Street wars in Britain pick up speed ahead of local elections

LONDON and NORWICH, England — If you thought British politics was all about Partygate and the war in Ukraine, think again.

While Westminster watchers on Thursday will ponder the upcoming local elections as a barometer of Boris Johnson’s prime ministership, many voters are focusing on their own backyards – or, rather, the surrounding streets.

A pandemic push to improve the nation’s health by getting Brits out of their cars and walking or cycling more has led to more funding for local governments to ‘reallocate’ road space to ‘active transport’. As a result, since 2020 many roads in UK cities have been closed to cars or narrowed to deter motorists, and whole areas have been converted into ‘low-traffic neighbourhoods’ or LTNs.

What may seem like a harmless way to help both residents and the planet to the uninitiated has turned into a vicious political struggle, dividing traditional political parties, neighbors and even families.

“Someone who has been in the Labor Party for a long time said it was more controversial on the doorstep that the Iraq war and Brexit were coming together,” said Charlie Hicks, a Labor candidate for Oxford County Council.

Will Woodroofe, a Conservative in Labor-dominated Islington, north London, echoed this: “I can say with some certainty that it comes up in one in five conversations. It’s the greatest. We also lead with that because we are the only party standing to get rid of them.”

And while the directive and its implementation evoke the ire of drivers and non-drivers alike, many of the issues raised in the debate will outlast immediate concerns about today’s LTNs and go to the heart of some of the tough policy choices facing lawmakers around the world world while grappling with the competing demands of environmental and cost-of-living crises.

Not listening

The LTN issue has fractured traditional party loyalties. Many Conservative Council candidates stand on an anti-LTN platform, although the party is behind them nationally, while Lib Dems are against them on some areas and for others.

A wave of independent anti-LTN candidates has emerged, threatening to disrupt usual voting patterns. Labor has mainly been associated with the implementation of LTNs as the districts where they have been introduced tend to distort Labour, but some individual Labor activists have dissented or even resigned over the policy.

The main complaint against the policy is that residents have not been properly consulted.

“I think what really upsets and upsets people here is the feeling that these measures have been put in place and they [local people] were ignored,” said Tristan Honeyborne, a Conservative candidate in Dulwich, south London.

A common criticism is that consultations were either not carried out properly or ignored by the local authority.

Local Tories admit, with varying degrees of openness, that they are frustrated by national policies.

“These kinds of decisions are best made close to local people working with communities rather than being imposed from above,” said a prospective Conservative councillor, pointing out that in London it was mostly Labor councillors , which they had pursued in an “inflexible” manner.

The Department for Transport has defended the manner in which LTNs are being introduced, saying: “Several independent professional surveys over the last year and the Government’s own polls and surveys show consistent public support for the cycling and walking measures that we and the councils are taking to have. ”

Some would go further, claiming that adopting LTNs from the top down is the only way to achieve critical change. “It took radical ideas to get people out of cars,” said an activist with the Living Streets charity, who asked not to be named because of the hostility the issue arouses.

Andrew Gilligan, Boris Johnson’s transport adviser, is widely credited as the mastermind behind the program and has “free rein” to push his agenda, as transport activist and former mayoral candidate Christian Wolmar puts it.

A Downing Street spokesman appeared to downplay central leadership ahead of the election, saying decisions were “best made at the local level”.

Aside from the trial, LTN’s main blame is that their less than desirable side effects disproportionately impact already disadvantaged groups. Activists particularly highlight stories of disabled and elderly residents who cannot easily cycle or walk and have missed hospital appointments or been unable to keep caregivers due to the diversions.

Similarly, the diversion of traffic to trunk roads means more pollution on those roads, which are relatively populated by low-income and ethnic minority residents.

This point is hotly debated, with DfT presenting evidence that traffic diversion is a short-term effect of LTNs that will eventually dissipate as more people choose not to drive in the long-term.

