Low Traffic Neighbourhoods: Latchford

– in the House of Commons at 8:40 pm on 14 November 2022.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Joy Morrissey).

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Conservative, Warrington South 8:54, 14 November 2022

I am grateful to secure this debate to discuss the impact of low traffic neighbourhoods in Latchford. I will go on to talk about the practical and environmental impact of these initiatives, or rather the lack thereof, as I will explain in the case of Warrington South, I will focus on my constituents’ experiences of the Westy low traffic neighbourhood zone, which was imposed by Warrington Borough Council on people living and working in the Latchford area earlier this year.

Conservative councillors and I have been at odds with Labour over this issue for some time. I have had many meetings with local residents and business owners who have told me that they are angry and simply fed up with the low traffic zone that has been forced on them without proper consultation, and that the council has failed to listen to their concerns about the scheme.

To explain the background to what is happening in Latchford, I will take hon. Members back to 2019—pre-pandemic—when initial consultations took place on a low traffic neighbourhood. As part of the Central 6 Streets masterplan for Warrington, the borough council proposed to implement low traffic neighbourhood zones in Westy, an area of Latchford, and in Orford, which falls in the constituency of Charlotte Nichols.

After late 2019, nothing happened for almost three years. Then signs began to appear out of the blue. The trial for the low traffic neighbourhoods was due to begin on 20 June 2022 and to last for 18 months. Prior to the scheme’s implementation, I had already received many pieces of correspondence from constituents who were concerned about how the LTN would affect traffic routes and congestion, especially by diverting vehicles around two primary schools and through nearby streets.

When I looked closely at the Central 6 Streets masterplan, it was obvious why many constituents were concerned by the lack of communication from the council. Even the dedicated Facebook page had last been updated in 2019. Given that social media are critical for getting the message out to constituents in this day and age, that severe lack of information from the council is quite shocking.

Conservative councillors and I called for planned closures to be put on hold so that concerns about the LTN could be properly addressed before a trial run was enacted. The Conservative group on the council tabled a motion to call for operations to be halted in case the borough council refused to listen and decided to press ahead anyway. It was encouraging to see many local residents taking to the streets and making their voices heard in a well-attended protest outside the council offices when the vote was due to take place. Many people also got in contact with me and borough councillors to warn of the inevitable problems that the LTN scheme would cause, and to urge the council to rethink.

Sadly, it came as no surprise that Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors decided to press ahead with the Westy scheme, despite their decision to pause the equivalent scheme in Orford in Warrington North. In an open letter to Warrington residents, the council leader wrote:

“After carefully considering feedback we have received over the last couple of weeks, we have come to the conclusion that while we will proceed as planned with the Westy scheme, it is only right to pause our plans for Orford, to reflect on the feedback we have received.”

I do not know exactly why the council considered my constituents in Warrington South less deserving of proper consultation about policies affecting their daily lives than those in Warrington North, but there we have it: the council pressed ahead in Warrington South but paused in Warrington North.

The day before the Westy trial was due to begin, Conservative councillors again placed a motion before the full council to call for the LTN to be paused for further consultation with local residents, but again that was simply ignored. A few days after the LTN trial began, I met business owners at their request to hear their take on the road closures and how they were affecting their businesses. I must say that I have never been so depressed and seriously worried by the impact on businesses in an area as a result of changes made by a local council.

Some businesses had suffered a drop in trade so significant that they were already seriously considering closing down. Two businesses that I spoke to had seen takings drop by 40% on the previous week, and after five months, I am afraid that the situation is no better. Local business owners—the people who proudly stand as the backbone of our high streets—who rely on passing trade for much of their income are telling me that they now face closure and redundancies unless the problems with the LTNs are urgently addressed.

Over the summer, I sent out thousands of surveys—one to every household in Latchford East—to ask for feedback on the low traffic neighbourhood, so I could understand and get feedback on the general opinion once the scheme had been brought into effect. I am incredibly grateful that more than 900 households came back to me to share their thoughts, and the results speak for themselves. Since the implementation of the new road layout several months prior, 86% of respondents told me they wanted to return to the old layout, while 87% said they did not support the decision to close Grange Avenue to through traffic.

