Our Head of Data and Insight Nicolas Bosetti takes a look at whether the controversy surrounding Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) had a major impact on the local election results in London, and what the future now holds for LTN schemes in the capital.
Low Traffic Neighbourhoods have been among the most politically sensitive issues for councils in the last few years, and it is tempting to see last week’s local elections as a referendum on LTNs.
Local elections are always about a mix of topics – from neighbourhood level issues (for example an LTN or a planning application) to council-wide ones (such as the level of council tax), right up to national concerns and the state of the political parties in Westminster.
Polling we conducted in partnership with Savanta in advance of the recent local elections confirmed this. It found that the level of council tax, social care and national issues were top concerns in deciding how people would vote – while schemes to facilitate walking and cycling ranked much lower – only 12 per cent picked this in their top three.
But it is true that given the small numbers voting in each ward, some are won on razor thin majorities (and even some boroughs as we’ve seen in Croydon) of just a handful of votes and therefore local campaigns (both in favour or against an LTN) certainly had the potential to make a difference.
Taking last week’s results into consideration, it is clear no borough changed political control solely as a result of the introduction of LTNs. It is certainly the case that in some of those councils which introduced LTNs, majorities reduced (Enfield) or the Conservatives captured them from Labour (Croydon and Harrow). But it seems likely other factors were more influential in these two boroughs, not least Croydon effectively declaring bankruptcy, and voting patterns of the Hindu community in Harrow.
To back this up, there are councils, including some in outer London, which introduced LTNs and either broadly maintained the same number of councillors or actually increased them (Labour in Hounslow, Waltham Forest and Ealing). In addition, in inner London, Labour councils that have introduced LTNs have been returned with very large majorities (Camden, Hackney, Lambeth, Lewisham, Islington, Southwark or Newham).
Conversely, Wandsworth, which had suspended all its LTNs, and Westminster and Barnet, which didn’t introduce them during the pandemic, were lost by the Conservatives to Labour, but it doesn’t seem likely that LTNs were decisive in any. Tower Hamlets has its own local politics, and Lutfur Rahman’s Aspire party won the Mayoralty and a majority on the council on an anti–LTN stance. Whether it was this anti–LTN stance that won it, or other local factors is unclear, but the fact Aspire won councillors all over the borough and not just in those areas with LTNs suggests the latter.
Looking broadly at the results, there are probably a few lessons to learn from the election on LTNs:
- Councils are often faced with pressures on both sides: some think their council went too far on LTNs, while some think that their council didn’t go far enough. Suspending controversial walking and cycling schemes can be seen as the easier option, but it often isn’t the case: councils that do this are likely to meet sustained local pressure for schemes to return.
- Many candidates in favour of LTNs generally stressed that any future walking and cycling schemes will be introduced after significant local consultation, neutralising one of the major criticisms of the opposing campaign groups. Usually this wouldn’t need saying, as consultation is a requirement for such schemes, but it does show that the introduction of LTNs through experimental Traffic Regulation Orders (which means that consultation is conducted afterwards) has been bruising for councils – and the context of the pandemic, when public transport use was discouraged, has been somewhat forgotten as the main reason for moving quickly.
- The issues that LTNs are there to answer are not going away: councils still need to develop solutions to the climate emergency, air pollution, congestion, road deaths and injuries, noise, and the obesity crisis. The city has very tough net zero and modal shift targets, with a large gap in how these are actually going to be achieved. Councillors will be emboldened to know that a majority of Londoners want their street to look different: recent polling by Centre for London and Savanta shows that 58 per cent of Londoners want their street to become greener and 51 per cent want more space for walking.
- Advocates of walking and cycling schemes rarely branded them as Low Traffic Neighbourhoods: and it’s likely we’ll see these schemes evolve, reincarnate under a different name and include a wider range of interventions – from school streets and bus gates to microparks – which will make LTNs more effective, and will improve the look and feel of local streets.
- Councils with LTNs, that fought the election publicly supporting them, will feel justified and emboldened to go further, faster: Councils that have been more reticent might look to those boroughs with LTNs and see the minimal voter kickback and be encouraged to bring them in their area too. This is especially true of boroughs like Wandsworth and Westminster, which have low car ownership rates compared to the London average. What happens in these two councils, as a result of campaigns by Labour which didn’t deviate a vast amount from the previous administrations positions on reallocating road space, will be fascinating to watch.