The Guardian:

Exclusive: Low-traffic neighbourhood applications were rejected due to lack of ambition, not policy shift

Government claims that it blocked councils from installing low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) appear to have been a fiction, the Guardian has learned, in another apparent sign that Rishi Sunak’s “plan for drivers” is thus far mainly performative.

After the revelation last month that the prime minister’s decision to prioritise driving over walking and cycling was prompted in part by “15-minute city” conspiracy theories, documents show that a claim about the wider policy shift was invented.

In May last year, when the most recent tranche of Department for Transport (DfT) funding for local active travel schemes was set out, some newspapers were briefed that ministers had blocked all money for LTNs, which use physical barriers or cameras to stop motor through-traffic on smaller residential roads.

One article read: “Mark Harper, the transport secretary, has stripped funding from all projects which involve the creation of car-free zones.”

However, official papers seen by the Guardian show that the lack of LTNs was because none of these schemes that wanted DfT money were deemed to be of good enough quality and that Harper had no role in the decision.

Applications by councils to Active Travel England, the quango that oversees the quality of walking and cycling schemes, show that a series of planned LTNs were rejected because the projects were insufficiently ambitious.

The documents were obtained by the Transport Action Network (Tan) campaign group, which is taking legal action against the government over cuts to active travel budgets.

Harper reiterated the idea of the ban on LTN funding in an interview in July. However, documents show that the way Active Travel England assesses schemes has not been changed.

The DfT is awaiting a review of the future of LTNs. This had been scheduled to be completed by the end of last month, but officials now say only that it will arrive “in due course”.

Other internal documents seen by the Guardian show that DfT officials warned ministers that actively banning councils from creating LTNs, or from introducing other measures such as 20mph speed limits, would be extremely difficult. “Legal powers do exist, but the bar for their use is set very high and they have not to our knowledge ever been exercised,” one senior official wrote.

The basic idea of modal filtering – allowing through-access for pedestrian and cycle traffic but not for motor vehicles – is a standard urban planning tool and has been used for decades in many UK towns and cities.

However, after a series of such schemes were introduced at speed during Covid and branded as LTNs, some local opposition was amplified by Conservative-friendly newspapers, which prompted a response led by No 10.

Sunak’s plan for drivers, set out in September, promised a clampdown on LTNs, 20mph zones and bus lanes. However, since then, nothing has apparently been done to implement any of these.

Chris Todd, Tan’s director, said he had no objection to the general idea of examining the efficacy of LTNs: “Reviewing recent LTNs is a great way to learn how to make new ones even better, and give people more choices to walk, wheel and cycle. But these latest revelations of ministers making it up as they go show we can’t trust the Tories to make our streets safer.”

A DfT spokesperson said: “It is important that people who choose to walk and cycle are able to do so safely, but this should not come at the cost of people who rely on cars or prevent the emergency services from accessing roads.

“That is why we are reviewing low-traffic neighbourhoods, and none were funded in the latest round of active travel funding.”


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