Are councils and political leaders ignoring consultation results? 

Are councils and political leaders ignoring consultation results? 

If this week’s decision by London Mayor Sadiq Khan to expand his controversial Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) scheme is anything to go by, then the answer is an obvious yes. From next August the zone will be expanded to cover the whole of Greater London. It will reportedly include another 200,000 drivers, forcing them to pay £12.50 each day, if they own and drive an older vehicle.

This was despite a widely publicised TfL consultation this summer. Over 2.3 million emails were sent to complete the survey. Its results were irrefutable. 60 per cent of Londoners were against the proposals. This figure rose to “a staggering 80 per cent of people who work in outer London”.

Khan’s use of consultations, and to subsequently ignore them, is just the latest example of how elected politicians sideline the public’s opinion in favour of their own agendas.

He is not alone. Countless local authorities and councils who have proposed a variety of road closurer schemes, have sought to ask the public’s opnion, only to ignore it.

Hackney Council in East London is a case in point. They lead the way having brought in 19 Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTN) schemes using emergency traffic orders during the Covid lockdown.

Every time, they overrode local majority verdicts making permanent a raft of road closures that have severely affected how everyone uses once open roads. Crucially, during each consultation, when surveyed, more than 60% of respondents wanted them removed. Yet, every time the public’s opinion — after being asked — was ignored. Which begs the question, what worth are consultations if their results are going to be ignored?

In 2021, the Telegraph pointed out that “in the consultations made public so far, 18,314 people have expressed a negative view of the active travel schemes, vastly outnumbering the 7,020 residents who expressed their support.” Since then the same pattern has continued: the public says no but councils push on regardless.

In some cases, councils have withheld consultations results altogether. Forcing residents to resort to lodging their own Freedom of Information Requests (FOIs) to uncover consultation results. Take the case of Brent in west London. One resident, Sarah Rollinson, forced her council to disclose two LTN consultation results. Her detetive work reveal that in the Olive Road Area, there was a huge 787 to 198 majority against its road closure. She also found another case of a hidden majority in the Dollis Hills area. Only 41 respondents were in favour of its LTN, with a far higher 287 were against it.

However, online consultations are designed – perhaps purposely – to avoid asking questions that result in clear majorities or provide clear answers. A clue is provided by London Cycling Campaign’s (LCC) input, who have lobbied for, and helped design many LTN schemes. In their co-authored ‘A Guide to Low Traffic Neighbourhoods’, they offer friendly advice to councils, to “avoid questions that elicit yes/no answers”. Instead, they suggest using “sliding scales of approval” and other methods that help to diffuse and deflect the public’s response.

While the questions being asked should raise concerns, so too should how the results are presented. Many LTN consultation excercises result in lengthy reports that leave you wondering if their main aim appears to be about deflecting and confusing the public with mountains of information, rather than providing much needed clarity.

Each one comes with multiple documents, that need to be waded through to arrive at any kind of meaningful answers. Laden with lots of ambigous questions, requiring much analysis, to get even close to a conclusion. ‘Do you spend more time in the area?’ ‘Is it easier to cross the street?’, ‘Does the street look nice?’ ‘How many people run or jog?’, ‘Is there more space for cycling?’, ‘Are car trips inconvenienced?’ Perhaps expectedly, these reports delve into significant detail about respondents’ sexual orientation, age, ethnicity, favored mode of travel, car ownershp, and not forgetting, sexual orientation.

Such ambiguity of the questions asked, together with the analysis of the minutiae of the data, makes it incredibly hard to draw any solid conclusions from it all. Seldom is  the public are as a whole, with common interests or needs. Instead, time and again, each consultation ends up further segmenting public opinion into all kinds of ‘boxes’, further obfuscating making any kind of sense from it all. It’s no wonder, in the case of Islington’s Amwell report, comes with a gargantuan 17 accompanying documents!

Of course, having too much information is never a bad thing. Yet, it’s the questions being asked that makes it nearly impossible to draw any clear conclusions to what should be clear yes/no answers, do residents want LTNs to be retained or removed from their local streets?

Rather, what each attempt at a consultation illustrates is, an endless ‘process’ of public engagement for its own sake. According to Commonplace, the experts brought in to organise many LTN consultations, their aim is an ongoing conversation. As their website says of their process (and online platform), “We host open digital conversations that are easy to participate in and representative of the whole community.” Accordingly, everyone has an opinion, all are nonetheless valid.

