Paul Wheeler: Why London’s road wars are tearing Labour apart

Paul Wheeler: Why London’s road wars are tearing Labour apart

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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Categories: Comment

14 Comments

  1. Clair Battaglino says:

    Thank you for saying what needs to be said. I have been expressing the same ideas locally, to my ward councillors, to the mayor of Hackney, et al. Within weeks of the implementation of a local LTN I needed an inhaler for the first time in my life. Phillip Glanville & co say my residential road can “take the traffic”. But its residents can’t, nor can the little ones attending school & nursery just down my road. Social housing tenants and children from the BAME communities are collateral.
    This morning 2 of us in Hackney announced our candidacy for by-elections in Hackney. The fight back has well and truly started.

    1. Justine Brian says:

      Good luck to you both! If councillors and councils won’t listen to their residents and take them seriously – more often privileging campaign groups over others with a less organised or active/ist voice – the ballot box is the way to change that.

  2. Claire Corbett says:

    A brilliant perceptive piece on the political positioning around LTNs that touches all key bases! Thanks. The best summing-up I’ve read. It deserves wider coverage.

  3. JC Hermier says:

    Paul, you say ‘upwards of 10% of Londoners live on these main roads compared to the 4% who live on roads benefitting from an LTN.’

    I believe you are conflating two very different data points in order to further the idea that LTNs are for the privileged few.

    The 4% you mention must relate to how much of the London population is currently covered by an LTN. The 10% you mention is how much of the London population live on main roads (vs 90% on residential streets).

    Furthermore, research shows that the socioeconomic profile of the people living on main roads is very similar, on average, the the one of those living on residential streets.

    Lastly, you mention the displacement of traffic. We have know for a long time that reducing road space ultimately reduces traffic. This is called ‘reduced demand’. Since most of us want less pollution and traffic, we have to use proven methods to get there, and LTNs are part of the solution.

    1. Paul Wheeler says:

      True they are part but don’t see much else being deployed currently. Options include but not restricted to ‘green walls’ on the mist polluted roads and a comprehensive strategy to reduce HGV traffic in London. When the Government and London Councils spend as much time and resources on improving clean air as implementing LTNs I know we will have a balanced debate.

      Oh and for accuracy 100% of London roads are residential roads!

  4. Baz Golin says:

    The LTNs have and will continue to fail to accomplish lower traffic and lower pollution levels. Concentrating more traffic and more pollution on main roads increases the harm and stress, and punishes anyone who is not an able-bodied walker or cyclist, or anyone who’s ‘office’ is effectively their car or van. Better public transportation, cheaper electric vehicles, staggered operating hours for schools and businesses and in the absence of and police presence, better road traffic camera enforcement- not road closures – will help solve this issue. There are too many roadworks on main roads to close every alternative route. I suffered an injury in an LTN and had to wait 2 hours for an ambulance. If I’d had a heart attack, I’d have died. LTNs are misguided and dangerous.

  5. Stephen poskitt says:

    I can say that your article is very valid as I live on a designated main road on a high density housing estate. The Northwood road estate is on the boundary road of an ltn. My estate fronts Upper Clapton Road and Northwold Road. There is a primary school on Northwold Road whose pupils are mostly from the BAME community.
    Since the Hackney Downs LTN was created all traffic was pushed onto Northwold Road because it was a designated main road. Congestion has increased to a level that before the ltn that has not been witnessed in my time there. Upper Clapton Road is without a doubt congested with non moving traffic. From my estate to Clapton Roundabout less than a km traffic is at a standstill increasing pollution levels for all. On this road are numerous high density housing estates with many families from BAME communities.
    Let’s walk down Evering Road. It has always had traffic calming measures the street is liked with grand 4 story Victorian terraces set back from the road which is lined with trees. The street is affluent and members of political parties live there. They have influence at the town hall. Around 5 minute from there is Hackney Downs Park. They have restricted these roads to residential access and one end has a bus gate. Do those neighbourhoods with central parks and tree lined streets need reduction in traffic? This whole main v residential roads is absolute hog wash. If you look at the roads I’ve mentioned I think the number of families living in high density housing estates will equal or possibly outnumber the amount of residents living n streets in the LTN
    The council have sacrificed children on these roads because they are not deserving of clean air. The thing about this that really grates me is it’s seen as pro driving and those in favour of LTN’s use it as a tool to spread rumour bully and discredit anything that says otherwise. This is not about cars and driving. This is about the right to clean air fir everyone. If we go back to hackney downs, mostlywhite middle class neighbourhood which does have social housing within it. No surprise it’s on the boundary roads which border the main roads but aside from that. Why are the children there getting cleaner air and greener streets in an area with a large Central Park? What does the single mothers in social who may since the pandemic rely on foodbanks to feed her children get? Where is the traffic free streets and greening of her street fir her children? Why is her family,who’s struggle, the neighbours in the LTN will never comprehend get congested roads and more pollution. How is this fair? If anyone can tell me why the LTN’s benefit our main road housing estates and why the scheme is fair id be interfested in opinion. No one has come up with a remotely goid reason so far.

