We have seen some strange alliances in London politics over the years. But the one that combines Boris Johnson and his transport adviser Andrew Gilligan and some of the more progressive Labour councils in London may be among the strangest. All are passionate cheerleaders for Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs), fuelled by short term government funding with the active encouragement of a well-organised cycling lobby.
The coalition is not unanimous, as some more cautious Labour councils have decided not to proceed with LTNs following significant local opposition. Moreover, despite being Conservative government policy, not a single Conservative council in the capital has adopted or continued with an LTN, and in several boroughs, such as Enfield, Tory groups lead the opposition.
In signs of Labour internal tension, several London Labour MPs have broken ranks to criticise local LTNs and call for their abolition. These include Rupa Huq in Ealing, Ellie Reeves, whose seat straddles Lewisham and Bromley, and, perhaps most interestingly, Steve Reed the shadow communities minister in Croydon North.
In terms of London-wide politics, the opposition to LTNs is unlikely to impact on the mayoral contest, but if I were Onkar Sahota in the London Assembly seat of Ealing & Hillingdon (8% majority) I would be worried. Bizarrely, Leonie Cooper may be more secure in Merton & Wandsworth (majority 4%) precisely because Wandsworth has abandoned LTNs!
If the aim of LTNs was to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Londoners it has been an odd way of trying to achieve it. As anyone who ventures onto Twitter or Facebook will know, the debate is toxic, with neighbour set against neighbour. Many LTNs are now mired in legal challenges with the GLA and London Councils on course to lose several.
However, instead of reading the warning signals (as Jas Athwal, a slightly cannier leader in Redbridge did), many Labour leaders have doubled down on their support for LTNs. As a strategy, it seems to be based on the aggravation theory that if you cause enough congestion then drivers will simply give up and traffic will evaporate.
Well, it’s a plan but possibly not the best time to introduce it when confidence in public transport had collapsed and London has seen an explosion of home deliveries. As for success stories, well there are only so many times you can point to the fabled and slightly unique mini-Holland that is Walthamstow Village
An example one of a possibly unintended consequences of LTN road closures has been the displacement of traffic onto main roads. London doesn’t have urban motorways – that battle was won in the 1970s, when the infamous London Box scheme was thrown out by the voters (the only part of it constructed is the unloved Westway and the grim approaches to the Blackwall Tunnel).
Instead, main roads, including the arterials controlled by Transport for London, are also residential roads, which were already dealing with traffic levels well beyond their capacities before Covid and LTNs. The GLA (step forward the Mayor’s cycling and walking commissioner, Will Norman) have gone to great lengths to deny that main roads can be residential, then moved on to saying that not many people live on them. Yet according to the GLA’s own figures upwards of 10% of Londoners live on these main roads compared to the 4% who live on roads benefitting from an LTN.
Moreover, given the nature of the London property market, the 800,000 Londoners who live on the main residential roads tend to be poorer and more likely to be social and private housing tenants. As several commentators have remarked, we are seeing class war as much as car wars. Perhaps the most extreme example is in the Royal Borough of Greenwich, where an LTN has diverted traffic from Crooms Hill (pictured) overlooking Greenwich Park (average house prices £2 million, number of households 170) directly onto Blackheath Hill on the A2 – a road already suffering from high levels of pollution, home to 1,500 mainly rented properties and originally built in the 18th century for horse-drawn traffic.
The tragedy about this for Labour supporters in London is that it has divided what should have been a winning coalition between those who want clean air and those who want to see traffic reduced. Many people will be aware of the recent coroner’s inquest into the death of nine-year-old Ella Addo-Kissi-Debrah, which for the first time ruled that air pollution on the nearby South Circular road made a material contribution to her untimely passing.
A recent study by Imperial College showed that upwards of 4,000 Londoners die yearly because of poor air quality. Given these grim statistics, many natural Labour supporters are mystified why seemingly all the environmental policy attention and resources of a Labour Mayor and some Labour councils are focused on a narrow niche campaign objective.
However, change is coming. Campaign groups such as @chokedup (set up by classmates of Ella) and @LittleNinjaUK have been vocal about the impact of LTNs in increasing congestion and air pollution on residential main roads. Unlike the largely male and all-white executive of the London Cycling Campaign, these groups are more representative of a diverse London and more focused on social justice.
LTNs are a consequence-free decision with no obligation for the households benefitting from them to restrict their driving or give up their parking permits. As one veteran Labour supporter said to me, “They get to close their roads to other people’s cars but have the freedom to drive theirs on other people’s roads. No wonder they’re popular!”
Despite all the energy and attention focused on the introduction of LTNs (or maybe because of their displacement affects) the response by the Mayor and Transport for London to the critical issues of reducing congestion and improving air quality across London has been timid. The extension of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in October, although welcome, excludes the North and South Circular – two of the most polluting roads in London – and cuts boroughs like Lewisham and Greenwich in half.
The forthcoming Environmental Bill is likely to see legally enforceable pollution limits, and many roads in London would fail them (which could lead to the intriguing prospect of legal action to close the polluting roads to traffic until the safe limits were reached). Perhaps now is the time for the Mayor and London Councils to campaign for a phased extension of the ULEZ to the Greater London boundary or even the M25, with suitable funding for a scrappage scheme for vehicles that can’t meet the emission levels. (This would also be good for the UK motor industry post-Covid).
If they wanted to be really radical, they could be campaigning cross-party for a road pricing scheme on the same scale. It wouldn’t be that radical – Singapore, often regarded as a model for London’s future, has had road pricing for 30 years. Done properly, it could fund a massive improvement in public transport, a fundamental shift to electric vehicles and abolition of road duty for London drivers. It wouldn’t be popular with everyone, but it would be a policy that would put the government on the spot and re-build a fractured coalition for London Labour.
Paul Wheeler writes on local politics. He has been a member of the Labour Party for 45 years and has lived on the A2 for over 25. Follow Paul on Twitter.
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