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Covid-19: Emergency Transport and Travel Measures in London Boroughs

Volume 683: debated on Wednesday 4 November 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David T. C. Davies.)

Travel and transport are what keep our capital going, and they produced its suburbs. When we add the covid emergency into the mix, however, questions are raised about the disproportionate numbers of black and ethnic minority people and transport workers who died earlier in the pandemic, at a time when they were not getting the protection they needed. Their families are still seeking death in service benefits. There is also the whole question of democracy in the age of the virus, and how we build back better, more sustainably and in a more resilient way on the other side of all this as part of the new normal.

Happily, some of the issues I thought I would be addressing tonight have been overtaken by events. Thanks to the Transport for London bail-out at the weekend, there will be no extension of the congestion charge—phew!—and there will be no charging for under-18s. I pay tribute to our Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan—so much better than the guy before, isn’t he?—for all that.

That leaves me with emergency traffic orders, which are those controversial things that have enabled pop-up cycle lanes, pavement widenings—some people call them “road smallings”—and controversial low-traffic neighbourhoods all over our capital. They have followed a sequence of implementation now, consult later.

I want to make a confession: I am a confirmed, long- standing cyclist, dating back to when I went to school in what is now my constituency every day in the ’80s. We now have more bikes than people in our household. My own offspring replicate that journey in the ’90s when I was at Cambridge University, where it was almost compulsory to get on your bike every single day. I completely understand the benefits of cycling: it is free, it takes us from door to door, and it is environmentally friendly. I am a confirmed cyclist.

These low-traffic neighbourhoods seek to get us all on two wheels or on foot, in a move towards active travel—a modal shift. We can still get everywhere we need to go in a car; they just mean we have to go the long way round. A good recent example is Bowes Road in Acton, which first became known to me because every BBC cabbie, when they took me up there, would go down it rather than the A40. Residents hated that because their road had turned into a thoroughfare and they could not get out of their houses. Now a low-traffic neighbourhood has been introduced there, and they love it. There are these oversized flower pot things called planters, and bollards, and the residents have been able to reclaim their street. In that instance, a pre-existing problem has been dealt with and rectified.

However, colleagues from every compass point of London, some of whom are here today, have told me about examples of LTNs that are not well designed and are not working, in neighbourhoods that are already naturally low-traffic neighbourhoods. These things popped up with no consultation and no notice, even, and it feels to people like they have been inflicted on them. We have seen large-scale opposition all over London, with tens of thousands of signatures in Wandsworth and in my own borough, and in Islington I think there have been marches.

Does the hon. Lady agree that a number of the changes that have been made have had a really negative impact on the taxi trade? The licensed taxi is one of the most accessible forms of transport. If we block it out of key routes such as Bishopsgate, we make it more difficult for people with mobility issues and disabilities to get to the places they need to get to.

The right hon. Lady makes a really good point. We have relied on cabbies—remember that taxi exam, the knowledge? That is completely invalidated by these changes. She makes a really powerful point. I think people feel discombobulated because these changes are so radical and dramatic, and they appear to have come out of nowhere.

I think that policies work best when policy makers take the public with them and act for them, rather than doing stuff to them, which I think many feel has happened. In our borough there are 37 different schemes, with over £1 million of funding. The most controversial is LTN 21—they all have these rather Stalinist names. Oh, sorry—I will be in trouble. Across three wards, nigh on every side street has been blocked; it has turned the area into a convoluted maze of planters at odd angles. The right hon. Lady referred to commercial vehicles. Delivery vans have become more and more prevalent in the pandemic; they are completely outfoxed by these measures.

When news of this debate broke on a local forum, hundreds of replies—they were going up by the minute—came in with things that I should raise, so I will try to give voice to some of those.

I do not know whether the hon. Lady is more concerned about having been insufficiently enthusiastic in her mention of Stalin or having been too enthusiastic in bringing him up. In the context of low-traffic neighbourhoods, does she think that a good deal of consultation and discussion with the emergency services is critical? That has been a consistent problem with the implementation of LTNs, certainly in the view of my constituents and many others.

The hon. Gentleman speaks so much sense. We are at one on Heathrow—actually, I think all three of us who have spoken so far are—and he is right. In theory, these people are not allowed to express an opinion, so the leadership say, “Yeah, fine,” but the people who have to implement these things—the ambulance personnel, police people and fire officers—all think that they have made a difficult job ever more difficult at a time when every second counts. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.

I am sure my hon. Friend is reflecting the views of some of her constituents, but does she share my concern that while we worry about sending car drivers around the long way, pedestrians have to walk a long way down the road to find a safe place to cross every single day and no one ever notices, because it is so normal for pedestrians’ needs to be put behind those of the motorist?

