Why I don’t welcome low-traffic neighbourhoods

Entrance to York Road in the Bowes Park low-traffic neighbourhood
Entrance to York Road in the Bowes Park low-traffic neighbourhood

Bowes Park resident John Machin questions whether Enfield Council is willing to listen to local voices

It’s true, as Adrian Day wrote in the Dispatch last year, that if we are to address climate change, pollution and ill health, there needs to be changes in our behaviour.

He said we must reduce our dependence on cars, but only 29% of Londoners get to work by car, compared to 67% in England. Car use in London peaked at 50% of all journeys in 1990, and has been falling ever since, replaced by public transport, walking and cycling. Londoners ‘get it’.

But is it enough? The low-traffic neighbourhood (LTN) in Bowes ward, where I live, has put residents behind a bottleneck of road blocks that opens only on to the North Circular. While I personally oppose this scheme, the wider argument still depends on whether the LTN actually works, and for whom does it work? The more I look into it, the more sceptical I become.

The most important claim in favour of LTNs is that they reduce air pollution. Within the LTN, I’m sure they do. But where does the traffic go? Who pays for the lower air pollution enjoyed by residents within the LTN?

Supporters of LTNs point to studies purportedly showing how traffic ‘evaporates’ by reducing short, unnecessary journeys. The trouble is, LTN closures need only add a few minutes to each longer, necessary journey to outweigh the pollution reductions resulting from the shorter ‘evaporated’ ones – and the delays now in the Bowes area are way above a few minutes.

So, families living on main roads are the ones who pay. Their children have lungs, too. If behaviour change is needed in London then, in a democracy, it’s of paramount importance that local politicians take their residents with them on the journey from now into the near future. Yet, they are behaving in the most counterproductive way.

Enfield Council’s leader, Nesil Caliskan, described LTN protestors as “thug like” on Twitter. The deputy leader, Ian Barnes, insists LTNs were in Labour’s 2018 local manifesto, but they weren’t: ‘Quieter Neighbourhoods’ were, and there’s a big difference. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan even turned his back on us when he came to Bounds Green during the mayoral election campaign.

Ian Barnes also claims the Bowes Park LTN was campaigned for by residents. The basis for this claim is a 2018 petition to parliament by Bambos Charalambous MP for an LTN trial, which was supported by 377 residents, plus a 2019 ‘perception survey’ that attracted just 263 responses.

In August 2020, when the LTN was rushed in, some residents (including myself) formed a protest group. We got 1,600 signatures on a petition against the LTN. None of this appears to matter to Enfield Council; it’s clear they intend to press ahead regardless.

Some LTN supporters talk of a ‘controversy/construction/acceptance curve’. You might say that governments, both national and local, routinely implement policies that half the electorate disagrees with. Yes, but the democracy mechanism usually clunks around first. It’s imperfect, but it’s our system. It means that when we don’t get our way, we don’t feel cheated.

This time, the usual prior consultation procedures were circumvented because of the emergency Covid-19 legislation the government brought in. No clunk. The consultation now running concurrently with the LTN trial doesn’t even pretend to offer a ‘no thanks’ option, only allowing suggestions for ‘improvements’. Moreover, a compromise option – the use of ANPR (automatic number plate recognition) cameras to allow local drivers to pass through filters – has been scotched by Cllr Barnes.

To those who believe in LTNs, I say this: as democrats, you should be as dismayed as I am that the council is pushing them through in this way. Without legitimacy, opposition is likely to grow. Do you think the climate emergency is best tackled by force or persuasion?

To put it another way, are you willing to take the risk that the council’s tactics might torpedo the wider effort?