The most alarming result was that over 85% of respondents reported that their journey times had increased because they were sitting in traffic for longer as a result of a low traffic neighbourhood. As someone who has experienced travelling along Kingsway and Knutsford Road in peak times through Warrington South, I understand their frustration. Increased congestion clearly flies in the face of the council’s own environmental commitments, yet the reality is that an LTN scheme has simply made it worse.

What I really do think is a travesty for local democracy is that 85% of those constituents who fed back to me said that they were not consulted about the road closures prior to their being implemented. I am afraid that it is simply unacceptable to put in place a scheme that is going to cause so much change and disruption to people’s daily lives, and not have the courtesy to ask for their views on it beforehand.

After I shared these findings with the borough council and an evaluation of the feedback from its own interim survey had been carried out, I received an email from the council saying that it was going to make some changes to the Westy low traffic neighbourhood. I was hoping it would really take account of the points raised by local residents; sadly, it did not. It did not reverse any of the scheme, but simply moved a couple of planters. It means that constituents who have experienced a 10 minutes or sometimes 20 minutes longer journey to get from one end of a road to another are still facing those long delays. What local residents in Latchford made clear to me was that they want Grange Avenue reopened to traffic. This is a simple change that would reduce congestion and reduce journey times, but yet again the council is failing to listen.

I hope I have made it abundantly clear that opposition to low-traffic neighbourhoods is not about blanket opposition to policies designed to protect the environment and improve air quality. The problem we have in Warrington is that when car options are taken away, there are not many alternatives. The overwhelming majority of workplaces in Warrington are on the edge of the town, quite some distance from homes, and the opportunity to use public transport is limited, even though the Government have provided additional funding for buses. The replication of a London-style service is just not there yet. What I see in so many of the surveys that have taken place on low traffic neighbourhoods is that in areas of London where there is good public transport these schemes seem to work very well, but in areas around the UK where there is no alternative they struggle to get traction.

Photo of Dean Russell Dean Russell Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art

I thank my hon. Friend for his generosity in giving way. On his points about buses, I often find the same challenge when there are consultations with bus users about changes to bus routes. Recently I met a community of bus users who told me about the challenges they have found with bus routes that have been changed, but they have not been consulted about what changes there will be to the buses they travel on. I am sure there were consultations, but there need to be more robust guidelines from Government and local government to the bus organisations themselves , so that they have to say, “This route is changing. What do you think about that, how will it change your life and what will be the impact of that?” I think that would go a long way to help reassure people that they are not going to suddenly find themselves without transport to hospitals, to work and in their daily lives.

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Conservative, Warrington South

I am very grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. I know he is a fantastic champion for people living in Watford, which is a very similar town to Warrington in that it relies on public transport, particularly for older residents. He is absolutely right that, where changes are made, bus companies often think their message is being delivered to the users, and it simply is not. I think we should encourage everybody involved with delivering public transport solutions to deliver a message time and again, so that that message really gets through to the constituents who need it.

Photo of Katherine Fletcher Katherine Fletcher Conservative, South Ribble

If these decisions are being taken in isolation, no one is considering the integrated transport aspects—closing a road has a knock-on impact on residents in one way, whereas changing a bus service has an impact in another way. Does my hon. Friend think we actually empower councils to do a good job, or are they just working in isolation to their own specific individual goals?

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Conservative, Warrington South

That is the whole point of this debate: a decision taken by locally elected members to change a road layout or a bus timetable has a huge impact on people’s lives. It is so easy to forget that one small decision taken in a town hall at 8 o’clock on a Thursday evening can really have an impact on somebody’s ability to get to work on time, or even to get to work. These things are absolutely fundamental to the lives people lead, yet we take decisions without really thinking through the big picture and thinking about how those things play out when looked at as a whole. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend.

