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Low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) are designed to remove motorised traffic from residential streets, leaving them permeable to pedestrians and cyclists. During the pandemic, the government introduced the Active Travel Fund in England to facilitate rapid implementation of LTNs, but this also resulted in a powerful top-down control element. Politically, LTNs exposed local tensions, resulting in a deadlock with little communication across the divide.
There are tensions in central and local government—and within local government—over the ownership, control, and implementation of LTNs. There is little scope for local debate on the practical problems of implementation, or on lessons to be learnt. Consequently, a frenetic style can seek speedy implementation, but leave local authorities with severe challenges. It also results in a paradox whereby the centre, attempting to impose its will, fails to provide sufficient guidance.
Accelerating Top-Down Policymaking
In February 2020, Boris Johnson – a major proponent of active travel schemes and LTNs – announced a funding package of £5 billion, intending to overhaul bus and cycle links for every region outside London. This included several ‘Mini-Holland’ pilots, including LTNs. But the pandemic accelerated events and brought LTNs forward as a major policy initiative once a premium was placed on social distancing, and cycling use increased.
In May 2020, the government published new statutory guidance that instructed local authorities to reallocate road space for cyclists and pedestrians. A £220 million Emergency Active Travel Fund (EATF) for England would be distributed immediately. The publication of Gear Change detailed the government’s strategy for cycling and walking, together with its top-down approach. It emphasised the quality of cycling infrastructure must radically improve. A new body, Active Travel England (ATE), would examine all applications for funding and refuse any not complying with new national standards. ATE would also inspect finished schemes and ask for funds to be returned for any unsatisfactory or incomplete schemes.
Many local authorities felt pressured to introduce controversial LTN schemes rapidly. The Department for Transport stipulated that councils had to start schemes within four weeks of grant receipt and complete them within eight. In response, In October 2020, the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, wrote to local authorities blaming councils for the furore caused over measures like LTNs, criticised their quality of implementation, and defended the scheme. Schemes did not previously require prior consultation, but the government now demanded improved consultation processes, while still pushing short timeframes. The price was greater top-down enforcement via Active Travel England.
Changing the Rules — Frenetic and Fluid Policy
The government feared that consultation processes could lead to local authorities abandoning schemes, so Grant Shapps emphasised that ambitious cycling and walking schemes had significant, if quieter, public support. He announced that consultation should include tests of local public opinion. Shapps’ approach had shifted from criticising the quality of schemes to emphasising the need for implementation.
LTNs continued to be controversial. In Redbridge, Harrow, Wandsworth, Sutton, and Ealing, LTNs were removed in 2021. However, by the end of 2021, over 150 LTNs had been implemented since the pandemic. In January 2022, Active Travel England began work.
Paradoxes examined—the Oxford case
There were two strands of major discontinuities occuring between the perspective centrally and locally. First, funds available from the centre, such as the ATF, may not be easily synchronised with policy agendas and schedules locally, for example regarding periods for consultation and implementation. Secondly, LTN outcomes can be highly unpredictable. Government seems to assume implicitly that opposition to LTNs will dissipate over time once benefits are appreciated, but this cannot be guaranteed. Views on opposing sides can become entrenched, leaving the local authority in a vulnerable position.
Oxfordshire County Council (OCC) has an established commitment to the promotion of active travel, aiming to increase all cycling by 50% by 2031 by creating 25,000 new cyclists. LTNs were identified as a key pillar. Three LTNs were proposed in Cowley, covering a total of around 6,000 households.
OCC received a total of around £3.3million from the EATF and ATF funds. However, when the government demands for both speedy implementation and statutory consultation processes became clear, the council decided to fund the Cowley LTNs themselves. The ATF scheme became redundant.
From March 2021, there was strong resistance. In some cases, drivers took vehicles onto pavements to avoid bollards and planters, and vandalised planters and bollards. A 2,000 signature petition was launched and there were opposition marches. Opponents were a loose coalition of motorists, local businesses, taxi operators, delivery drivers, and disability groups. There were also those who supported LTNs. However, politically, the opposing sides had become entrenched, with little scope for compromise. The implementation process was further complicated by the degree to which the issue of LTNs crossed party lines.
Despite these doubts, OCC proceeded with the new East Oxford LTNs in May 2022. This again resulted in bollards and planters being damaged. They made the Cowley LTNs permanent, with a commitment to undertake further community and stakeholder engagement. There were few government guidelines for dealing with an issue as polarising as LTNs.
From one perspective, the creation of ATE could be seen as attempting to give active travel an institutional strength within government it previously lacked. Simultaneously, the strong top-down regulatory style adopted by government, together with rapid implementation timescales and inconsistent guidance that changed over time, could only intensify local tensions.
There was little scope for local discretion. Micro-management of every scheme cannot be a practical long-term strategy. As in Oxford, opposing views become entrenched, and it can provide a complex test of political leadership to decide whether to press on with LTNs, or cut losses.
The more the centre seeks speed and conformity, the higher the risk that it loses touch with needs locally. The success of the active travel agenda depends on the ability of local authorities being able to deliver radical transport changes.