The surreal months of the UK’s first pandemic lockdown heralded a grim new reality. Away from the frontline devastation faced by key workers, stay-at-home life was characterized by fear, loss, and unfamiliar confinement.
Against the backdrop of rising COVID-19 cases and shuttered shops, gyms, and restaurants, in May 2020 the government made available £250 million in emergency funding for low-traffic neighborhoods (LTNs): schemes designed to reduce traffic on residential streets in favor of giving more outdoor space to walkers, runners, and cyclists, and to improve air quality outside people’s homes.
But with just weeks to make use of the funding, local authorities had to act fast. So almost overnight planters and bollards materialised on street corners, temporary cycle lanes appeared, and pavements were widened.
In 2020, local authorities implemented over 200 LTNs through the government’s Emergency Active Travel Fund, including 100 in London alone.
By blocking most motor traffic, LTNs have proven effective at reducing traffic-related injuries. A recent study concluded that in London, the number of people injured in road crashes halved in the 72 schemes surveyed between October and December 2020, compared to the same time period in 2019.
Advocates say that by preventing drivers from “rat-running”—taking shortcuts through residential roads—LTNs have also improved air quality in local neighborhoods.
The data on air pollution impact is limited, especially for recently-implemented schemes. However, a 2018 study by King’s College London found that in Waltham Forest, North London, pilot LTNs introduced in 2015 had led to improved air quality, with a projected reduction in nitrogen oxide exposure by 2020 along a number of typical cycling and walking journeys across the borough.
But these schemes also attracted fierce opposition.
Dozens of local grassroots groups formed to oppose them, voicing concerns over poor implementation, lack of consultation, and feared exacerbation of existing economic and health inequalities. The Telegraph reported in December that over a quarter of the 110 councils that participated in the schemes had modified or scrapped them.
But alongside the broad church of earnest opposition—encompassing environmental justice activists as well as residents and businesses living and working within LTNs—groups and individuals with a history of downplaying air pollution and climate change adopted a series of talking points to undermine the schemes.
In the 2021 London mayoral campaign, a number of candidates—some with histories of fringe positions in opposition to clean air measures, COVID-19 restrictions and action on climate change—seized on practical as well as environmental and social justice arguments to work opposition to LTNs into their campaign platforms.
Candidate Laurence Fox, who founded the Reclaim Party to “reclaim” British values, described the schemes as “nonsensical” and even “neighborhood destroying.” As part of his anti-LTN platform, Fox—a vocal critic of COVID-19 lockdowns who has said climate change is “not as bad as everyone says it is”—played to genuine concerns raised widely in the early pandemic period.
These concerns ranged from increased air pollution for communities of colour near LTNs that saw increased motor traffic, to economic impacts on businesses contending with blocked streets, as well as access issues for disabled people. Legitimate concerns on these matters remain, though Fox’s accusation that LTNs delay emergency vehicles has been largely disproved.
Fox also tried to get involved in local groups, throwing his support behind Hackney’s anti-LTN campaign “Horrendous Hackney Road Closures”, despite campaigners explicitly stating they had not requested his endorsement.
Mayoral candidate David Kurten, leader of the Heritage Party, took up similar anti-LTN positions in his campaign, and also campaigned to remove all cycle lanes in the capital.
Kurten, an outspoken critic of national lockdown measures who has previously denied the harmful impacts of rising carbon dioxide levels on the climate, spoke at a number of anti-LTN rallies across London, including in Tooting, Islington, Barking, and Lambeth. However, residents’ grassroots groups such as One Wandsworth were quick to distance themselves from him.
Conservative candidate Shaun Bailey also tried to win voters over with anti-LTN arguments. He echoed concerns over lack of consultation over the schemes, pledging to “suspend unwanted LTNs” within his first 100 days as Mayor and “get London moving”.
But as with the other candidates, Bailey’s LTN positions ultimately seemed to align more with his longtime opposition to any government mandates to lower climate-heating and other air pollution, than with earnest social or environmental concerns. His campaign vows also included reversing the planned extension of the ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) to the North and South London circular roads, and returning London’s £15 congestion charge to £11.50.
Writing in the Evening Standard, Bailey said he was not opposed to clean air measures but felt the expansion would hit poorer Londoners hardest, “many of whom simply don’t have the money to change their mode of transport on a dime”.
Anti-LTN rhetoric ultimately met with little success at the polls. Mayor Sadiq Khan, a vocal supporter of LTNs, won a second term with 40 percent of the vote share, to Shaun Bailey’s 35 percent. The fringe candidates remained peripheral: Fox won just 1.9 percent, David Kurten 0.4 percent and Farah London, who ran as an Independent candidate on an anti-LTN platform, won just 0.5 percent of the votes.
