From cycle lanes to Low Traffic Neighbourhoods: Who owns our streets?

From cycle lanes to Low Traffic Neighbourhoods: Who owns our streets?

From cycle lanes to Low Traffic Neighbourhoods: Who owns our streets?

Last month I participated in an online debate on Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, organised by the Academy of ideas. Speakers were Conservative peer and former deputy chairman, Transport for London; Rebekah Kelly from grassroots campaign group We Are Islington; rormer Hackney councillor and Cabinet Member Rita Krishna; Emma Richman, Executive Director of operations, Peaks and Plains Housing Trust in Manchester. Journalist and broadcaster Ella Whelan chaired a lively and very useful debate and audience discussion. You can watch the video of the whole event here, and read my brief introduction below.  

The full introductory blurb for the debate and speaker profiles can be found on the Academy of Ideas website

Introduction

There is so much you can say on this subject, but as I have just four minutes for my introduction I thought I’d start with a question posed in the blurb for tonight’s discussion.

“Should we take advantage of the benefits of lower activity in cities and learn a lesson about what life could be like without cars?”

Well, that’s a good question. Even better if we, the public had ever been asked, or engaged in a serious dialogue about what kind of city we want. But we were never asked. LTNs, road blocks and cameras were dropped on us from a great height. Some drivers still don’t know what these things are and drive on through, earning themselves an instant £130 fine, which is great for council’s like Hackney, which has made around £1 million out of LTN cameras since the summer.

One ‘benefit’ we saw under lockdown, is that many ordinary people pulled together, organised independently, creating informal support networks to help elderly or medically vulnerable neighbours.

1. What the imposition of LTNs and road closures does is the opposite of this – because they force many elderly and disabled, potentially into permanent isolation.

2. And far from tapping into the resourcefulness, and community spirit that residents showed during lockdown, the whole policy is built on mistrust of the citizen, and is designed to disempower them.

We are irresponsible, rat-runners who cut through neighbourhoods simply because we’re apparently too lazy to walk or get on a bike. We are not to be trusted with the decision as to whether our journeys are ‘necessary’ or ‘unnecessary’. Our betters will decide that for us.

3. The policy, implementation and the reality of LTNs is division and is acting against the potential for genuine community cohesion we saw signs of under lockdown.

Older and more long term residents are looking on as the neighbourhoods they grew up in are being completely reshaped, not for them but for a younger, more affluent and healthy generation. I’m certain that many newer and younger residents don’t want that, any more than the older ones do, but this stuff is just driving people apart.

And just look at the destructive wedge being driven between cyclists and motorists. Forget cycle lanes – what has really made cycling in London so much better and safer over the last 20 years I’ve been cycling here, is London Drivers. Most drivers are so aware, and conscious of cyclists today. That’s been the key improvement. Yet in treating drivers so badly, and doing it in the name of cyclists, we risk losing those gains and benefits, and creating a war.

You can’t impose community with policies or parklets. Strong communities are about people having a sense of purpose and control. The best and most vibrant communities can be noisy and chaotic and in every way fly in the face of the planner’s idyl that often looks so good on the drawing board. Cars having nothing to do with it.

I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago when I went (by bike) to Stamford Hill.

I was struck by a very tangible sense of community and life. It’s buzzing with commercial and social life on the street, but it’s full of cars, and mini-buses etc. But that makes no difference because it is people that a make community.

A city is nothing without commercial life and without citizens who have the freedom to choose how they do things, get around, organise their lives and so on. And for that to work we have to be free to negotiate and work out how to do that, and still get along with one another. There’s an inherent intolerance at the heart of LTNs. They’re about forcing one group’s values and choices on everyone and effectively saying – tough, get used to it.

And why on earth are we waring over this?

But far from being a drag on society, ordinary people are the solution to many of the problems we face today. We need more democratic participation – and even the most seemingly disinterested or disengaged are alive to the possibilities of real freedom and democracy, given the right circumstances. I’m very optimistic that we can rebuild our democracy from the bottom up.

Why I’m standing in Hoxton East & Shoreditch

Why I’m standing in Hoxton East & Shoreditch

Why I’m standing in Hoxton East.

If I’ve learned anything from the last few months of fighting road closures in Hackney, it’s that our elected representatives see residents as little more than naughty children that can’t be trusted to do as we’re told. They certainly don’t see us as rational citizens capable of making wise choices. And that’s the whole basis of democracy. In a democracy we have to be trusted to make choices about how we live our own lives. You can’t simply impose everything from above, thinking you know best, as the council invariably do. For one, it’s a waste of the talent, insight and experience that residents possess.

That doesn’t make good policy, as we have seen. Then you end up sowing mistrust and resentment; creating artificial divisions like cyclists versus motorists, healthy versus disabled, newer residents versus older, and on it goes. But the politics of Labour today thrives on divisiveness. 