My hon. Friend is right. Pedestrians often feel they are at the bottom of the food chain. Actually, walkers have contacted me saying that they have got nothing out of this. Cyclists have new cycle lanes, but pedestrians seem to have been a bit forgotten in all this. I think the key thing is to take people with you and get consent, and that also means consultation.

Other issues that have popped up include kids being distressed at the much elongated minibus journey to the Log Cabin disabled children’s adventure playground. Elderly and infirm people and their carers are also affected. When we say, “Oh, the sat-nav will update”, they are a bit befuddled because they use the old-fashioned “A to Z”, as do I actually. I have a case of a lady who had regular out-patient appointments at a central London hospital, but has now been discharged because the taxi gave up on too many occasions, so that is a bit serious. This affects all sorts of businesses, including workmen with all their tools. Shops say that they used to benefit from passing trade on the way back from longer journeys, and that has all gone now.

If hon. Members have a little google, they can see on YouTube how, all over London, traffic that was supposed to be evaporating—it was meant to disappear because, after a while, people have new habits and give up driving—has actually been displaced to main roads. Those are residential roads, and people live there too. They already had unacceptably high levels of pollution, and it has just worsened. If the whole aim was combating emissions, that is undermined when there is a very long way round—five times, 10 times longer, or whatever. In some boroughs, compliance checks that no one is driving through are done with those sinister little motor vehicles that are idling, with NO2 emissions. Again, that seems a little bit serious.

Does the hon. Member agree with me that consultation is important, but what is also important is signage? One of my constituents approached me to say that the family drive every day from Kensington through the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, and on the first day that one of these schemes was operating, the family got eight tickets because they were not aware of it and the signage was so poor.

Goodness me, the hon. Lady tells a chilling story. In Ealing, at least initially, there are no fines—maybe I should not be saying that—so that people get used to it. There is a softly-softly approach. Ultimately, I guess that people do get used to it, but it seems wrong to have that many tickets on day one.

In a global pandemic, life is hard enough as it is, and to make life even harder feels punitive. This policy is well tried in places such as Copenhagen, but this is just copying and pasting that into outer London, a place that people liked because of suburban convenience and because of the grid system.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. I want to draw her attention to a recent report by the Institute of Race Relations called “The London Clearances”. This report found that regeneration projects are being used to actively dispossess working-class communities and low-income families of their homes. This process, which is commonly known as social cleansing, has mostly been understood as a class issue. However, given the over-representation of black, Asian and ethnic minority communities in social housing and the racialised language used to describe London’s post-war housing estates—for example, in the aftermath of the 2011 riots —I believe this is also very much a race issue. Certainly, constituents of mine have been in touch about the impact this is having on them and the fact that some of the measures have been targeted not towards housing estates in very congested or overcrowded areas but areas that have terraced homes—

I thank my hon. Friend for a point that deserved to be made at length. She makes the point about the main roads, and those are people too. They feel two-tiered now: their house prices are probably lower, and they feel they have a raw deal because of the constant gridlock forcing everyone there.

At best, this has been a mixed experience. Where these measures work, where there is a need and where there is consultation, they are really good, but if it is felt that they have been illogically plumped own where they are not desired, that is a completely different matter. Somebody said to me the other day that a bollard had been put on a very short road that has got only one house on it. He said he did not ask for it and added, “We feel penned in like animals.”

Is not part of the problem the lack of consultation? Has not that been caused by the Government’s insistence that the schemes be implemented straight away within an eight-week period, not allowing any consultation with communities or very limited consultation at best?

My hon. Friend speaks so much sense. It is true that it feels that this catastrophising, saying, “Emergency, emergency, we have to do it by the end of September”, with no time for consultation apart from six months later, is just the wrong way round, putting the cart before the horse.

We have had this vote today, and some of us have wrestled with our consciences about the lockdown. On balance, I thought it was the right thing to do, but coronavirus has greenlighted many incursions—some people call them draconian—on our civil liberties, on citizens’ freedom of movement. As I said, I strongly believe think that to gain consent, we should consult. Pictures have gone viral in Ealing of planters that have been vandalised and bollards that have been ripped out. Yes, that cedes the moral high ground: it is wrong to do that. Vandalism is bad, so it is a moral boost for the diehard proponents of the schemes, but it also shows this is not a consensual policy, and that something has gone wrong if that is happening.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the low-traffic neighbourhoods are really important in constituencies such as mine, which has the A23 running through it and has so much pollution? Does she also agree that the lack of consultation could have a negative impact on future measures as the public will almost learn to react negatively because they feel that they have not been consulted in the past? We really do need those measures to protect our environment and change the nature of traffic in our areas.

