Labour and Conservative councillors have clashed over the introduction of radical traffic reduction measures in the borough, following a demonstration in opposition to low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) which saw hundreds of people march on the Town Hall last week.
The Horrendous Hackney Road Closures campaign group used the event to call for the withdrawal of experimental traffic orders (ETOs) under which the changes have been made, claiming that the measures, designed by the Town Hall to tackle the multiple crises of air pollution, road safety, Covid and the climate emergency, “overstep the mark”.
Leading Tory councillor Simche Steinberger, who addressed the crowds protesting the changes last week, told the Citizen that if his party were elected to the Town Hall administration, they would open every road closed in Hackney over the last decade.
Steinberger said: “These measures go against guidance for Covid. It’s very clear that the guidance is the safest way to go around in these circumstances is actually to go with a car, which is the only place where you can’t catch Covid. If somebody with Covid on a bike coughs on you, you’ve got Covid. When you’re alone in your car, who are you going to catch it from – the radio?
“My main question is how many lives have already been cost by these new implementations. If a man has a heart attack, the ambulance can’t get to him because of all these road closures. When Hackney sit down for a consultation, they don’t call up the ambulance service and say, ‘This is the damage we are going to do and how can we make it better’. It’s just like a dictatorship.
“The problem with all these emergency services is, they have not got time to respond to everything as they don’t know the chaos that this is going to cause. They don’t think for one minute that this Labour-led council is going to bring people’s lives into question.”
The Conservative councillor further asserted that it is a “known fact” that the introduction of LTNs in the borough has “already cost lives”, pointing to congestion on Graham Road which could impede the passage of emergency vehicles.
Transport chief Cllr Jon Burke, responding to the Conservative councillor’s charges that the schemes have caused lives to be lost, revealed that no blue-light service has been in touch with the council to complain of disruption, going on to point to statements from the London Ambulance Service saying that it was unaware of any patient safety concerns or significant delays caused by LTNs.
Burke added: “The emergency services are statutory consultees on every single road closure we put in place. The vast majority of our new modal filters are completely open, which allow emergency service vehicles (ESVs) to pass through unhindered.
“There is a multitude of evidence demonstrating that unfiltered roads are slowing traffic down. If opponents of LTNs are genuinely concerned about the impact of modal filters that allow the smooth access of ESVs, why aren’t they contacting me?
“Why isn’t Cllr Steinberger contacting me about this particular issue and to ask me what I’m going to do about traffic on unfiltered roads slowing down ESVs? They are not, because their primary concern is the removal of LTNs, and they are weaponising emergency services as a means to defeat LTNs.”
The Town Hall has accepted that there has been an increase in traffic on Graham Road partly caused by the London Fields LTN, as well as by roadworks in other areas of the borough and a blocked bus lane. Transport for London has now adjusted traffic signals at the Mare Street junction in a bid to reduce congestion on the street.
Queensbridge Road has also seen an increase in traffic with drivers unable to pass through London Fields, which the council expects to reduce as sat nav apps update and drivers begin to learn to avoid the area. The Town Hall has also said that traffic on Northwold Road caused by changes in the Hackney Downs area has reduced following the completion of Thames Water roadworks in Stoke Newington.
Steinberger added: “I think it’s criminal what they’re doing. If Conservatives were to win Hackney, and I was in charge, we would open up every single road that has been closed in the last ten years. You would see that the pollution goes down so much when you let traffic go. The Labour Party is the one causing chaos and bringing pollution.
“Were we now a Conservative-run borough, this would have never happened. This is another way that we can see that Labour love wasting money and making more pollution. When Conservatives get this money, they are more responsible and they don’t do these crazy things.
“This is the problem whenever you rely on local government to use money which has been given – this is what they do. Instead of using this money for safety for Covid and other stuff, they just waste more money and say they don’t have it.
“You don’t need less space on the road for cars, you need more, as it’s the healthiest way of travelling now, for Covid. The new criminals in Hackney are basically the drivers, despite it being the safest way. If you take a person like me, I’m actually driving a hybrid car, which is also being penalised? I’m following all these crazy new ideas, and according to them there should be nothing wrong with it.”
The council has introduced three LTNs in Hackney Downs, London Fields and Hoxton West, as well as putting in another 15 traffic filters and creating 40 new traffic-calmed streets near schools.
According to the Town Hall, the measures are aimed at securing the “cleaner, greener” city seen during lockdown, as well as helping pedestrians and cyclists travel more safely with public transport capacity remaining low, with Burke pointing to census data suggesting that 70 per cent of Hackney households do not own a car.
The transport chief also called out as an “absolute myth” claims made by anti-LTN campaigners that the schemes expose less affluent residents to pollution, stating that as half of the borough is social housing, it is not possible to design a traffic-calming scheme that does not include within its borders a very large proportion of estates.
Burke also warned of the risks of a car-led recovery, whereby those avoiding public transport to protect themselves from Covid rely on the private car and thereby choke the streets, though Steinberger dismissed this concept as “pie in the sky”, arguing that, due to the economic fallout from coronavirus, residents are unlikely to be buying new cars.
Campaigners have also warned of impacts to businesses in terms of footfall and deliveries within LTNs, though research conducted by Transport for London shows that pedestrians and cyclists spend 40 per cent more at local businesses than drivers.
Burke added: “I’ve always been clear that if the people of Hackney choose to elect a group of people who will pledge to make the roads of this borough less safe, the air less clean, and the future of the children of this borough less certain, then they should vote for the Conservatives. This is the party that opposes LTNs, controlled parking, and school streets. I do not believe anyone in their right mind would vote for a party that was going to act against their own material interests. If people choose to do so, that is their right as voters and residents of Hackney.
“Driving a car is not a neutral act. I don’t have a pejorative view of drivers per se, but all costs are externalised when it comes to driving. Within those, there are some costs that society might say are more legitimately externalised than others. Blue badge holders have an externalised cost, but we think as a society that is a more legitimate externalisation of costs, because the person does not have other options. But we don’t think that it is legitimate for somebody to externalise the costs of their short car journey to the people of Hackney.
“The first thing you need to understand about behaviour change is that in a society where people, particularly those with money, have been used to having their own individual freedom prioritised over those others to be free of air pollution, this is a big change of culture for people like that. Particularly for people in the post-war generation who have never known any form of sacrifice, but lived off the sacrifices of their parents’ generation and never done anything for society, while benefitting from free higher education, growing affluences and fuller employment.
“They’ve been used all their lives to people saying, ‘I’m going to give you this’. Now they have a politician in me saying ‘I am going to take this away from you’. For those people, that is naturally going to be a big shock and a big culture change.
“There are politicians out there who will say that we can go on living as we have been. That is a fantasy. We cannot go on living as we have been and also deliver air quality improvements for our children, improve road safety and fulfil our obligation to our children via our binding decarbonisation commitments.”