Prime minister Rishi Sunak has ordered a review into the UK’s use of low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs).
The areas were created as part of a 2020-21 government-funded scheme to provide safer and cleaner spaces that promoted more active lifestyles, such as walking and cycling, following the Covid pandemic.
Adopters include Birmingham, Bristol, London, Oxford and Southampton.
Despite this originally being a Conservative policy, Sunak is now “on the side of the drivers” and supporting people to "use their cars to do all the things that matter to them", he told the Sunday Telegraph.
The PM said he had ordered the Department for Transport to see how LTNs were working. This follows transport secretary Mark Harper's comments earlier this month that new LTN funding in England had been stopped.
Sunak didn't confirm what could happen to LTNs as part of the review – if the government could, for example, make councils dig them up or alter their parameters.
"The vast majority of people in the country use their cars to get around and are dependent on cars,” Sunak told the Sunday Telegraph. "I just want to make sure people know that I'm on their side in supporting them to use their cars to do all the things that matter to them.”
This is the latest in a series of green policy debates that has stemmed from the Conservatives' Uxbrdge by-election win – with votes coming from locals angry about Labour mayor of London Sadiq Khan’s ULEZ expansion.
More recently, Sunak had suggested that the 2030 ban on new petrol and diesel cars could be pushed back, saying he didn’t want to put more needless financial pressure on the public – something he backtracked on during his Sunday Times interview.
Additional reporting by Will Rimell
What are low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) and do they work?
Low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) were created as part of a government-funded scheme to provide safer and cleaner traffic-free spaces across the UK.
But, some critics say LTNs generate more problems than they solve – especially affecting local traffic, pushing congestion elsewhere. Meanwhile, supporters argue residential quality of life has improved drastically, with urban streets no longer used as congestion-escaping rat runs.
However, there is a suspicion that because many LTNs are policed by numberplate-recognition cameras triggering fines of up to £160, they are a revenue-raising tool. Indeed, in 2021, ‘moving traffic offences’ in London – the highest LTN adopter with 100 – increased by 55.4% compared with the year before (from 2.1 million to 3.25 million), a rise due largely to the introduction of LTNs.
But it’s not just the capital where LTNs are being adopted. Cities such as Bristol, Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield are also creating the traffic-free spaces.
Similar areas with the same aims have existed since the 1970s, but following the launch of a £225 million active travel fund by the government in 2020 – including a separate £250m London-only fund – to be spent by councils on creating more LTNs, they have received far greater attention as, increasingly, motorists have found themselves barred from previously accessible streets.
Another cause of scepticism among critics is the fact that last year, the Department for Transport (DfT) admitted its data, used by London councils to justify the creation of LTNs, was incorrect in that it showed a significant rise in traffic on the capital’s residential streets between 2009 and 2019.
In fact, after a review of the data, no increase was recorded. Studies into the effectiveness of LTNs paint an equally confusing picture.
One, also commissioned by the DfT, showed that in 2021, within 10 inner-London LTNs, the number of miles driven had actually increased by 41 million compared with the previous year. In contrast, two London boroughs without LTNs posted an increase of only 29 million miles.
Critics have suggested the figures could be interpreted as showing that LTN schemes are simply displacing vehicles onto streets not covered by them.
A report by Imperial College London published in 2021 found this to be the case in areas of Walthamstow Village, an early adopter of LTNs, where a small number of roads neighbouring the schemes experienced an increase in traffic. However, it reported that traffic levels within LTNs had fallen 44%.
Its findings were echoed by a more comprehensive survey of 46 LTNs published last year by the University of Westminster’s Active Travel Academy (ATA). It found that while average traffic levels within LTNs had declined by 46.9%, half of boundary roads had experienced a rise in traffic (on average by 0.7%, or 82 vehicles per day), but the rest a fall.
Professor Rachel Aldred, director of the ATA and co-author of the study, said: “The research indicates there has been overall ‘traffic evaporation’ as a result of these schemes. Not only do LTNs have substantial benefits inside their boundaries but they can also contribute to wider traffic reduction goals.”
Nevertheless, according to a study last year by online newspaper i, 28% of LTNs created since March 2020 had since been scrapped by councils that had faced fierce and occasionally violent opposition to the schemes from motorists and residents.
They included Salisbury, which abandoned its city centre LTN after local businesses complained. Other councils are not giving in so easily and many pledge not only to keep their LTNs but also to increase their number.