Bailey, Kurten, and Fox had not responded to a request for comment by the time of publication.
Alastair Lewis, Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry at the University of York, said he was not surprised the issue had “become a lightning rod for political campaigning”, since LTNs provided a ready-made “talking point” across the political spectrum—from campaigners against racism to opponents of environmental action by the government.
“These measures are quite contentious local interventions, they’re never clear cut, because air pollution is complex and there’s never just one bad guy you can just go at,” he told DeSmog.
“There isn’t really a simple equation about balancing the benefits versus disruption to the wider environment. It’s not surprising that they’re an issue that attracts a lot of debate.”
‘Protecting freedom’ or opposing change?
The overlapping anti-LTN ideologies witnessed among some of the mayoral candidates are consistent with ongoing, usually right-wing, attempts to portray efforts to combat both pollution and racism as reducing “freedoms.”
“The ideology driving this is much like that of right-wing populist and Brexit campaigners which object to government intervention in general,” Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh, Director at the Center for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST) at the University of Bath, told DeSmog. “LTNs are a very widespread and current example of this, which they can point to around people’s ‘freedoms’ being eroded.”
While this stance worked for Brexit in 2016, it appears to have failed conservative candidates in 2021, Whitmarsh said. “Perhaps this is because people have broadly accepted their ‘freedoms’ being eroded for COVID since then, and many LTNs have been implemented during this time.”
Arch-Brexiteer Nigel Farage also used anti-LTN talking points in London’s local elections, held on the same day as the mayoral vote. Formerly of UKIP and the Brexit Party, Farage has a history of trying to bring fringe issues into the mainstream. His newly-named Reform UK campaigned explicitly on an anti-lockdown platform, while he made his opposition to LTNs clear in the weeks leading up to the May poll.
Farage also argued the schemes were “environmentally counterproductive,” despite his own long history of skepticism about the need for measures to protect the environment, including dismissal of mainstream science about the causes of climate change. He had not yet responded to DeSmog’s request for comment by time of publication.
The passion demonstrated on the campaign trail faded swiftly. Richard Tice, who took over from Farage in March, campaigned to fight for the removal of LTNs across London but failed to stand candidates in every area where LTNs had been introduced. And an initial analysis conducted after local elections suggested voters tended to prefer candidates that backed the schemes.
Motoring lobby groups latch on
DeSmog has found very limited evidence of “astroturfing”, the practice of creating an impression of widespread grassroots support where it does not exist, in the public conversation about LTNs. However, motoring lobby groups have at times overtly attempted to latch on to valid local LTN concerns, even when those positions clearly contradicted their long term records of opposing clean air measures.
Howard Cox, who chairs Fair Fuel UK, an industry-funded lobby group that campaigns against charges and taxes on UK motorists, has expressed concerns over the impact of LTNs on air pollution—despite the group being a key driver of the campaign to keep the freeze on fuel duty in the UK. This policy is estimated to have pushed up harmful nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions by up to 12,000 tons, according to a 2018 study. Cox declined to comment for this article.
In the run-up to the Mayoral election, the Greater London branch of the Alliance of British Drivers (ABD), a voluntary motoring pressure group with a history of casting doubt on the health impacts of air pollution, retweeted content from anti-LTN campaigners and groups. These included residential campaign groups and anti-LTN candidates for the 2021 London Mayoral race, including Laurence Fox and independent candidate Farah London.
In November 2020, local blog Inside Croydon reported that Roger Lawson, then campaign manager for the ABD, had pledged £200 to Open Our Roads, a grassroots campaign group protesting against the implementation of two LTN schemes in Crystal Palace, Upper Norwood, and South Norwood in South London.
Open Our Roads campaign manager Eliska Finlay has since tweeted that she had “no idea” who the donor was, since the pledge was made under the name ‘Roger Lawson, Chislehurst,” without listing Lawson’s ABD affiliation, and that the group ultimately rejected it. Finlay and Open Our Roads have not responded to requests for comment.
Lawson told DeSmog that he had “donated to various groups opposing LTNs,” but refused to disclose the amounts or identify the specific groups.
Lawson also started a petition last summer opposing road closures in Lewisham, South East London, which has now attracted over 12,000 signatures and hundreds of comments. He has been using the petition as a campaigning tool, posting details of Zoom meetings and regular updates about the public consultation on the fundraising website.
As with Open our Roads, Lewisham’s anti-LTN group One Lewisham has appeared to distance itself from Lawson. The organization’s website explicitly states its members are not “petrol heads”, and says it works to ensure LTNs “benefit the health and well-being of the many, not the few”. The group cites concerns over the implementation of the local Lee Green LTN, rather than the goals of the scheme.