Warrington’s road network struggles to cope with traffic because of the funnelling effect of the bridges over the River Mersey and the Manchester ship canal. Those who know the Westy area of Warrington will be aware that it is surrounded by water to the north and south, with the Mersey and the ship canal, and it has been that way for as long as anybody can remember. As I have explained, this LTN scheme simply will not fulfil its stated objectives; on the contrary, it makes air pollution far worse because traffic sits for much longer and does not flow as it once did, and journeys take longer. The council has failed to take into account the proper environmental and logistical impacts of its plans, which is simply bewildering to me and the many residents who have been in touch to talk about this issue.

On top of that, there is a problem with the entire manner in which this LTN scheme has been imposed without proper consultation or due consideration for local people, which angers both them and me. When councils close off roads that residents and businesses have depended on for their throughfare and trade for so many years, it does not take a genius to work out that it is going to have negative impacts in other areas. No hindsight is required here for Labour; this is simply a case of the council putting through a scheme that has not received proper consideration or had the necessary consultation, and it needs to be reversed. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House put it so well in her response to my question a few weeks ago, councillors should take note of what local people are saying, not just because it is their job as representatives, but because local people will more often than not have the best ideas about how to manage particular situations that affect them through their own lived experience.

Before I close I have some questions for the Minister, and I would be very grateful if he could give me some responses either now or in writing later. My constituents are keen to understand what assessment the Government make of the value to be gained from funding when it is allocated to schemes such as the one in Westy. How does the Department for Transport monitor the environmental and air quality benefits in areas where LTNs are introduced? Warrington has some of the worst air pollution levels of any town in the north of England because of the motorway network that surrounds it—the M6, the M62 and the M56 are all nearby—but can we really see whether introducing an LTN will make a difference to the air quality in particular areas if we are not putting any additional equipment in place to monitor what is actually happening there?

When councils make bids for active travel funding, how do the Government ensure that there is some level of joined-up thinking, as my hon. Friend Katherine Fletcher mentioned, so that where motorists are penalised and are unable to drive on certain roads, suitable alternatives are provided for them so they can still get to work? Are there any penalties for local authorities that apply for trial funding but later realise, having run a trial, that it did not work?

What level of local engagement and, critically, support should schemes have before they are introduced in a local area? If a local authority carries out a survey before introducing a low traffic neighbourhood and sees that people do not support it, is that justification for not going ahead with the scheme, or should it push ahead anyway because it would be good for local people? Finally, will the Minister confirm that the scheme in Westy was put forward by local councillors for central Government funding and not the other way round?

I have been clear in my opposition to the Westy low traffic neighbourhood scheme. I oppose it because my local constituents tell me that it is making their lives more difficult and, as long as my constituents continue to be affected by ill thought out decisions by the Labour borough council, I will continue to hold the council to account in this place and in Warrington.

Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 9:10, 14 November 2022

I congratulate my hon. Friend Andy Carter on securing this Adjournment debate. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher) and for Watford (Dean Russell), who are both local champions for their communities, for raising further important points. I will address one of the main questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South at the very start. The scheme in Westy was put forward to the Government by local councillors for funding. I will write to him with a detailed explanation from my departmental officials on monitoring, the nature of funding, how ratios are allocated and so on.

Let me set out some background on where responsibilities for such traffic management issues lie. Managing traffic on local roads is and always has been a matter for local transport authorities. They have a range of duties, powers and responsibilities, and a considerable toolkit of measures that they can make use of. Local highway authorities have a duty under section 16 of the Traffic Management Act 2004 to manage their roads to secure “the expeditious movement” of all traffic. Meeting that duty is by no means easy and is a daily challenge faced by local authority traffic managers and their colleagues across the country. Balancing the different needs of road users and the many and varied demands on roads is complex. The role of the Department is therefore to set an overarching Government policy and provide an enabling framework of legislation, guidance and advice.

The Department has no remit to intervene in matters of local democratic decision making. Decisions on what traffic management measures to provide, including low traffic neighbourhoods such as the one that my hon. Friend talked about in Latchford—specifically in Westy—are entirely a matter for local authorities such as Warrington to make. They need to be held accountable for them by the local electorate.