These arguments still do not seem to fully explain the deep-seated disgust some feel for LTNs, some of which have been repeatedly vandalized, smeared with black paint, or spray-painted red. On streets near LTNs, you can see the physical signs of a divided neighborhood as some homes display “Pro” posters in their windows alongside those with “Anti” posters.

The same activist quoted above posits that it’s about “freedom – drivers are territorial about being able to drive, there’s an instinctive sense of freedom on the road.”

Labor candidate Charlie Hicks added: “I get a lot of quiet messages from people saying, ‘That’s the best thing local authority has done in the 25 years I’ve lived here,'” even if they don’t didn’t want to say publicly.’ Because they can see what they’re dealing with.’”

“The excitement they’ve caused is disproportionate to what they represent,” argued Wolmar. “This should be outside the traditional political framework. It should go without saying that people want to live on roads that have fewer broken cars and are more environmentally friendly.”

For all the heat the issue draws, some argue it won’t make much of a difference at the ballot box.

Nick Bowes, Director of the Think Tanks Center for London, highlights polls showing that active transport is relatively low on voters’ list of priorities for local elections, behind crime, housing and waste management.

In many metropolitan areas where Labor-controlled councils face LTNs, the main viable opposition comes from Liberal Democrats or Greens rather than anti-LTN Conservatives.

Beyond the City

Outside UK cities, where the struggle with bollards seems entirely alien, traffic is also a key driver of local politics.

In rural parts of the UK, where public transport is often scarce or non-existent, concerns about rising petrol and diesel costs and even access to fuel could hurt Conservatives particularly.

Pump prices rose more in March than in any previous month on record, according to insurance company RACthat tracks fuel prices. Last month it cost almost £90 to fill up a 55-litre family petrol car – £22 more than a year ago. A year ago it cost £28 more to fill a diesel tank.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak, whose own constituency of Richmond in North Yorkshire is heavily rural, last month tried to assuage concerns with a 5p a liter fuel tax cut, but campaigners say it hasn’t done enough to ease the burden .

People are “crazy about fuel prices,” said former Brexit campaigner and MEP Richard Tice, who said his reform party is fielding around 120 candidates with a “cost of living” ticket.

“You’ve gotten to the point now where a lot of people say, ‘I can’t go out to lunch with my in-laws on Sunday’ or ‘I can’t go to university with my son on the weekends’ because it’s just too expensive.

“It absolutely hits people right in the solar plexus. I think it’s a lot worse than Westminster thinks, a lot worse.”

Howard Cox, who leads the FairFuelUK campaign, said there was much anger that the Government had not done more to ensure the fuel tax cuts were passed on to drivers.

“I am a One Nation Tory and will not vote for them. I will be voting independently in our small local elections which are being held here in Cranbrook in Kent and quite frankly the Tories have lost my vote until they pull themselves together and start actually cutting taxes and particularly getting rid of green taxes,” he said.

The price increases came at a time when drivers were struggling to even fill up after environmental campaign group Just Stop Oil blocked oil terminals, causing many petrol stations to run empty over the Easter holidays.

Labour, which has traditionally sought to take a more pro-environmental stance than the Conservatives, has sought to capitalize on this by demanding an injunction from the government that would ban protests at oil terminals.

In much of rural England, however, the Liberal Democrats are the bigger threat to the Tories than Labor in this week’s general election.

Ross Henley, a Lib Dem campaigning in a crucial Conservative-Lib Dem community in Somerset, said: “There are a lot of people, particularly in rural areas, who are actually telling us they will be voting for us this time.

“Some of the reasons relate to national issues related to the Partygate issue, some of it to things we do as local councils, vote in person, but every time we go out there are people telling us that this time they are voting for us because of their concerns about the state of the economy, about rising inflation and rising prices,” he said.

In some parts of his turf, people have to drive 10 miles to the nearest gas station.

Despite the shift in public opinion in favor of cutting emissions, it still seems that when politicians try to stand between a driver and their car, they do so at their peril.


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