Lawson’s petition does not mention cars at all, despite his position as founder of the Freedom For Drivers Foundation (FFDF), an organisation that has campaigned against LTNs. Lawson told DeSmog he founded FFDF this year, citing a disagreement with the ABD.
Paul Lomax, co-founder of local campaign group One Lewisham, said the group’s aims fundamentally differed from those of ABD and Roger Lawson.
“Our group—and most of the others—don’t oppose LTNs on libertarian grounds, i.e. driver freedom,” he told DeSmog, adding that One Lewisham was supportive of “school streets” and 20mph zones. “We just happen to agree that the Lewisham Lee Green LTN is fundamentally flawed.”
According to Lomax, campaigners such as Lawson and the anti-LTN mayoral candidates have not significantly shifted the debate on the schemes.
“Other than proffering their opinions on LTNs and turning up uninvited at some of the protests, people like Lawson, Farage, or Kurten haven’t had anything to do with any of the campaigns,” he said.
According to another Lewisham resident and anti-LTN campaigner, Lawson “used the fears of the local residents to forward his own very pro-car agenda” and had not been transparent about his then-role as chair of the ABD. The campaigner spoke to DeSmog on condition of anonymity, fearing their position on LTNs could put them at risk of online abuse.
The resident said they had attempted to alert the community that Lawson was behind the petition, but that many had still signed it.
“Most people don’t take the time to read the small print linking the petition to the ABD,” they said. “When people are directed to the website and see that the ABD is also against many road safety measures as well as being a climate change denier, they realize these may not be the ideal people to be affiliated with.”
They added that there was a clear distinction between the views of most anti-LTN campaigners and those of pro-car lobby groups like ABD and FFDF. “I’ve always been clear in my own mind that while I don’t agree with the social injustice of the LTNs, my own values are a million miles away from those of Lawson.”
DeSmog’s analysis of dozens of online and print articles, radio segments, and social media conversations revealed that right-leaning traditional media have played a significant role in amplifying the anti-LTN arguments of disparate political actors.
DeSmog reviewed 82 reports by 21 media outlets on LTNs that ran between May 2020 and April 2021, before the election. Articles or radio segments were labelled as “anti-LTN” if they focused on “negative” impacts of LTNs or emphasized popular arguments against the schemes, such as concerns that LTNs prevented emergency service access.
Prominent radio hosts like talkRADIO’s Cristo Foufas and Mike Graham, as well as outlets such as The Express and The Daily Mail, consistently elevated the profile of anti-LTN arguments, groups, and campaigners, the research found.
The Guardian and cycling-focused publications, like Road.cc, often highlighted pro-LTN arguments and the benefits of the schemes, while The Independent, the London Evening Standard, and Forbes typically covered LTNs from a more neutral perspective.
Meanwhile, Lord Tony Berkeley, patron of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Cycling and Walking, has accused the BBC of unfair coverage. Berkeley submitted a complaint to the BBC in March claiming that a broadcast report capturing an LTN dispute had emphasized critics of LTNs, while failing to fact-check their assertions or include “data or facts relating to the efficacy of Low Traffic Neighborhoods.”
“I really think the media has over-egged the opposition to LTNs,” Berkeley told DeSmog.
“There is more of a trend towards giving a platform to LTNs in the right-leaning media,” Berkeley said, suggesting this could be due to the average age of the audience being higher, and being more opposed to lifestyle change.
The BBC defended its coverage in a response to Berkeley, saying there had been “wide coverage of the government’s desire to increase active travel and the role LTNs and other traffic reductions measures play in this effort”. The particular story Berkeley had complained about was “specifically about how divisive LTNs had been in some communities,” the broadcaster stated, adding that it was “necessary to use examples of the passions LTNs have provoked”.
Despite some evidence of the media enhancing coverage of the LTN opposition, Professor Lewis argues there is a major distinction in the national media between perception of measures to combat climate-heating greenhouse gas pollution, and localized air pollutants that increase health problems such as asthma and heart disease.
“There is a surprisingly broad political consensus that is very much in favor of reducing air pollution emissions that have an impact on public health,” he said. “That’s not to say everyone wants LTNs, but at the high level objective for the country you get very broad agreement that we should improve air quality level, which stretches all the way from The Guardian through to the Daily Mail.”
So while LTNs continue to spur debates at the hyper-local level, he said, the issue failed to materialize on a regional or national level.
“It’s very different if you were talking about greenhouse gas emissions, where the debate is more polarized, and you find a substantially larger number of dissenting views” said Lewis. “It doesn’t surprise me that the opposition hasn’t hasn’t come through in quite the same way as greenhouse gas reduction or ‘net zero’.”