LONDON and NORWICH, England — If you thought British politics was just about Partygate and the war in Ukraine, think again.
While Westminster watchers will pore over upcoming local elections on Thursday as a barometer for Boris Johnson’s premiership, many voters are focused on their own backyards — or rather, surrounding streets.
A pandemic push to improve the health of the nation by getting Brits out of their cars and walking or cycling more translated into more funds for local councils to “reallocate” road space for “active transport.” As a result, since 2020 lots of roads in Britain’s cities have been closed to cars or were narrowed to discourage drivers and whole areas have been transformed into “low-traffic neighborhoods” or LTNs.
What to the uninitiated might seem like an innocuous way to help both residents and the planet has become a vicious political fight, dividing traditional political parties, neighbors and even families.
“Someone who’s been around the Labour Party for a long time said it’s more controversial on the doorstep that the Iraq War and Brexit combined,” said Charlie Hicks, a Labour candidate for Oxford County Council.
Will Woodroofe, a Conservative standing in Labour-dominated Islington, north London, echoed the sentiment: “I could say quite confidently it comes up in one in five conversations. It’s the biggest thing. We lead with it as well, because we’re the only party standing to get rid of them.”
And while the policy and its implementation is provoking the wrath of drivers and non-drivers alike, many of the issues thrown up by the debate will outlast immediate concerns about today’s LTNs and strike at the heart of some of the tough political choices faced by lawmakers across the world as they grapple with competing demands of environmental and cost of living crises.
The LTN issue has splintered traditional party allegiances. Many Conservative council candidates are standing on an anti-LTN platform, even though the party at a national level is behind them, while Lib Dems are against them in some areas and in favor in others.
A rash of anti-LTN independent candidates has sprung up, threatening to disrupt the usual voting patterns. Labour has mostly been associated with implementing LTNs, as the boroughs where they have been rolled out tend to skew Labour, but some individual Labour activists have dissented or even quit over the policy.
The chief complaint against the policy is that residents weren’t consulted properly.
“I think what gets people really upset here and angry is the feeling that these measures have been brought in and they [local people] have been ignored,” said Tristan Honeyborne, a Conservative candidate in Dulwich in south London.
A common gripe is that consultations have either not been carried out properly or not been heeded by the local authority.
With a varying degree of openness, local Tories admit to being frustrated with the policy adopted at a national level.
“These types of decision are best made close to local people working with communities rather than imposed from above,” said one prospective Conservative councilor, while pointing out that in London it was mostly Labour councils that had pursued them in an “inflexible” way.
The Department for Transport has defended the manner of LTNs’ introduction, saying: “Multiple independent professional polls over the last year, and the government’s own polling and surveys, show consistent public support for the measures on cycling and walking we and councils have taken.”
Some would go further, claiming that the top-down imposition of LTNs was the only way to achieve a step change. “Radical ideas were needed to get people out of cars,” said an activist for the charity Living Streets who did not want to be named because of the hostility the issue attracts.
Andrew Gilligan, Boris Johnson’s transport adviser, is widely credited as the brains behind the scheme and has been given “free rein” to drive his agenda forward, in the words of transport campaigner and one-time mayoral candidate Christian Wolmar.
A Downing Street spokesman appeared to play down the central guidance ahead of the elections, saying decisions were “best taken at a local level.”
Aside from process, the main charges leveled against LTNs are that their less desirable side-effects disproportionately impact groups who are already disadvantaged. In particular, campaigners highlight stories of disabled and elderly residents who cannot easily cycle or walk and who have missed hospital appointments or been unable to retain carers because of the diversions.
Similarly, the redirection of traffic to trunk roads implies more pollution on those streets, which are home to relatively high numbers of residents from lower-income and minority ethnic backgrounds.
This point is hotly contested, with DfT presenting evidence that redirection of traffic is a short-term effect of LTNs that eventually evaporates as more people choose not to drive in the long run.
