Top-down central planning by local councils rarely if ever works. The ‘garden cities’ experiments of the 1930s for the most part produced sterile and soulless cities that are only now, after being allowed to evolve in an organic way, starting to develop their own characters and identities. The tower blocks of the 1960s tore communities apart and forced people to live in sub-standard and depressing ghettos. The characterless municipally designed shopping centres that blight so many towns and cities should be a lesson to all.
In Newcastle we are of course still living with the disastrous and corrupt activities of T Dan Smith. The results of central planning can be even worse when they are imposed on mixed communities of residents, businesses and local services that have developed over time. Instead of imposing ‘top-down’ and draconian ‘solutions’, the role of local councils should be to manage and, where necessary, nudge communities in particular directions, not to impose measures which by their very nature will have a multitude of unintended consequences.
Consultations before or after?
The introduction of low traffic neighbourhoods (LTN) in Jesmond is a case in point. The council says that it has consulted about introducing measures to reduce traffic in Jesmond. That might technically be true. But any consultation related to general principles rather than specific measures. What an open and genuinely democratic local authority would have done, after consulting on general principles, was to have developed options to present to the people in a neutral way, seeking comments and alternative suggestions. In that way they could have carried the public with them. Instead, they informed a selected and limited number of residents about the great things they were planning to do, allowing just two weeks for comment.
The response to this partial consultation was overwhelmingly negative. Did the council listen? Of course not. Instead, they have imposed the LTN on an unwilling population for a ‘trial period’ of up to 18 months. For the council to claim, as they do, that the trial itself constitutes a consultation is disingenuous. Consultations should take place prior to implementation, not after. It was open to the council to approach the implementation of central government LTN polices in a different way. They chose not to do so.
Listening to single-issue group
The blueprint for what the council has done appears in part to be taken from the 2020 document produced by a single-issue lobbying group called Space for Jesmond. Its cover features an idealistic image, which would not be out in place in Soviet era propaganda posters, of children playing in traffic free streets. Needless to say, frolicking children have been notable only by their absence since the LTN was introduced. That one organisation appears to have so much influence is a matter for concern.
Let’s be clear: councils and statutory agencies should take account of what relevant single-issue groups say. But they are equally obliged to listen to a broader range of perspectives before reaching any decisions. No doubt some LTN supporters are well-intentioned and want to pursue a utopian vision of what an ideal world might look like, much as did their predecessors when tower blocks and municipal shopping centres were introduced. The motives of others are less laudable.
Some seem to be based on self-interest and the impact of the LTN on their particular streets. The language used by some others hints at even more questionable motives, with opponents of this particular LTN model being subject to abuse and insults. Demonising opponents is of course a well-established strategy of ideologically driven fundamentalist groups.
The impact of the Low Traffic Neighbourhood so far
What has the impact of the LTN been? Supporters claim that LTNs reduce the number of cars on the road. Experience in some parts of the country may support this, although that does not of course equate to a corresponding decrease in fuel emissions, as remaining traffic has on average to travel further and for longer to reach its destinations. Care should also be taken, as any academic worth their salt will tell you, about extrapolating findings from one context to another.
It has been claimed that it is much easier to walk and cycle around Jesmond than it was before, but as someone who walks and cycles almost daily in Jesmond I have not noticed any real improvement, and in some areas walking and cycling is more dangerous. There have clearly been negative consequences. Local businesses and services report a drop in trade of 30-40%, as many of their customers travel into Jesmond to spend their money, while local customers are less able to travel easily within Jesmond to, for example, do their weekly shop, not something that can be done by foot or on a bicycle for even a small family.
Employees of business need to get to work and return home. Many Jesmond residents need to travel outside the area to get to work and understandably want to get home at a reasonable time. Valued amenities, such as Jesmond Pool, are reporting the cancellation and curtailment of swimming lessons for children. Some families are unable to walk their children to school and then get to work outside Jesmond on time because of congestion. The emergency services have been affected. They may have been given keys to unlock the bollards. But on most roads there would still not be enough space for a fire-engine or ambulance to get through even if the bollard was removed. And even then, the amount of time it would take to remove a bollard, especially in poor weather and in the dark, could prove to be a matter of life or death.
The proposals are discriminatory. The council has not been able to say whether an equalities impact assessment has been carried out. The LTN discriminates against elderly and disabled people who have no choice but to use cars or taxis within Jesmond to do their shopping or visit the doctor. The increased costs such people face can be significant. For supporters of the scheme to sneer and say that driving within Jesmond is only a matter of convenience is insulting. For many it is a necessity.
Lived experience shows that increased journey times, partly because of increased congestion, are significant. In her excellent article in North East Bylines, Paula Smart describes how the LTN is ableist, ageist and sexist. To that I would add that it discriminates against people living in areas that are experiencing higher levels of pollution. It seems that LTN supporters attach greater importance to the life expectancy of people living in one part of the community than it does to those living in another.
Jesmond is a vibrant and buzzing part of a historic city. Its infrastructure has evolved over time to make it what it is. Comparisons between how LTNs can operate in Jesmond and in new, stand-alone housing estates with little or no business and recreational infrastructure are meaningless. Most people are probably in favour of reducing traffic. But this should be done with the consent of the people, and in a way that does not pit neighbour against neighbour, risk people’s livelihoods, threaten valued amenities and turn Jesmond into a sterile and characterless environment. The council has gone about this in entirely the wrong way. They will be held to account.
James Noble-Rogers is a supporter of the One Jesmond campaign group but is here writing in a personal capacity. For the record, he has never driven a car in is life, cycles everywhere and neither he nor his wife own a car.