I completely agree that we have a climate emergency, we have our net zero obligations and we have an obesity crisis, but doing this without a consultation has just got people’s backs up. It sometimes feels that these things have been formulated, not by anyone who cycles or understands local traffic flows, but just in order to satisfy the criteria for a budget when there is money available and time is running out.

Does the hon. Member agree that low-traffic neighbourhoods can sometimes be important for air quality in constituencies such as mine in central London? One council is currently going through a consultation on the Hyde Park estate, and while residents welcome the ending of rat running, they are concerned that they have not been listened to. They have their own ideas and they want to work in partnership with the council to make those work. Does she agree that working in partnership with residents is the way forward for local authorities?

The hon. Member, and former council leader for where we are now, speaks with authority and passion and makes total sense on this. We need a collaboration between residents, stakeholders and businesses—all the different actors in this—which sometimes feels like it has not happened.

I know the Minister is a reasonable person and I have some questions for her. She is not the type to blame it all on Sadiq Khan, like some people would.

On the matter of Sadiq Khan, does my hon. Friend agree that he should be congratulated on seeing off the Government’s plans to extend the congestion charge zone and to begin charging under-18s for travel?

Of course I agree with my hon. Friend. People would have been charged to go from Ealing to Acton, and possibly to use the A23, which goes to Brighton. It is good that that has gone, and congratulations to the Minister too, if she was involved in that.

We are told that local authorities are the final arbiters, but there is so much mistrust around this. Is there any kind of mechanism to ensure that it does not look as though people are marking their own homework? Would the Minister, or someone, be able to swoop in? The Secretary of State wrote to councils to say that they should have had pre-implementation consultation, and should respect all road users. How will that wish be operationalised, especially in places where the consultation takes place six months after implementation? Surely there is scope for some sort of review before then if things are not working. There have been reversals—wholesale in Wandsworth, partial in Redbridge and Harrow. Could the Minister give some guidance on that? I think some councils are getting a bit entrenched; they are not for turning, or for any modifications.

In the final reckoning, does the Minister think a referendum might be a way forward? The scheme has been divisive in the way that Brexit was—sorry to bring that up, Mr Deputy Speaker, but it coloured all our lives for many years, and it has not gone away. A referendum would be completely equitable. If a council has a consultation tool on its website, only those with the right level of literacy, technology and energy will use it and make that count; what about the elderly and infirm? In a referendum, we could give as options, “Yes, with modifications, if need be”—then if “yes” wins, the modifications can be worked out—and “No” for those who want the measures removed.

I will be brief this time. Does my hon. Friend agree that there should not only be consultation, but due consideration should be given to equalities impact assessments, and to determining the socioeconomic impact of LTNs?

My hon. Friend has read my mind. Impact assessments are missing in all this. There have been no baseline data or traffic surveys. It would be good to have a clear point of measurement, so we can ask, “Did it work?” How will this be measured?

I have suggestions for the Minister. There are ways to discourage car use other than taking this big-bang approach of setting up all the LTNs at once. Instead of our closing every side road, I would like us to have dedicated, segregated cycle lanes on main roads. More of those, please—but not the bollarded ones, because I feel kettled in those, and people cannot overtake or be overtaken in them. Could she address cycle theft, cycle storage, and even bike grants? Not everyone has the same ratio of bikes as the Huq household, so could she help out there, maybe?

There could be more demand-responsive buses, and we could incentivise lift-sharing; on the other side of the pandemic, we will be allowed to be less than 2 metres apart. Perhaps we could even make public transport free, or cut fares—that was a Khan policy as well. There could be more charging points for electric vehicles. People who have bought those recently feel doubly diddled—or triply, if you count controlled parking zones, but that is probably another debate.

The biggest side effect of this noble policy, which has good intentions—reducing carbon emissions and obesity, and all that stuff—is that it has dichotomised residents into the Lycra-clad brigade of cyclists versus the greedy, gas-guzzler motorists who feel a sense of entitlement to drive around in a metal box, when most of us are both, if not many other things, too. We all inhabit complex Venn diagrams. I use the tube every day as well as doing all those other things. Just the other day, I was on my bike, near one of those bollards. A guy in a Transit van-type vehicle had to reverse a long way, and started effing and blinding at me for being on a bike. I do not think he knew who I was—I hope not. Anyway, that is what the policy has done: create binaries in previously harmonious communities.

What I am trying to say is that a well-intended policy has had unintended consequences, but there is time to rectify them. I know that the Minister is a reasonable person; I am curious to hear her answers to all those points.

