Who needs cars, hey?

8 Nov

If there was an award for the biggest casualty in the UK’s Net Zero mission, perhaps the top contender would be the car.

What was once the pride of many Britons now seems to be something far less dazzling; an asset to be hidden away, in fact. At least, that’s the impression politicians give, many of whom are forcing motorists to either phase out or replace their vehicles – in the name of environmentalism.

Today, for instance, one paper reports that Bristol council, where the Green Party and Labour hold the same number of seats, is considering charging motorists “more than £400 a year to park at work under proposals to cut air pollution and make car use less affordable”.

The scheme is established in Labour-run Nottingham and is being considered in Oxford, Leicester and Glasgow. Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, has published guidance for boroughs on how to introduce the charges.

What’s the problem, anyway? A representative from Bristol council said the plans will “reduce the number of journeys” and that the money can be used to boost public transport.

It all sounds very idyllic until you ask what the immediate effects of such a policy will be. Demand for parking is not going to magically go away overnight, after all; motorists will hunt for new spaces, and congestion will merely grow.

Moreover, it’s another example of motorists – who are expected to pick up the bill for this policy, as has been the case in Nottingham – being disproportionately affected by the green revolution.

We seem to have forgotten there are perfectly reasonable explanations for why people might need to drive to work. A). It can be expensive to live near the office. B). They may be living in parts of the country where transport connections are few and far between. I can go on… Yet councils treat driving as an indulgence the public could give up – if only they cared about the environment more.

In general, policymakers – from across the political spectrum – are the most callous when it comes to getting through eco policies. All practical considerations seem to go out of the window, in terms of what Joe Bloggs can financially cope with, so long as we can “Build Back Better”. 

One of the most cumbersome examples of this is Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs), which block cars going down roads. Many were installed during lockdown and proponents think they’re a fantastic green policy. Speak to tradesmen/women, however, and it’s a different story. They talk about being stuck in traffic for hours on end and losing jobs, among other disadvantages.

Then there’s Ultra Low Emission Zones, which have been expanded in London. These force drivers to upgrade their cars – often to the tune of thousands of pounds – should they not comply with the ever-changing minimum emissions standards.  

Similarly, when I talk to local tradesmen about this policy they are unbelievably frustrated, having had to trade in fairly new, decent vehicles to meet the requirements. Freelancers are the most affected, as they have to pay for these costs, as opposed to having a company to absorb them.

At this point, I should add that I don’t drive; I happily walk and bus around London. Yet it irks me to see hard-working people, with little or no option but to use a car, being treated with contempt. Whenever I have raised concerns about affordability, the attitude seems to be “well, there’s going to be a bit of economic pain in this eco revolution”. That economic pain is hitting the people who can least afford it hardest, though.

Interestingly, James Frayne warned last year for ConservativeHome that “London-based, upper-middle class officials and advisers [who] lead work on environmental policy” who can “end up with a warped view of what most people’s lives are like”, and that “they can make woefully unrealistic and unpopular recommendations which ordinary people can’t adapt to.” This is what I have seen in my area – and now appears to be widespread. 

Politicians have got to wake up. The public may support green policies, but not at serious personal inconvenience – in the case of Bristol, for the crime of trying to get to work. 

How likely is a referendum on Net Zero?

29 Oct

Over the last few days, a rather interesting poll by YouGov has been released. It showed that the British public are in favour of a referendum on the Government’s Net Zero proposals by the next general election. Forty two per cent, in total, want a vote on the plan, 30 per cent don’t want one and 28 per cent did not declare any preference. However, when “don’t knows” were excluded from the data, 58 per cent wanted a vote on the matter.

This poll will not please the Government. In the past it could reassure itself that, as Net Zero was included in the Conservative Party manifesto of 2019, it had a clear mandate to move forward with its eco plans. But the data may be the clearest sign yet of growing public discontent. Though Net Zero was, indeed, spelled out in the document, perhaps it seemed like a minor detail among Getting Brexit Done and Levelling up. 

Now, of course, no one can miss it. As time has moved on, the headlines around it have been some of the most dramatic, even in the Covid era. From the talk about having to give up meat, to the suggestion of gas boilers being ripped out of houses around Britain, to the fact that Net Zero is estimated to cost £1 trillion over the next three decades, there’s no getting away from the eco revolution.

Many are already living under very noticeable green policies. In my local area, for instance, the Labour-run council has installed Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs), and Ultra Low Emission Zones (ULEZs) have been expanded all across London. When I recently interviewed local tradesmen about these two things, they were unbelievably frustrated. I have no doubt that they care about the environment, but they are losing jobs due to the amount of time it takes to get through LTNs and have spent thousands upgrading their vehicles. No one listens to any of their concerns.

