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04 Aug 2023


Politics and Society

In light of Labour’s loss in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election, Matt Harris explores why environmental measures such as Low Traffic Neighbourhoods and the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone can inspire such opposition.

‘ULEZ was the reason we lost the by-election in Uxbridge’, was Keir Starmer’s take on his party’s narrow defeat in Boris Johnson’s former West London seat. The Labour leader’s claim that the Uxbridge by-election was scuppered by London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s plans to expand the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) is emblematic of the growing significance of environmental policies in the minds of the electorate, and has raised questions about what role green policies will play in next year’s general election, and what approach Labour will take.

Indeed, reacting to Uxbridge, political commentators were quick to speculate that if the Tories adopt a clear ‘anti’ stance on traffic calming measures such as Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) and the ULEZ on the national scale, then they may be holding aces in the build-up to next year’s campaign.

It seems as though Conservative ministers have been eagerly consuming such commentary; just a few days after the by-elections, Michael Gove slammed Labour’s environmental approach as a ‘religious crusade’, Jacob Rees-Mogg declared that now was the time to come down harsh on ‘unpopular, expensive green policies’. Most notably, Rishi Sunak pledged to review the instalment of LTNs by local authorities, stating he was ‘on the side’ of British motorists in the UK’s apparent ‘war on cars’.

Sunak’s pledge was smattered on Monday’s front pages, and it’s clear that the seemingly boring and unsexy issue of traffic calming measures such as LTNs and the ULEZ are rising to political prominence and could play a role in next year’s election campaign.

Whilst Sunak’s declaration of a commitment to review LTNs signals a new development, opposition and deep consternation towards traffic calming measures is not a new phenomenon. In fact, there have been a series of spats across the UK since Grant Schapps’ allocation of £175 million to local councils in 2020 to fund traffic calming measures.

Public protests, the burning of traffic bollards, vandalism of cameras and even death threats to local councillors who support LTNs have served to highlight that green policies can be deeply political.

In Oxford, for example, traffic calming measures have proved deeply polarising, reflecting the fact that, for better or for worse, such measures can significantly impact people’s lives.

My research has looked at some of these impacts in Oxford. Dubbed by one resident as ‘more divisive than Brexit’, East Oxford’s LTNs did not only serve to reduce carbon emissions, lower noise pollution and produce greener streets but also altered both mundane and serious aspects of Oxford life for locals, in both positive and negative ways.

One person told me how increased traffic on boundary roads meant he had become unable to take his dog to get her nails clipped, another complained about difficulty in getting to work and concerns over losing his job, whilst another lauded the LTNs – claiming her mental health had picked up because she no longer had to worry about her children getting hit by motorists driving through her residential street. While traffic calming measures can seem inoffensive, they can in extreme circumstances have a severe impact. One community-worker told me, for example, a story of how a poverty-stricken family could no longer access food banks due to increased taxi-fares.

What these interviews highlight is that from dog-nails to unemployment, to improved mental wellbeing to food-poverty, traffic calming measures are heavily implicated in people’s daily lives in both paltry and severe ways.

Considering LTNs and traffic calming measures in this way serves to ‘people’ them – that is to consider them not as only a convenient means to a carbon-neutral end, but as profoundly personal and woven into the fabrics of people’s every day and ordinary lives.

Viewed as such, it’s of little surprise that the implementation of traffic calming measures such as the ULEZ or LTNs may culminate in protests, lead to the loss of targeted constituencies, or even, perhaps, impact a national election. Sunak’s pledge to review LTNs on Sunday suggests that the Conservatives have spied a possible electoral advantage here.

This poses a dilemma for Starmer– does he backtrack on his commitment to ‘throw everything’ at carbon neutrality and risk alienating a large section of supporters, or does he remain committed to the implementation of traffic calming policies, in spite of the fierce public opposition from some quarters? Perhaps, the Labour leader might attempt to strike something of a balance, committed to traffic calming measures, but with an understanding of the impacts they can have on everyday life.

A useful point of departure may be to explicitly ‘people’ net-zero policies, that is to openly address that he and his party are considerate of not only the environmental, bigger-picture impacts of net-zero policies, but also the hidden, intimate and the personal impacts on the electorate’s everyday lives too.

By Matt Harris, undergraduate, University of Cambridge.

This research was conducted for an undergraduate dissertation at the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge. Thanks to Professor Charlotte Lemanski for her guidance and support. Due to the Marking and Assessment Boycott it has not yet been formally examined.


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