LTNs and the side stepping of public opinion

There is currently a new phase of extensive growth of low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs), with Hackney planning to ban cars on three quarters of roads, and major new restrictions being launched in Bath and Oxford. Our report From ASBOS to Covid Marshals included research on the early stages of LTNs, examining the problems in terms of lack of consultation with the public and the perverse effects of these regulations. This work is very relevant to current debates and so is reproduced below.

Councils were also encouraged to issue orders to deliver low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs), and other measures to promote walking and cycling, with funding from the Department for Transport’s £250 million Emergency Active Travel Fund (EATF), and in London under the umbrella of Transport for London’s London Street Space Programme.

Councils were encouraged to implement schemes using Experimental Traffic Orders that do not require prior public consultation. The funding time restrictions for the first tranche of grant effectively prevented local authorities from consulting, with a deadline of four weeks from receipt of funds to begin works, and eight weeks for scheme completion. Many councils introduced LTNs to reduce or eliminate road traffic on streets, blocking streets with bollards or prohibiting through traffic with CCTV monitoring.

Although opinions vary on low-traffic neighbourhoods as a policy, and on the success or failure of particular initiatives, it is now clear that the lack of consultation was ill-advised and led to significant disruption and unintended consequences. These consequences included major traffic problems on main roads, problems for access for emergency services and taxis, and an irrational use of road space (for example with large but little-used cycle lanes). There have been public petitions and protests against the schemes in areas such as Hackney and Islington (the group Horrendous Hackney Road Closures is launching a judicial review against council LTNs). In January 2021, a high court judgement quashed Transport for London’s Streetspace Plan and its accompanying guidance, judging that they were ‘an ill-considered response that sought to take advantage of the pandemic to push through, on an emergency basis without consultation, “radical changes”’.

Several councils were forced to drop the orders, including Redbridge, Sutton, Harrow and Wandsworth, after complaints from residents as well as from emergency services. Wandsworth found that its LTNs had generated ‘unprecedented large numbers of concerns’ and ‘serious and continuing traffic problems’, as well as problems accessing hospitals by emergency vehicles. When Harrow consulted on its LTNs, opposition was between 82 and 73 per cent. Kent County Council implemented 24 traffic schemes but six were swiftly removed due to adverse comments from local people. In Scotland, where a similar grant scheme operated, one West Lothian councillor said that its programme of active travel measures were ‘the most disliked and negatively commented on council policy that I have ever experienced, not only in my 15 years in frontline politics, but in all my life’.

In England the government blamed councils for bringing through ‘poorly implemented schemes’ that were ‘frankly nowhere near good enough’. And yet many councils have pointed out that they were asked to bring through the schemes on a timescale that prevented consultation. When Kingston-Upon-Thames Council dropped some of its planned LTNs, a ward councillor responded:

We recognise the unsatisfactory way in which people were informed, and we apologise. The consultation method is designed by TfL (Transport for London) and the government and is unlike anything we usually do.

Several councils – including Kent County Council, and Brighton and Hove – have resolved to consult on future schemes delivered with an Emergency Active Travel Fund grant. In distributing the second tranche of the grant, now renamed simply the Active Travel Fund, the government emphasised that all councils should consult before schemes are implemented.

In our FOI survey, 30 local authorities said that they had implemented a LTN in 2020, and none of these had carried out a public consultation prior to implementing the order. (The total number of LTNs introduced in 2020 is likely to be higher, since many were introduced at a county council level. Government documents state that 10 combined authorities and 65 local authorities received active travel grants, for initiatives including LTNs).

In response to our FOI, many councils cited funding deadlines as the reason for their lack of consultation. Buckinghamshire said that ‘The schemes were implemented under the government’s Emergency Active Travel Fund which has short, centrally-set, timescales. Due to this, a public consultation was not possible prior to implementation.’ Meanwhile, Lewisham said: ‘We were urged to implement the emergency Covid-19 Streetspace response schemes in a “matter of weeks” by government and this meant that there wasn’t time to consult and engage with people as would normally be the case.’

It appears to be the intention of central government that these measures would lead to a permanent change in road use, with transport secretary Grant Shapps describing a ‘once in a generation opportunity to deliver a lasting transformative change in how we make short journeys in our towns and cities’. This episode shows the way in which councils have been encouraged to use emergency powers to make summary orders that deliver central government policy, rather than to respond to the needs and wishes of their populations. Consultation appeared to be an afterthought, to rubber stamp or adjust a scheme already in place, rather than part of the process of policy formation.

However, the rapid reallocation of road space through LTNs also coincides with a certain ethos within local government transport policy. West Midlands’ LTN document was clear that the aim was to use the pandemic in order to change the way people travelled: ‘Swift action was required to ensure that we were able to profit from the summer season to maximise our chances of embedding long term behaviour change.’

Andrew Forster, editor of Local Transport Today magazine between 2001 and 2021, describes the climate currently existing within local authority transport policy:

Many councils now see changing travel behaviour – reducing road traffic – as supporting their objectives in matters such as placemaking, health, air quality and climate. Moreover, many of today’s transport policymakers and practitioners are pro-bike, pro-walking and want to see less car use – they are reform-minded people. Changing travel behaviour involves not only improving conditions for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport, but also making driving less attractive through, for instance, traffic restrictions, lower speed limits, reallocating road space, and pricing.

This signifies a shift within local government from representing people’s needs, to delivering on certain predetermined reform agendas.

In total, our FOI results found that 222,702 PCNs were issued by the 13 councils who said they had introduced new Low-Traffic Neighbourhoods that restrict access for cars.