These arguments still do not seem to fully account for the visceral loathing felt by some toward LTNs, some of which have been repeatedly vandalized, daubed in black paint or sprayed red. On streets near LTNs you can see the physical signs of a divided neighborhood, as some houses display “pro” posters in their windows next to those with “anti” posters.
The same campaigner quoted above posits that it is about “freedom — drivers are territorial about being able to drive, it’s a visceral sense of freedom of the road.”
Labour candidate Charlie Hicks added: “I get lots of quiet messages from people saying ‘this is the best thing that local authority has done in the 25 years that I’ve lived here’” even if they would not want to say so publicly “because they can see what they are up against.’”
“The fuss they have created is completely out of proportion to what they represent,” Wolmar argued. “This should be outside of the conventional political framework. It should be a no-brainer that people want to live in streets that fewer cars are going down, and better environmentally.”
For all the heat the issue attracts, some argue it won’t make much difference at the ballot box.
Nick Bowes, director of the Centre for London think tank, highlights polling that shows that active transport is relatively low down on voters’ list of priorities for the local elections, after crime, housing and waste disposal.
In many of the metropolitan areas where Labour-controlled councils are being confronted over LTNs, the main viable opposition is from Lib Dems or Greens, rather than anti-LTN Conservatives.
Beyond the city
Outside Britain’s cities, where the battle of the bollards seems completely alien, transport is also a key driver of local politics.
In rural parts of the U.K. where public transport is often scarce or even non-existent, concern about soaring petrol and diesel costs, and even access to fuel, could particularly hurt the Conservatives.
Pump prices rose more in March than in any previous month on record, according to insurance company RAC, which tracks fuel prices. Last month it cost nearly £90 to fill a 55-liter family petrol car — £22 more than a year ago. It was £28 more than a year ago to fill a diesel tank.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak, whose own constituency of Richmond in North Yorkshire is heavily rural, tried to address concerns with a fuel duty cut of 5 pence a liter last month, but campaigners say it has not done enough to ease the burden.
People are “going nuts about fuel prices,” said former Brexit campaigner and MEP Richard Tice, who said his Reform Party is fielding around 120 candidates on a “cost of living” ticket.
“You are now at the point where lots of people are saying ‘I can’t go and have Sunday lunch with my in-laws,’ or ‘I can’t go and see my son at university for the weekend’ because it’s just too expensive.
“It’s absolutely hitting people right in the solar plexus. I think it is far worse than Westminster realizes, far worse.”
Howard Cox, who runs the FairFuelUK campaign, said there was a lot of anger that the government had not done more to make sure fuel duty cuts were passed on to drivers.
“I’m a One Nation Tory and I won’t be voting for them. I’ll be voting independent in our little local election that’s going on here in Cranbrook in Kent, and frankly, the Tories have lost my vote until they get their act together and start actually lowering taxes, and particularly get rid of the green taxes,” he said.
Price rises have come at a time when drivers have struggled to fill up at all after environmental campaign group Just Stop Oil blockaded oil terminals with the result that many petrol stations ran dry over the Easter holidays.
Labour, which has traditionally tried to position itself as stronger on the environment than the Conservatives, has sought to capitalize, demanding the government bring in an injunction that would ban protests at oil terminals.
In much of rural England, though, the Liberal Democrats are the bigger threat to the Tories at this week’s election than Labour.
Ross Henley, a Lib Dem who is fighting in a crucial Conservative versus Liberal Democrat ward in Somerset, said: “There are lots of people, particularly in rural areas, who are actually telling us that they are going to vote for us this time.
“Some of the reasons relate to national issues about the Partygate issue, some of it is on things we do as local councilors, personal votes, but there are people every time we go out who are telling us that they are voting for us this time because of their concerns over the state of the economy, because of inflation going up and prices,” he said.
In some parts of his patch people are having to drive 10 miles to their nearest petrol station.
Despite the shift in public opinion in favor of driving down emissions, it still seems that when politicians try to get between a driver and their car, they do so at their peril.
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