Exclusive: the high cost of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods

We find out that rash planning means Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, which were designed to improve residents’ lives, are doing more harm than good

Local councils across the country have spent millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on traffic reduction schemes that have been riddled with problems, including increased pollution, delayed emergency service vehicles and divided communities. Auto Express has uncovered how local authorities spent or plan to spend millions on Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs), despite numerous complaints, alterations and reversals of such schemes.

After hearing about issues relating to LTNs, we began researching these projects, sending a series of Freedom of Information requests to the UK’s local authorities in November last year. We asked if councils had installed or plan to install any LTNs, how much they have spent or plan to spend on them, if any schemes have been altered or reversed, and what penalties had been issued to drivers contravening the new rules.

What are Low Traffic Neighbourhoods?

Giving road space over to pedestrians and cyclists isn’t new, but the recent rise in Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) owes everything to the coronavirus pandemic.

With public transport problematic due to social distancing and Covid-19, in May last year the Government announced a £250million ‘Emergency Active Travel Fund’. Local authorities could apply to create schemes that encouraged walking and cycling. Four types of scheme have been popular with councils, and all have the potential to make driving more difficult: widened pavements to allow for greater social distancing; new cycle lanes to encourage people onto bikes; ‘School Streets’ to bar motor vehicles from schools at pick-up and drop-off; and Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, which divert motorists from residential roads onto busier boundary routes.

LTNs can be created by closing off roads with bollards or planters, or can be enforced with signs telling drivers not to use the streets. Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras can issue fines to vehicles who pass them, or those that aren’t registered to an address within the LTN.

The first tranche of money released by the Government saw £42million issued to councils for temporary schemes; the second tranche, worth £175million and released in November, was for more permanent projects. The Scottish Government, meanwhile, has funded similar ‘Spaces for People’ programmes, while London’s LTNs fall under its Streetspace scheme, with money coming from both central Government and Transport for London.

While all these programmes have the potential to make driving more difficult, LTNs have been the most controversial and problematic type of scheme to arise from the Active Travel Fund.

Costs we uncovered

Number of schemes completed138
Number of schemes planned76
Number of schemes reversed13
Number of schemes altered25
Cost of completed schemes£7,681,005
Cost of alterations£86,099
Cost of planned schemes£7,150,421
Cost of reversing schemes£51,762
(Cost of reversed schemes*£922,721
Total cost so far£14,969,287

*Reversed schemes accounted for in cost of completed schemes

Failed schemes, wasted money

Wiltshire Council spent £412,000 on an “exciting and ambitious project” that saw Salisbury city centre closed to through traffic on 21 October last year. Of that total, £250,622 went on “consultancy and monitoring” fees for the LTN, £64,800 was spent on its construction, £92,250 worth of enforcement cameras were installed, and changes to road signage cost £4,328.

Yet that money would seem to have been entirely wasted, because Wiltshire had to spend a further £10,000-£15,000 suspending the scheme “indefinitely”, returning Salisbury to its pre-LTN state “due to impacts on local businesses during 2nd lockdown”, and a lack of “pivotal” support from Salisbury City Council. Wiltshire said it was “disappointed and surprised” by the city’s decision, because “early evidence” showed the scheme was having a “positive impact”, and the city council had “previously provided clear backing for this scheme”.

Two LTN schemes in Redbridge, London, costing £297,971 were scrapped after little more than a month following residents’ complaints, with a further £29,762 spent reinstating the roads. The City of Westminster Council, meanwhile, held a local consultation and decided not to implement its Paddington and Hyde Park scheme, but it still spent a projected £137,897 on design, engineering, consultation and other fees.

Of the 138 schemes we learned had been implemented, 25 had been altered at a cost of £86,099, while a further 13 had been scrapped after feedback and complaints from residents and emergency services.

Wakefield Council in West Yorkshire spent £40,000 installing then reversing an LTN, while Nottingham City Council spent £33,250 on two LTNs, before deciding that the “application of temporary barriers was not entirely successful” following feedback from residents.

The total costs for the LTN reversals we uncovered run to at least £974,483, but some authorities had yet to calculate how much had been spent on installing failed schemes. Wandsworth Council, for example, spent £17,000 suspending seven LTNs, but would not tell us how much the cancelled projects had cost to implement because their calculations were in “draft format”. Yet the council still has plans for a further nine schemes, despite the cancellations, and a report uncovered by The Daily Telegraph that showed levels of nitrogen dioxide – a harmful gas present in exhaust fumes – decreased in some streets after the LTNs were scrapped.