It is a pleasure to respond to the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) on raising this important subject, which has attracted wide interest from colleagues in all parts of the House. The title of the debate is “Covid-19: Emergency Transport and Travel Measures in London Boroughs”, so it is important that I welcome her support for the generous help the Mayor of London has been given for Transport for London, thanks to the Conservative Government; it will keep London going throughout the pandemic. I put it on record that it was certainly not the Government’s plan to extend the congestion zone. That is a matter for the Mayor of London.

I move on to the subject at hand, about which the hon. Lady addressed a number of questions to me. I am pleased that she is a keen cyclist—we start from a point of agreement there—and I am sure that she welcomes the Government’s record investment in cycling and walking. That is the biggest ever investment to get people out of cars, clean up our dirty air and decarbonise our transport sector.

The Minister refers to the need to clean up our dirty air, which many of us regard as a high priority, particularly in the capital. Does she agree that it is necessary to make the enforcement powers that we give to local authorities sufficiently meaningful, as envisaged by our local council here under the leadership of my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken)? That would ensure that people who behave in an antisocial way by idling engines near schools, for example, receive a penalty commensurate with the damage they are causing to the local environment, children and other nearby pedestrians.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It is right that we focus all our attention as a Government on keeping our air clean through measures such as the one he mentions and others.

Our active travel fund was set up to encourage more active travel, particularly while public transport capacity was constrained. That is why we announced £225 million of active travel funding in May.

Many of the points made by hon. Members relate to feedback from their constituents. It is important that those queries and concerns are raised and addressed in the House. The Government published clear guidance setting out what is expected of local authorities when making changes to road layouts to encourage cycling and walking. Low-traffic neighbourhoods involve a collection of measures, including road closures to motor traffic, designed to remove the rat-running traffic that can blight residential roads. They deliver a wide range of benefits for local communities.

The Government have consistently made clear to local authorities the importance of consulting on such schemes, which is key to delivering a scheme that works for all. As the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton said, it is about taking local communities with us.

I express great enthusiasm and support for pro-cycling measures, but I have real reservations about, for example, a pop-up cycle lane on Park Lane when there is a parallel one through the park, or a pop-up cycle lane on Euston Road. It seems that, without generating real benefits for cyclists, we are undermining the ability to get around this great city. London is such a huge motor of our economy that the last thing we want to do is damage productivity or connectivity in the capital at this difficult time.

I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend that the schemes need to be designed with care and with respect for the dynamics of the local area. Local authorities are free to make their own decisions about the streets under their care. It is for them to deliver schemes in line with legislation and good practice, including engagement and consultation, and it would be inappropriate for a Government Department to intervene in matters of local democratic accountability. Local authorities have always had responsibility for managing their roads. They have the powers and the autonomy to do so. Central Government have no remit or powers to intervene in the delivery of local road schemes.

I am interested to hear what the Minister has said about local authorities having the ability and the right to do that. In the capital, however, we have red routes that are managed by TfL under the Mayor. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) mentioned Park Lane in my constituency. The Mayor of London and TfL gave Westminster City Council four hours’ notice that they were putting in that cycle lane. Local authorities have to be held to account, but so do Mayors and the likes of Transport for London. Does the Minister agree?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The Mayor of London has considerable powers and influence over the roads in the capital. The Department for Transport cannot direct a local authority to halt a scheme, but the local authority in the area of the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton could do that itself and make changes to it.

People are asking about the letter from the Secretary of State for Transport that was sent to every local authority, and what it actually means. Is that just him huffing and puffing, or does it translate into anything? People also do not like the term “rat run”. They feel it is insulting to describe travelling between A and B in the most direct way, and reducing emissions, as “rat running” if they live there.

I will respond to the hon. Lady’s point about the letter from the Transport Secretary. I think she is referring to the fact that we have already delivered one tranche of funding, and those authorities that have demonstrated genuine plans to consult local communities and embrace good design principles will receive a second tranche, or in some cases more funding than their indicative allocation. Authorities that have not been able to demonstrate that to the same extent will receive less, and in some cases considerably less. We in the Department want to take people with us. We recognise the benefits of cycling and walking schemes, and where those have been delivered successfully, which they have been in many areas up and down the country, they have delivered considerable benefits to the local environment, the local economy, and local communities. That is a good thing, and we want to back it.

In the time remaining to me—literally 30 seconds—let me say that I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss this important issue, and I would be delighted if the hon. Lady would like to write to me or meet me. I will also invite other colleagues who have responsibility for some of the other areas to which she has referred in this debate.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.