Isn’t it extraordinary that the Tories scent blood over that most prosaic of innovations, the ponderously named low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) – and yet the idea that a few bollards and barriers strewn across residential areas should still become their main line of electoral attack is just further proof that the Tory government has abandoned any attempt to demonstrate serious intent.
Let’s be clear. There is precious little blood to be drawn in LTNs. This is a niche concern, affecting a very small percentage of the population, of whom only a minority are opposed. Moreover, as with the ultra-low emission zone (Ulez), the issue that has triggered this renewed interest in LTNs, it is the Tories who originally encouraged the concept by persuading and funding councils to introduce them during the pandemic. There is, too, an irony in the fact that the “pro-motorist” campaign against LTNs, previously articulated by the transport secretary, Mark Harper, is now being spearheaded by a prime minister whose default transport mode is a helicopter.
It is a measure of Rishi Sunak’s desperation that he has been sucked into the battle over the “war on motorists”. There is, of course, no war on motorists. It is an invention of the Daily Mail and other rightwing newspapers that argue against any restriction on the freedom of motorists to act exactly as they wish. The rightwing press consistently but incoherently rails against speed cameras, parking controls and, most recently, Ulez. But what would ultimate victory in this war mean? Are they seeking the junking of the whole panoply of motoring laws so that drivers can park anywhere, drive as fast as they like, ignore road signs and stop paying the egregious vehicle tax? None of this bears the slightest scrutiny; yet Sunak has now put himself firmly and foolishly on the side of the motoring libertarians.
All these measures, including the LTNs, help to impose some sort of order on the motorisation of society, which has been spiralling out of control for decades. The result of leaving it unchecked can be seen in Los Angeles – and even Sunak, in his saner moments, might realise that such car domination, which results in 12-lane highways, is not a desirable societal goal.
That is also why Keir Starmer has made a fundamental misjudgment in undermining the attempt by his own London mayor to reduce the impact of vehicle emissions on people’s health. A more courageous politician – indeed, a more savvy one – might have advised his candidate in Uxbridge, Danny Beales, to stand firm rather than calling into question the expansion of Ulez.
Yes, perhaps Sadiq Khan should have implemented a more comprehensive scrappage scheme, given that the impact is likely to be felt most by poorer people with older cars, and phased in the rather high £12.50 fee; but ultimately the Ulez policy is a step in the right direction. Starmer should have realised that if your opponents see this as a war, then you have to respond as if it were one. That requires strong resolve and articulating support for policies that Starmer, like any other averagely socially aware person, must understand are ultimately the “right thing to do”. Given that his own policies are so influenced by polling and focus groups, he should look at the wider evidence on LTNs, which shows strong support in representative polls – in other words, properly undertaken surveys, rather than the “consultations” by local councils, which are often hijacked by vociferous groups on either side of the debate.
Rather than trying to join Sunak in opposing the “war on motorists”, Starmer should sit on his hands and watch as the prime minister launches himself into a war he cannot win. LTNs have been installed by local councils with, by and large, the support of local people. Candidates standing on avowedly anti-LTN policies, with the odd exception such as the Tory taxi driver recently victorious in Cambridge, have not been elected. For most local people, it is not the issue that determines who they vote for. Sunak – and indeed Starmer – have misread what happened in Uxbridge. There was, indeed, some vociferous opposition to Ulez – but overall the result was not bad for Labour, a near 7% swing and a better result than in 1997, when the constituency was more favourable. But by panicking over the issue, Starmer has fanned the flames of opposition to measures designed to reduce the impact of cars and congestion.
Sunak’s political inexperience suggests he may not understand that central government has no power to remove LTNs – or perhaps he simply does not care. He is scrabbling about for an issue that he thinks will win over a few voters and satisfy his potential critics in the rightwing press. He must know that any review will founder in the mire of complex legislation that will ensure that the vast majority, many of which date back to the last century, will remain in place. Just as with the “war on drugs” or the attempts to stop small boats crossing the Channel, Sunak is backing a loser.