Emergency services face delays

Councils were quick to spend money released by central Government, but the impact closing roads has on access for emergency vehicles appears to have been ignored in some cases. Islington Council in London had to alter an LTN road by removing a bollard “after feedback from emergency services”. Wandsworth Council told us the seven LTNs it reversed were cancelled partly due to “concerns with emergency access”.

E-mails seen by Auto Express show London Fire Brigade having to “object” to Ealing Council’s proposals to use “immovable concrete blocks” in the road to create LTNs. Firefighters had to explain to planners that the blocks “may have a negative effect on any emergency attendance made to incidents within these areas”. 

The Metropolitan Police, meanwhile, told Ealing that one LTN brought concerns about “an impact on [officer] response times for the surrounding area”. The police added the LTN “could also create a crime ‘hot spot’ where criminals will use these types of closures to evade police”. The Met Police also told Transport for London and other councils that roads closed with bollards had “delayed response times to crimes”.

London Fire Brigade and the Metropolitan Police were at least consulted prior to the installation of Ealing’s LTNs, but the chief executive of London Ambulance Service (LAS) wrote to the head of the council, saying: “I appreciate you were under the impression that the LAS had been fully consulted on LTN schemes ahead of implementation, but, sadly, I am afraid this was not the case.”

One incident in Ealing saw an LAS manager ask the council to permanently remove LTN barriers after paramedics were delayed when attending a call-out, and were unable to park near an elderly patient’s home. The 95-year-old lady had to be transported “some distance” in the rain to the ambulance. The manager said the crew was also “delayed getting to the patient’s address” and requested ANPR cameras replace the barriers. A local councillor told the authority’s highway department the incident was an “indignity”, although fortunately the delay didn’t cause any harm to health.

Ealing Council admitted it didn’t consult with LAS at the same time as the police and fire brigade, apologised for not doing so, and made a “number of changes” following feedback. Ealing told us it had “been assured by emergency services that no delays have occurred which have impacted on their response times”. The council also insisted “all emergency services were consulted and continue to be engaged” but admitted “There was an issue with an incorrect E-mail” during the consultation”.

A million a month in fines

Local authorities spent handsomely on LTNs, but a lot is being recouped from fines issued to drivers entering streets that they are no longer allowed to use. Data obtained by Auto Express shows that in a single month, Ealing Council issued 7,125 penalty charge notices worth £926,250 (£463k if drivers paid within 14 days).

It’s a similar story for other councils in London. Drivers in Lewisham were charged £3m in LTN penalties between June and October last year, while Enfield Council had taken £1.25m from 33,968 fines issued since mid-September. Merton Council raised up to £53,040 from 408 LTN fines between May 2020 and January this year. Elsewhere in south London, Lambeth Council spent £301,828 on surveillance cameras in five LTNs, justifying this by saying: “Most people in Lambeth don’t own a car, but all motorists on our borough’s streets are required to drive legally and obey the law at all times.”

Councils in London have greater powers than most local authorities, because they are able to issue penalties for moving traffic offences. But with new rules set to allow more councils to issue such fines, authorities across the country may soon enforce their LTNs with £130 fines. Salford City Council admitted exactly that to Auto Express, stating it will issue LTN fines “dependent on the availability of Part 6 Traffic Management Act powers”.

Pricey planters

One method that councils use to close roads to cars is to place planters – wooden boxes filled with earth and flora – across the carriageway, but they don’t come cheap. The Royal Borough of Greenwich in south-east London spent £31,740 on planters at the five LTNs that cost the council a total of £106,439. Redbridge Council, to the north-east of the capital, spent £4,800 storing planters used in its two cancelled schemes.

But the council with the greenest fingers we found was Lambeth in south London, which plans to spend £90,390 on planters across four LTN sites. The council said that this includes purchase, installation and up to three years’ maintenance, plus it’s a fraction of the £893,758 that Lambeth has earmarked for LTNs overall.

LTNs: A rush job?

Authorities at all levels were under pressure to respond to coronavirus, but problems related to LTNs may be linked to central Government conditions. Department for Transport (DfT) guidance issued to local authorities said projects paid for by the Active Travel Fund had to reallocate road space to pedestrians and cyclists in a “swift and meaningful” way. The DfT also stipulated work on the schemes had to commence within four weeks of funds being received, and be completed within just eight weeks of starting, with the DfT saying it would “claw the funding back by adjusting downwards a future grant payment” if these conditions weren’t met.

