing member of the London Labour Party and a founder member of London Cyclists with a Conscience (#realLCC). Photograph of Ealing demo by Joshua Neicho. This article originally mistakenly described Christian Wolmar as being on the London Cycling Campaign “executive” when he is in fact a member of its board of trustees. Apologies for that error. It has also been updated (at 20:45 on 3 June, 2021) with more information about Wolmar’s complaint to LondonTravelWatch.
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