Which, however, begs the crucial question: who or how are decisions made from hereon in? Unsurprisingly, given the ambiguity of these consultations, it is ultimately the councils themselves, with their armies of officers, officials and outside experts, who become the sole arbiters of our public opinion.

It was certainly the case that during Covid lockdown, the Conservative Government’s guidance to councils gave them an emergency mandate so that they could overlook the public’s democratic input in local affairs.

Councils took the opportunity to implement projects without needing any prior consultation. Councils like Hackney used the opportunity to revive projects already rejected by residents.London Fields LTN closure was one example where they imposed it, regardless.

Yet, today, post-lockdown, these ‘digital conversations’ that masquerade as democratic participation should really be a wake-up call for everyone concerned about local democracy. With each one, it is clear our democratic voices are being seriously eroded. It is time for citizens to return to the real public square and take back our democracy.

Niall Crowley

Photo by Niall Crowley

Are we witnessing a re-awakening?

Are we witnessing a re-awakening?

Last Tuesday (15 November), Islington Council attempted to hold its first public meeting in a 12-month-long consultation over its planned ‘liveable neighbourhood’ in its Barnsbury Ward. What caught officials by surprise was that, in addition to those who are for the scheme, many anti-LTN campaigners had also turned up.

The tiny library space was overwhelmed forcing Rowena Champion, Islington Council’s Executive Member for Environment, Air Quality and Transport to abandon the meeting amid chaotic scenes.

The issue wasn’t just that the venue was too small that left many stranded outside in the cold, unable to attend. It was that the council had assumed few people would be interested in such a contentious (and divisive issue) over their local neighbourhood’s future plans. How wrong they were.

A few miles north in the London Borough of Haringey, the same thing happened again one week later. On a similar cold evening, last Monday anti-LTN protestors marched to their council offices to be told by councillors that the meeting was cancelled.

 

Why? Having seen the numbers of people who had turned up in protest about yet more LTN schemes, its organisers who were plainly unprepared for an actual debate, made their excuses and left apparently via the backdoor!

A surprising knock-on effect occurred back in Islington. A planned Finsbury ward partnership planning meeting in Islington to discuss another liveable neighbourhoods scheme (organised by Clerkenwell and Bunhill Labour councillors) was quickly postponed with just one day’s notice. An email sent to residents cited an earlier public meeting’s cancellation as the excuse.

What can we draw from the events of the past couple of weeks? There are three new aspects to this that could work in our favour.

First of all, unlike during Covid — where councils could rely upon emergency powers including traffic orders to run roughshod over public opinion — now, they are mandated to go through a much longer consultation 12-month process.

The corollary effect in a post-Covid era is that they are now considerably more exposed, and forced to be more transparent in how they consult with the public. More public meetings, more opportunities to hold them to account.

Second, until now we could have assumed that the public was largely demobilised, especially after this May’s local elections which appeared to consolidate many councils’ pro-LTN mandates.

Plainly, if these past few weeks’ events are anything to go by, both Islington and Haringey councils have been put on the back foot, having to quickly recalibrate how they go about their controversial LTN and liveable neighbourhood schemes.

The third point is that whatever councils try to push through will be made much harder by the double-whammy effects of the aftermath of Covid and the ensuing impact of the cost-of-living crisis.

Both are forcing the public and local businesses to make tough choices. Not least, about how to move about, whether for work, family commitments, or to support others in the wider community.

The reaction against London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s announcement to expand the Ulez zone to all of London is a case in point. Its impact is a direct attack on working people who are being further targeted and penalised with more charges.

 

There can be no doubt that every existing and planned LTN (and related scheme) will add further pressure on any chance of local economic, or wider community recovery. Instead, they will strengthen public anger and opposition to them, and remain divisive at best.

With more lengthy consultation processes to go through, councils will likely be faced with more angry scenes like we’ve seen in Haringey and Islington over the past few weeks. Are we witnessing a re-awakening of opposition to LTNs? It certainly feels like it if recent events are anything to go by.

Survey reveals LTN road closures hitting women and families hardest

Survey reveals LTN 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!