These road closures have been a disaster, right across Hackney. They have paralysed our neighbourhoods, left many elderly and disabled people stranded in their homes, greatly increased journey times, left many people struggling to get to work or a hospital appointments, and many local businesses on the brink of failure.

They have however, succeeded in uniting radicals, conservatives, Greens, muslims, jews,  young and old against them. That at least is one good thing that has come out of the mess made of our roads. And we need unity if we are going to restore some sort of normality to the borough. 

I believe that standing for office and fighting the council at the ballot box is one very important way forward for residents and I hope that I am the first of many. 

So who am I? 

I first came to Hackney nearly 40 years ago, but I moved here in the early 2000s, when I opened The Eclipse pub off Chatsworth Road in Lower Clapton. It was an old East End boozer on the edge of what was commonly known as ‘Murder Mile’. As a business it was failing badly and was facing closure. We put everything we had into it, renovated it on a shoestring, and managed to turn it into a real hub of the local community. It was a very popular place and had a transformative effect on the area, but nevertheless it was really tough to make a living, as anyone in the pub business will tell you.

Oddly, one or two people branded us as middle class ‘gentrifiers’, which struck me as a bit odd given I grew up on a council estate and came from a long line of factory workers and cleaners. But what these self-styled critics didn’t seem to like was working class aspiration. We served nice coffee and wine, we even sold cocktails, and they couldn’t imagine working class people might be into anything other than boozing, fighting and swearing, so they branded us ‘gentrifiers’. And I guess that’s partly why I’ve often stood up for gentrification. Unfortunately it’s a very slippery term and so now I’m often accused of supporting ‘social cleansing’ and a whole bunch of other things. None of which are true.

My partner and I ran The Eclipse that for nearly four years, and really helped build a new kind of community spirit in the area, bringing older and newer residents together. We had a fantastic time and met some great people and made some lifelong friends. So I know plenty about running a business in Hackney and how difficult the council can make things for small businesses. Even back then the council were trying to close the roads in our neighbourhood. If they’d succeeded it would have prevented us from getting deliveries and meant we’d be unable to function. Luckily they listened to reason back then.

Care work and the older generation

Following on from that I became a part-time carer for my mom, who developed vascular dementia and was bedridden for almost 10 years. Like many people in that situation, having a car was an absolute necessity. While my main mode of transport these days is my bike, or the bus I know that many carers, business owners, mothers and support workers need their cars on a daily basis. I also have a fair bit of experience of dealing with the NHS and care services. We had some really awful experiences with the hospital where my mom lived.

I really think we need to prioritise and rethink how we care for our elderly. I would like to see families and the wider community begin to play a central role in creating a much more humane care system than what we have now. Things are way too bureaucratic at the moment, with procedure and box-ticking prioritised over the needs of families.

I’m concerned about reports that St Leonard’s dementia wards may close and be moved out of the borough. I will absolutely do my best to fight that if I’m elected. I’d also work for the whole site to be improved and upgraded, and look at ways in which the wider community can become involved in helping to really improve the life and wellbeing of patients.

Campaigning

Horrendous Hackney Road Closures (HHRC) was formed last summer by a group of young mothers and carers, in response to the council’s imposition of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) and road barriers. I became involved about a week into the campaign, as I’d written about what had been happening there over the summer.

I’ve been central in organising a series of (peaceful) events and demonstrations, and am leading a campaign for a referendum on abolishing the Mayoral system. It’s a true grass-roots, organisation, run by and for residents. We are arguably now the major opposition in Hackney, so running for election makes perfect sense.

I would admit I have much to learn about local government, but I’m certain I can make a difference. It’s time to start trusting the electorate and have some reasoned and grown-up conversations about the problems we face and how we can begin to tackle them.

One or two ‘seasoned’ career politicians tried to dissuade me with comments like ‘This is how politics has always been done in Hackney, you won’t change anything’. But I’m really not in this for cynical old style politicking. There will be no shady backroom deals or impenetrably dull procedural politics. Hackney has had more than enough of that over the years.

It’s become clear, during the campaign, if it wasn’t already, that Hackney council is not interested in representing ordinary residents. It’s clear also that we can no longer ignore the goings on in the Town Hall. This administration is not just out of touch, it’s out of control and only residents can bring some reason and reality back into political life. So we need to take an interest, and begin to play more of an active role. If I am elected then we have got a foot in the door, we can see a chink of light! With full council elections in 2022 we can really begin to change things and create proper voice for residents. We can renew our democracy and do really great things.

Exclusive HHRC survey reveals road closures hitting women and families hardest

Exclusive HHRC survey reveals road closures hitting women and families hardest

Government-backed council road closures are hitting young working mothers, carers and their families hardest.

The architects of road closures that have made the news over the past few months, portray motorists as irresponsible rat-runners making millions upon millions of miles in ‘unnecessary journeys’. Roadblocks and Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) were introduced last year by councils across London, and other towns and cities, under cover of Lockdown, without notice or consultation. Such drastic measures were necessary they say, to protect children and communities from selfish drivers using neighbourhoods as cut-throughs. Now, nine months on, what have we learned? 