Streets and roads make up three quarters of all of our public space and, as my hon. Friend outlined in making his case, how they are designed has a really significant impact on people’s lives. The Department has for a long time encouraged local authorities to design their streets in a way that creates a sense of place and puts consideration of the needs of local people first. The “Manual for Streets”, published by the Department for Transport in 2007, provides guidance on that. The design of streets can deliver on a wide range of objectives such as high street regeneration and economic growth, contributing towards net zero, decarbonising transport, and air pollution, which my hon. Friend talked about. We are currently revising the “Manual for Streets” and aim to publish a revised version in early 2023.

There are many good and popular traffic management schemes across the country, many of which are designed to enable local economic growth. Examples include the Waterfront in Ipswich and the centre of Welwyn Garden City. However, others do not seem to have met those high standards. The challenge now is to learn from experience and ensure that all local authorities develop schemes in a way that fully involves their communities and leads to high quality outcomes. Only then will we see the step change in design that we need to help deliver the commitments from “Gear Change” and the overall goal of net zero.

My hon. Friend rightly raised his concerns about engagement with the local council in the planning stages and later on. Engagement should not end there—this is an important point—but should continue, and authorities should continue to monitor how schemes are performing and make changes if they need to.

With regards to Latchford, I agree that any scheme must be developed and implemented after thorough engagement with the community affected. The Department made that very clear when communicating with local authorities about the active travel fund. Community engagement is key. I note that Warrington Borough Council did carry out some engagement on the proposal, but engagement should use objective methods to establish a truly representative picture of local views and ensure that minority views do not dominate. The party political nature of local Members of Parliament should also have no bearing on it. There are many ways an authority can consult and engage. What is important is that representatives of the whole community are engaged. It is for local authorities to decide what methods to use, but, as my hon. Friend has been doing today, they should be held to account for whatever methods they use. Authorities should also be open to continuing to listen and to making changes to any scheme in the light of real-world experience and feedback from local people.

On the impact on journey times in and around Latchford, it is for Warrington Borough Council and its leadership to justify the design of this particular scheme. I understand that changes to road layouts can cause confusion. Again, while the exact nature of the scheme is a matter for the council, the general aim of low traffic neighbourhoods is to prevent through traffic and rat-running, not to prevent access by car for residents, visitors or essential services. Where they are put in place, that should be kept in mind.

I note the concerns raised about whether low traffic neighbourhoods lead to increased congestion, in particular on boundary roads. It is certainly the case that where a low traffic neighbourhood is poorly designed it can have negative impacts, but well-designed active travel schemes need not cause additional congestion. When part of a well designed network, they can be a far more efficient way of moving people around our town centres—and, indeed, in and out of towns.

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Conservative, Warrington South

I am very grateful for the Minister’s response. Does he agree that certain areas are simply not right for a low traffic neighbourhood because of the constraints that exist in them—rivers or other waterways—and that to close rat runs, as the Minister mentioned, is to actually close roads that people use? The speed at which vehicles travel along those roads is perhaps a case for looking at road planning, rather than determining that they are rat runs.

Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I agree completely with my hon. Friend. This is very much a horses for courses situation. Some areas are suitable for LTNs—he mentioned that in some parts of the country they have been welcomed—but other areas are not, and he is completely right to highlight that point.

Well-designed schemes can help people to move around more efficiently. This, again, is where Active Travel England can help local authorities to ensure that their schemes are properly thought through, including the impact on other traffic in and around their areas.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. In short, well-designed schemes can promote better road use, including cycling and walking, and deliver benefits for all road users and local communities. They can make our town centres more attractive and boost local economies, as well as deliver health and environmental benefits. Our updated “Manual for Streets”, together with the work of Active Travel England, will have a role in helping local authorities to design and implement such schemes effectively, learning the lessons of experience in the implementation of existing schemes. What is particularly important is that local authorities listen to their local people and reflect carefully on the views expressed by the residents they serve and their democratically elected representatives. That includes the people of Warrington South, who could not have a more doughty champion than my hon. Friend. I hope that in this case Warrington Borough Council listens to representations and considers them as it takes the scheme forward into the future.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.