How would they vote, I wonder, were there a referendum on Net Zero? But what would one even look like? It’s worth pointing out that the YouGov poll asked whether people would want a referendum on Net Zero proposals, rather than Net Zero itself, but this could contain a huge number of questions. Case in point: the Climate Change Committee (CCC), the Government’s independent advisory group on reaching Net Zero, has offered over 200 recommendations about how the UK can get there. Where do you start with that list? 

Perhaps eco policies could be grouped into specific areas – from “the home” to “vehicle use”. Or maybe, as time goes on, the public will be asked to make trade offs, such as “Would you rather be a vegan or stop flying for X amount of time?” I half-joke, but it strikes me this is not so far away from the truth. Either way, you can see the complexity of bringing Net Zero to the ballot box.

One thing is for certain, which is that the Government would never put one question to the public – namely “Should the UK achieve Net Zero by 2050?” – as the UK is already legally binded towards the 2050 target through the Climate Change Act, as amended in 2019. The genie is out of the bottle and we have already done so much to become eco friendly. Do not expect to see campaigners in “Vote Net Zero” t-shirts any time soon.

Even if we weren’t legally obliged, though, it’s unlikely the Government would risk public consultation on the matter. The implications of getting the “wrong” answer would be staggering, and it cannot bank on getting the “right” one. It was interesting to note that earlier this year, Swiss voters rejected a proposed new climate law by 52 per cent – compared to 48 per cent – in a referendum. It was a warning to eco-conscious leaders on how the vote could go.

Ultimately, as was the case with the Coronavirus Act, the Government has simply decided that there’s an emergency and that this justifies it pushing through its Net Zero agenda. And so, dreaming of any vote in this becomes a futile exercise.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the Government shouldn’t think hard about how to get more public involvement on its decisions. Without doing so, it seems to me that negative attention will turn to the CCC, which risks attracting the same resentment that was once directed at the EU – due to its unelected representatives and impact on policy. Voters can end up feeling “left behind”, too, as was the case in the referendum.

In general, the Government needs to check in with the public more. It has, perhaps, become overly accustomed to not having to do this during the pandemic. But beneath the slogan of “Build Back Better”, I wonder if it can hear the anger among those struggling with ULEZs and similar policies? It must connect with these voters – before it finds the next general election a de facto referendum on Net Zero.

Andrew Selous: The suggestion voters weren’t consulted on LTNs is wrong. Local elections suggest they approve.

30 Jul

Andrew Selous is MP for South West Bedfordshire and founded the Conservative Friends of Cycling.

One thing that Conservatives – and, through clenched teeth, our opponents – can agree on is that the Prime Minister is good at winning elections, often in quite unpromising circumstances. 

But over one subject, at least, is the PM losing his judgment of the public mood? He is about to announce more measures to boost walking and cycling – including more bike lanes and “low-traffic neighbourhoods” (LTNs), where residential side streets are closed to through motor traffic to prevent rat-running. Cars are not banned from these areas: you can still drive to or from any point, but you might have to take a longer way round.

Some in our party fear the pursuit of these policies will be damaging, saying that the measures already taken during the pandemic, including dozens of new LTNs, have caused “huge…anger across the country,” are devastating local businesses and have been “pushed through…without asking” people.   

Just under three months ago, though, people were asked what they thought – at the local elections where, in dozens of wards, a controversial LTN or cycle lane was the major local issue.

In London, our mayoral candidate, Shaun Bailey, made opposition to bike and walking schemes one of the main planks of his campaign, promising that if he won the election, he would remove them. In Manchester, Oxfordshire, and the North East, local candidates did the same.  

It didn’t work for us. It didn’t win us votes. In Conservative West London, the Bailey campaign did direct mail, leaflets, Facebook videos and personal visits against a new separated cycle track along the Chiswick High Road. Our vote went up in the borough (and in London) as a whole.

But in the three Chiswick wards with the cycle track, we went down by between 10 and 12 per cent. Similar, intensive efforts against LTNs in Ealing again saw the Conservatives underperform in most of the wards concerned, losing one, Ealing Common, that we won in 2016. In Enfield, our vote went up in most of the LTN wards, but by less than the borough average. In Oxfordshire, Manchester, and other places, we flatlined or fell in the LTN wards.  

Of course there were many reasons why this might have happened. I’m not claiming it proves that all cycle schemes work – or that the same approach is right for everywhere. What works for London and other cities might not work the same way for a smaller town. In my own constituency I have been lobbied to complete the cycling green wheel in Leighton Buzzard and to increase safe cycling routes in Dunstable.

