The scalar dynamics of UK transport policy: low traffic neighbourhoods

Earlier this week a paper by Geoff Dudley, David Banister and myself was published in The Political Quarterly, and it can be downloaded for free until 31st October from here.

The installation of ‘traffic filters’ in the form of planters and bollards on certain residential streets that reduce access by car or van but offer passage to bikes and e-scooters — colloquially known as ‘low traffic neighbourhoods’ or LTNS — is no doubt the most controversial transport policy of the last couple of years. Implemented first in London and shown to reduce car use and ownership, this policy is now travelling into other UK cities, including Oxford.

Our paper does not consider the effects on traffic of the creation of LTNs but the policy processes behind their implementation. In the article we suggest that the LTN policy is an attempt to not only reduce local car use but also increase national government’s grip on local transport policy implementation. The endeavour to centralise implementation works through the conditions imposed by national government on funding allocated for LTN implementation to local authorities. Some of those conditions are so rigid that local authorities struggle to meet them, which leaves them two options: abandon their LTN plans, or fund LTNs through other (local) means. The latter is the course adopted by Oxford and is in some ways the best possible outcome for national government: it realises the ambition of the ‘centre’ without national government having to pay for it from the financial resources earmarked for active travel promotion. 

This approach to local transport policy differs from common understandings of neoliberal styles of policymaking — i.e. rescaling responsibility from national to local level without a concomitant rescaling of resources and capacities. Now, English transport policy has always remained powerful centralised elements, and stylised narratives about neoliberalisation of policymaking have never adequately summarised how transport policy is ‘done’ in England. Still, the LTN case seems to be heralding a new style of (attempting) central control over what local authorities do, in a context where the agency of the latter has been reduced by funding cuts in the wake of austerity politics overseen by former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne.

Then again, it is unclear at the current time whether this attempt to recentralise control over implementation of local transport policy is the beginning of a new trend of reassertion of central determination of what happens at local policy, or a temporary phenomenon. Only time will tell…

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