In East London, the Horrendous Hackney Road Closures (HHRC) group was formed in September last year by a group of young mothers and carers, and is now the largest anti-road closure group in anywhere in the UK. The group has more than 7000 members; not surprising given that Hackney Council’s road closures programme is the most drastic anywhere in the UK. Hackney Council says drivers are minority in the borough and should be put at the bottom of the ‘pecking order’. Council bosses have branded protesters as thugs, bullies, ‘birthers’ (born ’n’ bred East Londoners) and degenerates, representing only a self-interested, bigoted minority. 

The council and pro-LTN groups have been consistently demonising drivers and misrepresenting who we are.” Says Josie Hughes from the group. So the campaign group put together a survey to help dispel some of those myths, but also to find out a little more about its rapidly growing membership and why they choose to drive. “We kept the questions as objective as possible, we avoided asking about people’s views or feelings about road closures”. Says Josie. 

More than 700 residents took part in the online survey, which was live throughout November and December last year. Sixty-six per cent of respondents were women. “We already knew from our Facebook group stats that women were the majority in every age category, from 17 to 70.” Explains group member Ruth Parkinson. “Clearly the issue of road closures is particularly hard-felt among women.”

The survey asked about how important owning a car was to the life and wellbeing of their family. Could they forfeit their car without it harming family life? The answer was a resounding no. Ninety-three per cent believed that, “giving up our car would be detrimental to family life.” 

Many women today rely on their cars to help them with a myriad of responsibilities, including childcare, schooling, shopping and household tasks, and of course, holding down a job. That’s not to mention those caring for elderly relatives or dealing with disabilities. Some of the many comments in the survey illustrate this very well. 

“I’m a single mum, self-employed as a cleaner and I have to drive to my clients, due to all the necessary equipment I use. I also care for my disabled grandad who lives in another borough. I take him for medical appointments and take care of him. Without a car I simply would not be able to work, be a mom and a carer all at the same time.”

“We are a large family of adults who share a car. I need access to the car as I do the household shopping, but also to take my elderly parents for appointments. Some of my extended live locally but others live in different parts of London, are are not easy to get to on public transport. Our family is our support system, especially now with elderly relatives.”

“So many women are performing a precious daily balancing act which they can only do with the time-saving convenience of a car.” Says Ruth. “Cars have opened up so many possibilities for women and their families.”

Still politicians and policy makers are certain they know what’s best for us. These road closures are for our own benefit – we just don’t realise it yet. That’s why they employ ‘nudge’ techniques in an attempt to ‘modify behaviour’ rather than actually engage with the residents who elect them. They regard residents as irrational and selfish. Department for Transport states clearly that road closures and LTNs are about modifying and ‘changes will help embed altered behaviours and demonstrate the positive effects of active travel.’ 

Politicians, national and local are using Covid-19 as cover to abandon any semblance of democratic participation. When consulted in 2016, Hackney residents rejected, by almost 70 percent, proposals to close a number of roads. During Lockdown the council closed these roads anyway. Hardly surprising then that one of those most responsible for closing Hackney roads, former transport boss Cllr Jon Burke, said he had no interest in consulting ‘rat-runners’ and relished his new-found powers to  overrule the wishes of residents.

The survey asked about other reasons Hackney residents have for driving. Seventy-nine per cent said they use their car regularly to help others outside of their immediate family – elderly neighbours, friends etc – to do things they would otherwise find difficult. 

“We underestimate the usefulness of our cars as a community resource.” Says Ruth. “Many of our neighbourhood are held together by informal networks of helpers, carers, companions and shoppers. So often the car is an essential part of that equation.

Over the years I’ve used my car for work, to get myself, and colleagues, to and from work, for school and child care drop-off, shopping, ferrying my mum around, taking neighbours to hospital, rescuing stranded teenagers, going to weddings, funerals, christenings, picking family or friends up from airports, train stations, to help friends move house. The list is endless.”

The council say their roadblocks and LTNs are helping to discourage short ‘unnecessary’ car journeys of one or two kilometres, leaving the roads clear for those who most need them. The reality is quite the reverse. Quiet residential, and even school streets have become gridlocked, sometimes for hours at a time. 

Road closures have left many elderly and disabled residents stranded in their homes; massively increased journey times, left people struggling to get to work, hospital appointments, care visits, and pushed many local businesses to the brink of failure.

The motor car may have fallen from favour with today’s political and policy leaders, preoccupied with carbon-reduction targets and visions of a harmonious Green utopia, but it still plays a hugely important role in the lives of many ordinary people. Cars bring pleasure, freedom and convenience to millions of us. To view them as little more as dangerous carbon-emitters driven by selfish, lazy rat-runners, makes for narrow, divisive politics, short-sighted policy.

Read an edited version of this article in the online journal spiked!