But most schemes have been in cities and larger towns. In those places, cycle schemes do make some people angry, but the election results appear to back up something already found by every professional opinion poll – that more people support them.  

Why would this be? Cycling went up by 46 per cent last year, more than in the previous 20 years put together – but it is still not a majority pursuit. I think these schemes attract support because they benefit far more people than simply those who cycle: local residents, pedestrians, and indeed also businesses.

Streets not dominated by cars are more pleasant places to shop; people visit and spend more. Cafes and restaurants that fought to keep parking or motor traffic have discovered that they can make more money by putting tables in that space instead. It is often Conservative councils, such as Westminster and Wandsworth, that have led the way here.   

But if things are better within the LTNs themselves, what about outside them? Don’t they just push more traffic or pollution on to surrounding roads? Surprisingly, perhaps, early monitoring results show that on most, though not all, surrounding roads this does not seem to be happening, once traffic patterns have settled down.

The people living in the LTNs appear to be changing the way they travel – taking fewer short local journeys by car and walking or cycling more. In most cases, though not in every case, this takes local traffic away from the surrounding roads too. And the longer a scheme is in, the more travel habits change.

As that happens, even schemes which are highly controversial at the beginning become much more widely accepted. Over time, by switching more journeys to vehicles which take up less roadspace, we free up that space for the many people who still need to drive. Cycling means fewer cars in front of yours at the lights.

We have a traffic problem, an obesity problem, a pollution problem, and a climate problem. Schemes that get more people cycling and walking can be part of the answer to all those problems. That is why I’m glad the Government is acting to make cycling a pursuit for the many, not just for the brave.

The war on cars

26 Jul

Last week, a study came out showing that road injuries have halved in low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) installed in March to September of 2020.

One paper called the research a “significant moment in the debate over the use of LTNs” which have “faced noisy opposition”. Soon after Sadiq Khan Tweeted saying: “The evidence is clear: LTNs dramatically reduce road danger – particularly for pedestrians – making neighbourhoods safer places for everyone.”

The story and the reaction to it were comical and depressing in equal measure. For starters, the study must have some of the most state-the-obvious results of all time. It turns out that if you block cars going down roads, there will be less car injuries. Who knew! But more worryingly, it seems to have been taken as evidence of why we need more LTNs in Britain.

What’s my problem with LTNs, anyway? As ConservativeHome readers may know, I have written about this topic before, and it’s the most boring issue I’m passionate about – simply because I don’t like to see hard-working people hurt by illogical policies (which LTNs are).

The first time I discovered LTNs was in April this year when a delivery driver helped me move back to London. In short, we had to stop and re-route numerous times due to how many LTN signs had been put up blocking roads (more on that here).

The next time I discovered LTNs was when I ordered a taxi – approximately 500 metres away – and it took 20 minutes to arrive. “Where are you?” I said, rather urgently, on the phone to the driver. “Sorry, it’s these LTNs”, he replied. 

We subsequently ended up in traffic – because LTNs block so many roads – where he told me “I hate London at the moment”. Both he and the delivery driver seemed at their wits’ end.

It’s not hard to see why. According to The Daily Telegraph, which has been one of the few papers to cover issues with LTN, tradesmen are hiking prices up by as much as a quarter to negate LTN’s practical effects, often resulting in them being able to attend less jobs.

Khan has reassured us all that LTNs are safe, but he is, essentially, trying to counter a phantom objection. Who has said they aren’t safe? Indeed, my road is nice because it’s an LTN. The other day I watched two people play ping pong in the middle of it, and it all felt very idyllic.

But something about the ping pong bothered me – yes, really – as it seemed to symbolise what’s wrong with LTNs, which increasingly look like an excuse for upper middle-class playgrounds (in my area, at least). Who cares about the delivery driver stuck in traffic…

The result of LTNs is that plumbers, electricians, builders and many other tradesmen and women, often self-employed, struggle to get about in areas to carry out services and drop off things that we all need (unless you think supermarkets can survive on deliveries made by bicycle in the future?).

Worst still, how are the elderly and people with disabilities meant to get around if cars are banned from their road? And what about those subjected to all the emissions on “non-LTN” roads? These questions seem to be ignored in the “debate” on LTNs, which no one remembers having.

Shockingly, LTNs have even generated £14 million in fines over the last 12 months – mainly because people don’t know what they are. It’s no wonder. Councils quietly installed 72 LTNs in March and September in London last year – when we were all mostly at home, oblivious and conveniently unable to protest.