Some of the amounts awarded for LTNs are huge. Birmingham City Council is spending an estimated £525,000 on a number of programmes, mainly comprising road closures, and two schemes in Sheffield are projected to cost £672,000. 

Manchester City Council, meanwhile, expects to spend £2.5million on road closures (among other changes) for a ‘Filtered Neighbourhood’ scheme. This is being paid for out of the 'Mayor of Greater Manchester's Challenge Fund' rather than the active travel fund, however, meaning it is not subject to the same tight timescales as many LTNs, and Manchester City Council highlights the six-month trial scheme was subject to "extensive public consultation."

Could LTNs work better?

Low Traffic Neighbourhoods are intended to reduce pressure on public transport, bring pollution down by discouraging car use, improve physical health by getting people walking and cycling, and lead to quieter, more pleasant communities. A 2014 scheme in Waltham Forest, east London, for example, was initially met with resistance from the community, but has since been hailed a success.

The scheme created a ‘20-minute neighbourhood’, a community-minded environment that allows people to meet most of their daily needs within walking distance.  A recent survey from consultants Redfield & Wilton, meanwhile, found that 63 per cent of respondents living in an LTN said their lives had improved, while 47 per cent of those not living in an LTN thought a scheme would make their lives better. 

What do the authorities say?

The DfT said that “well-designed cycling and walking schemes can bring environmental and health benefits for everyone”, but warned: “It is essential that proper consultation is undertaken with local stakeholders before they are introduced.” The DfT added: “Many schemes were introduced on a trial basis and are expected to be further developed and optimised in response to feedback”.

TfL told us walking and cycling rose by 29 per cent between April and June 2020, and it “worked closely with boroughs to deliver much-needed extra space for walking and cycling, including through temporary cycle lanes, wider pavements and low traffic neighbourhoods.” TfL said “the vast majority” of London’s hundreds of schemes are “working as intended” and that when LTNs need altering, it is “working hard to make the changes work for everyone and we’re supporting them in making adjustments where feedback shows they could improve”.

David Renard from the Local Government Association said that councils are working hard to “tackle congestion, make our air cleaner and improve the quality of life in their communities”. He added that “councils are democratic organisations and continually review all kinds of services and schemes. Being responsive to the needs of our communities is one of councils’ great strengths”.

Case study: what’s it like living in a Low Traffic Neighbourhood?

Eliska Finlay lives in Crystal Palace, south London, where an LTN by Croydon Council diverted traffic away from residential streets and onto larger boundary roads.

“I first discovered this was happening when I saw planters being put down on roads I normally use”, Eliska said. “There was no involvement, no letters sent to affected residents to let them know this was going to happen.” Eliska’s LTN includes a bus gate; cars aren’t allowed through it, but motorists who fail to spot the blue sign advising them that a road they had been previously allowed to use is closed get a £130 fine. Croydon Council predicts these penalties will help it take £4m a year from LTNs, according to an internal report seen by The Daily Telegraph.

“I’m inside the LTN, so I’m benefitting from it, but I feel cut off from parts of my own neighbourhood. People on the other side of the bus gate, my friends, now can’t come down to me if they’re on their way to other places. It has created a mental and physical division. Every time I drive anywhere I worry I’m going to be stuck in traffic, because on the boundary roads around our LTN the traffic has been horrendous. We’ve got two schools in our LTN, and this has had an incredible impact on teachers.”

Eliska says LTNs have been “extraordinarily divisive” within the community. “The way this has been implemented has pitted neighbour against neighbour. We have to argue with each other about the merits of these policies.”

One issue campaigners have with LTNs is that they create quasi-gated communities and cul de sacs on leafy residential roads, loading larger highways with yet more traffic, increasing both congestion and pollution for people living on main roads that take traffic from closed roads. “It’s completely environmentally unjust”, Eliska says, “because people on the boundary roads will just have to grin and bear it for the greater pleasure, enjoyment and health of the people on the inside.”

A spokesperson from Croydon Council said it had seen “more local families out walking and cycling, which is fantastic” since the LTN was introduced, but the council admitted “some residents have told us they want it removed. We’re hoping the new proposal will address their concerns by removing the planters in the road to give better access for emergency vehicles and local residents – subject to future consultation with residents.”

The council added that fines from LTNs go towards free travel for older and disabled residents, as all such penalties must be put back into local transport provision.

Do you live in a Low Traffic Neighbourhood? Tell us about your experience in the comments section below...

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