Cllr Tim Briggs is the sole Conservative councillor on Lambeth Council, and a London Assembly List Candidate for 2021
As Mayor of London, Boris Johnson brought in a number of measures to encourage cycling, and lower car use. His cycling reforms were in line with a Conservative belief that cars should not be replaced, but that technology can make cars greener, less polluting, less necessary, balancing environmental improvements with individual freedoms.
So in May, local authorities in London were given £225 million by Boris Johnson’s government to implement traffic measures, to help achieve the Government’s aim to ‘build back better’ after the lockdown. One of the measures taken by local authorities has been to implement ‘Low Traffic Neighbourhoods’ (LTN), closing off roads and residential areas from traffic.
If they did not know before, Ministers are now realising just how ideological Labour authorities in London actually are. Labour councillors in Lambeth were planning to close roads and create Low Traffic Neighbourhoods in January 2020 from Lambeth’s own budget, before the funding offer came from central Government in May. The keenness of Labour councillors to close roads is in line with a left-wing belief, shared with the Liberal Democrats and Greens, that if you create enough disincentives to drive, children can play on empty streets where cars once drove.
Now that Low Traffic Neighbourhoods have been imposed, the reality is different. Residents say that some streets are quiet and unsafe to walk through at night. Traffic is in gridlock on the roads around LTNs, car journeys are longer, and pollution has spiked. Many people in London (disabled, elderly, trades people, people delivering goods and services, key workers etc) simply do not have the privilege of choosing to use a bike in their everyday lives. The ‘consultation’ has been about-face: LTNs have been imposed, and residents now have to beg for them to be removed or changed. The strong support for imposing LTNs shown by Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens is in line with their strangely illiberal, undemocratic sense that being right requires no consultation, because they are the citizens most capable of making decisions for residents, not on behalf of residents.
The Government has pushed back. It warns local authorities not to simply impose changes without consulting residents properly, and that traffic orders “do not turn into permanent measures by default”.
Prior to drafting an Emergency Motion for a Lambeth council meeting on 14th October, I asked residents on the OneLambeth Facebook page to email me examples of problems created by LTNs across Lambeth. The testimonials were alarming.
Residents witnessing road-rage assaults on the road outside their properties, including a baseball bat being used to smash another car. Police stuck in traffic having to leave their vehicle and run up the road to chase suspects. The resident who had a driver spit in his face, unable to move his car forward or backwards on the road due to traffic, his car dented several times. A plumber unable to carry out an emergency job as he could not get to the next street. An ambulance on an emergency unable to get through (there are multiple videos on YouTube of ambulances stuck on Ferndale Road). Six named businesses in one Ward are in danger of closing, partly or directly as a result of the LTN. The Brixton Hill company which can only do 30 per cent of the jobs they have been asked to do, unable to give ‘firm appointments anymore, just a.m. or p.m.’ to assist mental health professionals, police and the ambulance service to carry out mental health assessments. The son visiting his severely disabled mother in Camberwell on a journey that used to take five minutes which is now ‘anywhere up to 45 mins.’ The district nurse in tears as she physically cannot get to all her patients and is late for all of her appointments. Vigilante groups intimidating drivers on Upper Tulse Hill. Women being harassed and frightened on their dimly lit LTN street at night. A fire engine in Oval stuck with its lights flashing, whose crew had to ask directions to leave the LTN, or Ocado stopping food deliveries in Oval and Streatham due to ‘road closures and traffic issues’.
Most alarmingly for a set of Labour councillors that likes to virtue-signal, it appears that ethnic minority businesses have been most affected by road closures, and many are threatened with laying off staff to survive, or closing down. There have been no Equality Impact Assessments carried out that have proper, verifiable data. Traffic and pollution are being displaced onto residential roads such as Coldharbour Lane in Brixton which are disproportionately affected by Covid, with pollution thought to be a factor in disease severity and mortality rates. Therefore even a short term increase in traffic on these roads is likely to be harmful to people of colour, before any mythical traffic evaporation. Compromising health outcomes for specific groups of residents is not a reasonable thing for a local authority to do, even temporarily, in pursuit of potential benefits for which there is little or no evidence.
Road blockages might work to stop a rat-run or protect a school area, but the net benefits on the wider area have to be shown, not assumed. It is common sense that there will always need to be some car use in London, for weekly food shops, for disabled people, elderly people, businesses, for people who need their cars for work or for family, or to travel out of London. Allowing streets to be ‘reclaimed’ by residents so that children privileged enough to live in a Low Traffic Neighbourhood can play on them safely, whilst other residents and their children live in or around gridlocked roads with higher pollution, is unacceptable, and benefits the few, not the many.
The knock-on effect of imposing more Low Traffic Neighbourhoods is circular, because people then want more Low Traffic Neighbourhoods to protect their own areas from increased traffic. Yet if a Council made every non-main road a Low Traffic Neighbourhood, food supplies in London would be disrupted, and law and order would quickly break down. In Lambeth the groups calling for LTNs have been making their case loudly, and for a long time, and have been listened to by Labour councillors in control of the Council. Those supporting other traffic management measures have not.
No-one disputes that more walking and cycling is a good thing. If Councils do nothing to manage traffic flows, bottle necks and rat-runs develop. So whilst too many of the wrong measures can be counter-productive, clearly some traffic management measures are needed. The issue is whether LTNs are a good thing among a host of other alternatives.
Conservative-run Wandsworth Council suspended their LTNs, citing ‘concerns with emergency access and traffic flows… compounded by the changes that TfL [Sadiq Khan] is making to red route roads… [which] has caused confusion and long traffic queues’. Wandsworth councillors also confirmed to me that the emergency services were happy to see the road changes and blockages in Wandsworth withdrawn, after ambulances got stuck in traffic, and the police were unable to get to a high value robbery taking place despite being two minutes away in normal traffic. This evidence contradicts the ‘arguing points’ given to Labour councillors in Lambeth to copy and paste in their replies to concerned residents, that the ‘emergency services have expressed their support for these schemes’.
Chaos-ridden Labour-run Croydon Council has agreed to launch a consultation, with an option to scrap the scheme. The Labour Mayor of Lewisham has promised to announce ‘short-term’ changes to alleviate extra traffic displaced on to surrounding roads when the pressure from residents got too intense, but a week later now refuses to change almost anything. The Labour Mayor of Hackney is on YouTube admitting that LTNs are designed to create traffic congestion on main roads, in order to raise revenue from fines and road charging. Even the chauffeur-driven Mayor of London has removed some cycle lanes from TfL main roads and unblocked some turns into side roads, when the cycle lanes were hardly being used.
When Wandsworth cancels its LTNs, it allows people and capital to flow again. That enables wealth to carry on being created at the same rate, and for individuals and business to be connected as wealth creators, and as consumers of goods and services, at lower cost. Meanwhile Lambeth, with its gridlocked roads and struggling businesses, can only become poorer and more closed off for as long as badly-implemented LTNs are kept in place. Lambeth is already way behind Wandsworth on social mobility.
The concept of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods has become a meeting-point for opposing political ideas about what cities are for, and how city micro-communities flourish or decline. It has become a debate between residents with a pragmatist approach, in line with Conservatives, holding a vision of an open society where people and businesses have the freedom to move around, create wealth and take advantage of opportunity, against a more closed society envisaged by the Left, where wealth creation and opportunities are restricted on behalf of a shared idea of a greater good, but impacting negatively as ever on working people, and people on low incomes. Londoners have suddenly been confronted with the reality that local politics matters, and the reality of being what Shaun Bailey has called Labour’s ‘chosen victims’.