Paul Wheeler: Why London’s street wars are tearing Labor apart
We have seen some strange alliances in London politics over the years. But the one that brings together Boris Johnson and his transportation adviser Andrew Gilligan and some of the more progressive Labor Councils in London might be some of the strangest. All are passionate about cheerleading for Low Traffic Neighborhoods (LTNs), powered by short-term government funding with the active promotion of a well-organized bike lobby.
The coalition is not unanimous as some more cautious Labor councils have decided not to proceed with LTNs after significant local opposition. Despite conservative government policies, not a single Conservative council in the capital has passed or maintained an LTN, and Tory groups lead the opposition in several counties, such as Enfield.
Amid signs of internal Labor tension, several London Labor MPs have broken ranks to criticize local LTNs and demand their abolition. These include Rupa Huq in Ealing, Ellie Reeves, whose seat spans Lewisham and Bromley, and, perhaps most interestingly, Steve Reed, the secretary of the shadow communities in Croydon North.
In terms of politics across London, opposition to LTNs is unlikely to affect the mayoral contest, but if I were Onkar Sahota in the seat of the Ealing & Hillingdon London Assembly (8% majority) I would be concerned. Oddly enough, Leonie Cooper may be safer at Merton & Wandsworth (majority 4%) precisely because Wandsworth gave up LTNs!
If the goal of LTNs was to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Londoners, it was an odd way of doing it. As anyone who dares to venture on Twitter or Facebook knows, when neighbors go up against neighbors, the debate is toxic. Many LTNs are currently facing legal challenges and the GLA and London Councils are on the way to losing several.
However, instead of reading the warning signs (as Jas Athwal, a slightly smarter leader in Redbridge did), many Labor leaders have doubled their support for LTNs. As a strategy, it seems to be based on the deterioration theory that if you create enough traffic jams, drivers will simply give up and the traffic will evaporate.
Well, it’s a plan, but it may not be the best time to roll it out when confidence in public transport has collapsed and London has seen an explosion in home deliveries. There are only so many success stories that you can point to the legendary and somewhat unique Mini-Holland Walthamstow Village
An example of a potentially unintended consequence of LTN road closures was the relocation of traffic to main roads. London has no urban highways – this battle was won in the 1970s when the infamous London Boxing program was scrapped by voters (the only part of it that has been built is the unloved Westway and gritty approaches to the Blackwall Tunnel ).
Instead, main roads, including the arteries controlled by Transport for London, are also residential roads that had traffic levels well beyond their capacity even before Covid and LTNs. The GLA (Step Forward for Mayor’s Cycling and Walking Commissioner Will Norman) has gone to great lengths to deny that main roads can be residential areas and then went on to say that not many people live on them. However, according to the GLA, more than 10% of Londoners live on these main roads, compared with 4% on roads that benefit from an LTN.
Given the nature of the London property market, the 800,000 Londoners who live on the main residential streets tend to be poorer and more likely to rent social and private housing. As several commentators have noted, we see class wars as well as auto wars. Perhaps the most extreme example is the Royal Borough of Greenwich, where an LTN directs traffic from Crooms Hill (pictured) overlooking Greenwich Park (average house price £ 2 million, number of households 170) directly onto Blackheath Hill on the A2 – a diverted the street is already heavily polluted and is home to 1,500 mostly rented properties that were originally built in the 18th centuryth Century for horse traffic.
The tragedy for the Labor supporters in London is that they have split what is actually a successful coalition between those who want clean air and those who want to reduce traffic. Many people will be aware of the coroner’s recent investigation into the death of nine-year-old Ella Addo-Kissi-Debrah, who first ruled that air pollution on nearby South Circular Road was a major contributor to her untimely death.
A recent study by Imperial College found that more than 4,000 Londoners die each year from poor air quality. Given these dismal statistics, many natural Labor supporters are puzzled as to why what appears to be all of the environmental attention and resources of one The Labor Mayor and some Labor Councils are focused on a narrow niche campaign target.
A change is coming, however. Campaign groups such as @chokedup (founded by Ella’s classmates) and @LittleNinjaUK have been vocal about the impact of LTNs on increasing congestion and air pollution on the main streets of residential areas. In contrast to the largely male and all-white leader of the London Cycling Campaign, these groups are more representative of a diverse London and are more focused on social justice.
LTNs are a consequential decision in which the households that benefit from them are not obliged to restrict driving or give up their parking permits. A veteran Labor supporter said to me, “T.They can block their streets to other people’s cars, but are free to drive theirs on other people’s streets. No wonder they are popular! “
Despite all the energy and attention directed to the introduction of LTNs (or possibly due to their impact on the relocation), the response of the Mayor and Transport for London to the critical issues of reducing traffic congestion and improving air quality has been throughout London timid. The expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in October eliminates the North and South Circulars – two of the most polluting streets in London – and halves boroughs like Lewisham and Greenwich.
The upcoming environmental law is likely to have legally enforceable pollution limits, and many roads in London would fail to meet them (which could lead to the fascinating prospect of legal action to close the polluting roads to traffic until the safe limits are reached). Perhaps now is the time for the Mayor and the London Council to advocate a gradual expansion of the ULEZ to the Greater London border or even the M25. with suitable funding for a scrapping program for vehicles that cannot reach the emission levels. (This would also be good for the UK auto industry after Covid).
If they really wanted to be radical, they could push bipartisan for a road charging scheme of the same order of magnitude. It wouldn’t be so radical – Singapore, often seen as a role model for London’s future, has had road tolls for 30 years. Done right, it could fund a massive improvement in public transport, a major shift to electric vehicles and the elimination of road transport for London drivers. It wouldn’t be popular with everyone, but it would be a policy that would put the government in place and rebuild a broken coalition for London Labor.
Paul Wheeler writes about local politics. He has been a member of the Labor Party for 45 years and has lived on the A2 for over 25 years. Follow Paul on Twitter.
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