  6. Allen Stephen’s says:

    I think your article is just and the points correct.
    Living in a main road I have suffered the direct consequences as have many others.

    In response to comments by JC. One can find rhetoric and evidence which is favourable and bias. You are well known on social media sites.
    If a council employ the services of a company to handkr public consultation. Is it right that said company’s director was chair of the london cycle project l, and it’s founder associated with new london architecture whos vision for london is a cycle led transport policy and active travel.
    Is this not bias?

    The lead in another boroughs liveable streets scheme and lead on the project is member of the cross party cycling committee. Could one possibly be forgiven if they see this as carefully and cleverly manipulated?

    Another response I’d like to add is that there is no set time when traffic will change. Hackney like Islington forms a traffic corridor from central london to the a12 out east avd connecting the northern areas like Enfield abd out to Hertfordshire. All the data from TFL is based on conjecture. They use a model to guess what demand for cycling would be like based on figures from 2011 and disregarded any that are not within the top 20%.
    All taken from strategic points at between 8am and 9am rush hours. This gives possible demand tho it states that this does reflect if the demand for cycling is there.

    Many like to pint out Walthamstow where traffic increased on roads around the mini Holland. The system used to show how traffic will reduce was a simlar system to the one above. Of course traffic journeys reduced in the mini Holland but if residents are the only ones driving in avd out this is expected.

    Within hackney all ltns are in areas of affluence where many involved in politics abd with influence live. Most have a Central Park and leafy streets. They are desireable but unaffordable for local working class people and have attracted a certain type of person. Now as the wealthy are more likely to own a car. It seems contradictory to create ltn’s in areas of little deprivation yet this is What hackney have done

  7. Michael Goldfarb says:

    This is a timely and serious article.
    Nobody drives in London for fun. Before LTNs every journey was at best tedious. The problem is they are necessary for most of us.
    In my part of Hackney (Stoke Newington) LTNs now force people trying to drive north on a main road, Green Lanes, to drive more than a mile on main roads – all of them residential – used by London buses to make what was once a 100-150 yard journey to the turning. The LTN was put in place without consultation.
    In response to residents’ anger the local councillors (Clissold ward) did meet via zoom with some of us. But the LTN is still in place and there has been no follow-up.
    Hackney is knee jerk Labour but I would expect the vote to go down in May. I don’t think Sadiq Khan, despite current polls, should feel too comfortable about re-election.

  8. Flick Rea says:

    Thank you for this article! Agree with every word you say! It takes me back to the old “”Environmental Areas” of the 60s-70s which died along with the Moroway Box.and took me indirectly into local politics and local Goverment of which I have been part of and a passionate adcate of for over 30 years! How can they not see this is a divisive and socially unjust policy? As well as residents, our main roads have schools, shops and churches on them. I am now old and somewhat frail and shop on my local main road and I want clean air too, thank you very much. And I want it now, not in some Utopian future when everyone has stopped using polluting vehicles by which time I may well have died from the current extended pollution!

  9. Fee says:

    With all this said and done it’s my opinion there will be more to this at a later date. Maybe even trying to make London a totally care free zone.
    A simple journey now around leyton leytonstone areas has now increased from 10 minutes, to minimum 30 depending on the time of day. The traffic will grow even worse once lockdown has officially been lifted, which means to say more pollution, emergency services unable to get to the call quickly, road rage will be rife. I bet those who opted for these ltns probably don’t even live in the surrounding areas effected ! Further more the state of the roads now are horrendous, pot holes are not even being rectified anymore on all roads.
    All of this needs to be changed sooner rather than later.

