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POLITICS in PUBS Newcastle

From LTNs to 15-minute cities: a war on the car?
Notes from meeting held on 6th June 2023
Introduction by Dave O'Toole
Chair: Caspar Hewett, Director, The Great Debate

With membership growing and summer approaching, PiPs Newcastle met outside on the pub's roof terrace to discuss the recent proliferation of anti-car measures across the UK. The introductory talk was given by Dave O'Toole, a former IT systems analyst and college lecturer who has worked extensively with the Great Debate in Newcastle. A lifelong trade union member and organiser, Dave has a keen interest in how environmentalism and the politics of climate alarmism impact the lives of working people.

At least a hundred councils, including Newcastle, are planning or have implemented traffic reduction schemes. Dave described several of the more notorious examples, including ULEZ which gridlocks London boroughs, Greater Manchester's Clean Air Zone which includes large rural areas, and Oxford's scheme to restrict drivers' movements outside their own neighbourhood.

All of the schemes have had vocal opposition and were introduced with little or no consultation. Some schemes are enforced through installation of physical barriers, others through the use of cameras which record your numberplate and log your movements, and many by a combination of the two.

Dave thoroughly debunked claims that traffic reduction measures are being implemented to combat air pollution. Air quality in UK towns and cities has been improving steadily for decades. Even in London, you are subject to far higher particulate levels on the Underground, and even in your own home, than you are on the busiest street. The overwhelming factor in public health and longevity is income, not air quality.

So what are the real reasons for these schemes?

Income generation for councils is certainly part of the motivation - Dave pointed out that Bath's Clean Air Zone (CAZ) had generated £6m in fines and £5m in charges, while Sheffield's CAZ raised over £210,500 in its first month.

However, Dave argued that the major driver is the inevitable outcome of the 2016 implementation of Net Zero legislation. The concept of the 15-minute city is advocated by the United Nations Framework convention on Climate Change, while the C40 global network of city mayors states the aim of reducing car ownership and usage by 50% in the short term with an eventual target of zero.

In conclusion, Dave outlined the social and economic impacts of these anti-car measures which are being introduced based on flawed or misinterpreted science. Travel for work or leisure will become more expensive, already vulnerable high streets will be further harmed by loss of business, and tradesmen will be forced to raise prices to customers to cover their own costs. The impacts will be felt most by the disabled, elderly and those on low incomes.

The topic was then opened for debate chaired by Dr Caspar Hewett, a founder and coordinator of the PiPs Newcastle group.

Not everyone present was a car owner or driver, but all expressed deep concern at the undemocratic way these measures had been introduced. A case in point was Newcastle's Jesmond LTN, for which public consultation took place only after the bollards and barricades had been installed. The only way local residents could get their voices heard was to raise a petition, which was signed by over 1,700 people in just a few days.

Several group members expressed sympathy with the need to reduce ‘rat-running' through residential areas, making streets safer for children to play outdoors, walk and ride bikes. However, it was also noted that displacement has unforeseen consequences - in one local example, the traffic diverted from residential streets ended up gridlocked outside a primary school.

The group shared Dave's concern that these measures have the worst impacts on the poorest in society - those who can't afford to upgrade their vehicle or to pay charges and fines. This is all the more worrying because no one in power seems to be standing up for their interests. In the past, the Labour Party might have done this, but like all the main parties they now seem to prioritise fashionable environmental causes over the needs of ordinary people.

The group discussed the uncanny way the schemes are popping up across the UK and abroad, all at the same time and often with the same messaging. Opinion was divided over whether this was evidence of a global conspiracy, or simply an example of the elites copying each other, aided by networks such as C40 and ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability. Either way, the group agreed that we shouldn't be fatalistic. We finished on a positive note, appreciating initiatives such as Together Declaration which bring people together to combat these illiberal measures and of course Politics in Pubs for enabling us to debate the topic freely.

Paula Lightfoot, 2023

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