LTNs aren’t just a London thing, incidentally. They are happening all over the country, in places such as Bath and North East Somerset, where the Deputy Council Leader recently told residents that they “are here to stay”. The council set to spend £2.2 million on its programme in the next two years. Speaking about residents’ concerns, a councillor in the area said leaders simply need to “hold [their] nerve“, as though people will simply get used to having roads closed off.

My area is one of the worst offenders for LTNs, and there are now regular protests against them – although they hardly get any media coverage. In general, there’s quite a lot of snobbery towards anyone who dislikes LTNs, as if they’re not intelligent or caring enough to value their higher, environmental purpose.

There is a greater point to this. First, it’s clear from Khan’s reaction that councils want to roll out more LTNs. Far from being concerned about them, the “party of business” appears to have endorsed the scheme, with the Conservatives allocating £2 billion towards projects that promote “active travel” over the next five years and encouraging London’s transport authority to spend £100 million on walking and cycling schemes.

I predict LTNs will cause real economic pain. When there are so many variables that are already unknown about the national recovery from Covid (empty supermarkets, for instance), turning cities into assault courses is hardly the best idea.

Furthermore, LTNs seem emblematic of an era in which councils, committees and MPs seem to think they can bring any policy in, so long as it’s attached to “environmentalism”, Coronavirus (the initial excuse for LTNs) or now “safety”. It seems to me that LTN protests are just a taster for the backlash leaders will get, so long as they continue to stop consulting people on such radical decisions.

Either way, some parliamentary interest in LTNs cannot come soon enough…

Low Traffic Neighbourhoods have been pushed through during lockdown. As restrictions ease, there will be more protests.

1 Jun

Do you know what an LTN is? Up until this year I had very little understanding of what this term meant (Low Traffic Neighbourhood, incidentally). I had seen hints in London – protests about road closures, and so forth – but as is sometimes the case in politics, you only understand the extent of an issue once it stares you in the face.

In April I moved to an LTN, and it’s good in many ways. My road is lovely and quiet. I sleep well at night. But behind that bliss lies an inconvenient truth. LTNs are causing huge inconvenience and anger across the country – due to the impact they’re having on people’s lives and livelihoods. Often tradesmen and women that don’t have much of a voice online.

If you haven’t heard of an LTN before – and you wouldn’t be alone – the term essentially describes areas cars are no longer allowed to go down. Covid has sometimes been used as a reason for them (to enforce social distancing, apparently). But they’re clearly meant to achieve environmental goals. They make sense in terms of the Government’s wider plans. It has set aside £225 million for “emergency” walking and cycling measures in London, Oxford, Manchester, Birmingham, York, Edinburgh, Nottingham, Derby and Cardiff.

LTNs, on the face of it, are a nice idea (who doesn’t want to protect the environment and see more cycling/ walking in our cities?). Yet living in one has taught me some of the big issues with them. For one they mean drivers suddenly have a lot less roads to go down, forcing them onto longer, more convoluted routes. That makes taxis and delivery drivers late. It means more time spent in traffic while everyone heads onto the same road. LTNs are reportedly causing delays for emergency services. They might even make industries redundant (people order taxis, after all, as a quick route to places. What’s the point if they can’t get through LTNs?). 

There are all sorts of articles justifying LTNs – and why press criticisms aren’t justified. But none of this computes with what I see, never mind the sad words of a taxi driver I spoke to over the weekend. “I hate working in London at the moment,” he said, due to the road blocks. He added that he had grown up here.

Perhaps the worst thing about LTNS is their implications for those who can’t get about as easily; people with disabilities, or who are elderly, for example. A report found that three in four disabled people felt “angry and ignored” because they were not asked about LTNs. And why would they feel differently? The state has taken away one of their main transport options.

In the last week, one paper found that three quarters of people who have been consulted are against LTNs. Consultation is an interesting word – because every time I have seen a protest against LTNs (and I am seeing more and more), demonstrators all use that word. People are angry that authorities have pushed through this idea without asking them. 

When I looked into LTNs I found that 70 low-traffic neighbours were implemented in London between March and September last year. In essence, the councils used a year in which we were mostly at home and unable to protest, to get their radical plan through.

Similar to what Andy Street wrote earlier for ConservativeHome, most of us want better environmental policies – but we have to be incredibly careful that they don’t make people’s lives harder, financially or practically.

It’s clear that there is already resentment at some of the “green” policies the Government, and Labour/otherwise councils, are trying to get through. Along with paying off the pandemic, there are no signs that life is getting any cheaper – yet there’s talk of the public having to replace their gas boilers.

Frankly it looks opportunistic of councils to push LTNs through when people weren’t paying attention – and, as with other parts of the Government’s green revolution, I think there will be backlash once people realise the social and economic costs of this idea. That awareness is happening as we ease out of lockdown. Stay tuned.