  10. Raymond Attfield says:

    After sending my views on the Highbury Islington LTN to Rowena Champion the reply merely restated the councils view. This is my reply:
    While the response is long, it is from the perspective of the Highways Engineer in defence of their position and clearly fails to understand my complaint or why their proposals are problematic.
    The problems which concern me and many others are the cultural and social conflicts which the LTN’s create. 
    While an engineering view can and does ignore such conflicts, and people going about their everyday lives have to put up with them, the conflicts are still there and will impact people’s lives and state of mind.
    London became the size it is based on free unplanned development and car ownership offering freedom of movement through the vast road network.  
    The potential problems of this have been raised so many times over the years but always ignored.
    Now the problem of traffic is finally recognised, we get a knee jerk reaction basically saying the free movement we have been sold over generations is no longer acceptable.
    And the answer offered is to erect barriers which make it very difficult to navigate and thus drive and benefit from this free movement.
    And the only way to now manage these new restrictions is, so the the People Friendly Streets team tell me, is Sat-Nav.
    So not only are we deprived of the right to freely roam the road and street network the only real public space we have, but we also have to give up using our natural sense of orientation.
    It doesn’t end there as Sat-Nav implies having and using the technology, accepting being tracked, and that the Sat-Nav systems are kept up to date and in detail.
    Is the real aim to stop people using motor vehicles?  If so how are the miles of residential roads of the suburbs with no public transport to be accessed? 
    How is anyone expected to travel to these areas if they have luggage, and if they don’t have Sat-Nav ?  

    And from the sublime to the ridiculous;      
    Highbury Place forms the east side of Highbury fields with its long avenue and classic terraced houses, visually ordered and complete. 
    At a point somewhere along its length, the LTN proposal has placed a ‘No Motor Vehicles’ sign in both directions.  
    This contradicts every visual and logical understanding of that place and that street. The signs are in this context effectively invisible. They divide one half of the avenue from the other and one half of Highbury Fields from the other. 
    How can anyone know – in advance and without local knowledge –  that to drive to No.17 it is necessary to enter one LTN from Drayton Park (if coming from the north) or Fieldway Crescent (if coming from the south) and to get to the Baptist Church further up Highbury Place it is necessary to enter a different LTN from Highbury Grove….? 
    This is so illogical and justifiably will cause frustration, anger, and despair, madness even.

    Being deprived of freedom of movement, forced to use technology instead of our natural sense of orientation, legally bound to read complex and varying information in small print on traffic signs before deciding if it is permissible to turn into a road when you don’t know if it will lead anywhere – and all while driving in busy traffic.
    There must be a better answer but it will need much better and different understanding, much more thought and greater more gradual, changes.
    These are my concerns and they have not been answered.
    I am a supporter of most policies of Islington Council but extremely disappointed that they have been persuaded into this ill considered, impractical scheme by a government suddenly looking for something popular to slip onto the headlines under the cover of the darkness of Covid.

  11. Nick Hiley says:

    It always amuses me when I read someone comparing London to Singapore, and prompts the question, have they ever lived there?? I know Paul you were making a point, but here is the reality …

    Singapore is different to London in every imaginable way. Has the author ever driven in Singapore? I have. Has the author ever taken Mass Transit in Singapore? I have. The roads are empty in comparison to London. The largely professional, and highly educated population, tend not to drive but get driven. Depending on your wealth or status you’ll either have your own driver or share one with one or more in your syndicate. The whole concept of road pricing is borne out of 2 things: i) a massive difference to London in wealth per capita, and ii) an authoritarian political regime.

    The mass transit system is adequate but patchy enough to force people to supplement it with taxis or cars. The climate is fiercely hot and muggy for several months of the year, so among the professionals I knew it was largely unused by them!

    Next time you cite Singapore as ‘an example’ let me remind you; we can only wish!

    1. Actually Nick I have been to Singapore!
      Clearly there are significant differences (and may be worth reminding those who favour it as our economic future). But as with London it is a densely populated city with an excellent public transport infrastructure and there have been significant advances in road pricing since it was introduced there. A combination of smart road pricing, huge move to electric vehicles, ramped up public transport and a focus on non vehicle last mile home delivery would transform air quality in London.

      As for that that authoritarian political culture….🤔

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