After a rushed consultation, the council’s Traffic Management Advisory Committee meets next week to discuss two of the borough’s Low Traffic Neighbourhoods. Our environment correspondent PAUL LUSHION reports on the gathering storm
When Councillor Muhammad Ali was promoted to the council cabinet in October, he inherited one of the most hotly contested policies introduced in Croydon.
On Tuesday, he will chair a virtual committee meeting which will determine the future of the borough’s controversial Low Traffic Neighbourhood schemes which in the last six months have seen the council threatened with a High Court Judicial Review and propelled into a border dispute with neighbours Bromley.
A handful of road closures were implemented in the Crystal Palace area and around South Norwood in the middle of last year, in part in response to the need for greater social distancing during the first coronavirus lockdown. The measures have been paid for from grant funding from the Conservative government, and have the enthusiastic support on the board of Transport for London from Andrew Gilligan, the transport adviser to Boris Johnson.
The road closures are a deliberate attempt to discourage the use of motor vehicles for shorter journeys, and therefore reduce air pollution. They also block off residential streets from the bane of many neighbourhoods, rat-runners.
But a small band of vocal protesters in Upper Norwood have objected long and hard.
Open Our Roads, whose leaders like to present it as an organisation run by locals in Upper Norwood, mounted an increasingly desperate-looking campaign before Christmas, encouraging as many as possible to take part in the council consultation on the fate of two of the borough’s Low Traffic Neighbourhoods – irrespective of whether they live in the area or regularly use the roads affected.
Open Our Roads used social media to distribute the access codes for the council’s online consultation. “What was supposed to be a local consultation has been turned into a national referendum,” one frustrated Crystal Palace resident told Inside Croydon.
Among those backing Open Our Roads in Upper Norwood is Roger Lawson, the Chislehurst-based campaign manager for the Association of Bad Drivers who also holds Trumpian-style views on the climate emergency and Black Lives Matter, as well as someone called Duncan Buchanan, whose role as policy director of the Road Haulage Association should give the game away over what his agenda might be.
And while LTNs are the Labour-controlled council’s own policy, Open Our Roads has also drawn public shows of support from a Labour ward councillor, the veteran Pat Ryan. Ryan has a track record of blocking road-calming and pollution-reducing measures in the past. He is also a member of the Traffic Management Advisory Committee, and so will have an influence over any decision reached this week.
At the head of the Open Our Roads group is Upper Norwood resident, Eliska Finlay.
Whether under pressure from the group’s backers and string-pullers, Finlay’s line hardened considerably over recent weeks. In the summer, when the first car-blocking planters went in on streets off Church Road, she was simply arguing for better resident access.
More recently, she has been calling for a free-for-all for speeding motorists.
As well as petitions and encouraging non-locals to take part in a local consultation, South Africa-born Finlay has also launched a legal challenge against the LTN, controversially raising money for the case through a crowdfunder which initially boosted donations by 25 per cent through the Gift Aid tax break – even though Open Our Roads is not a registered charity, as is legally required for such a benefit.
And although Finlay often has much to say for herself and Open Our Roads on social media, she suddenly became unusually reticent when questioned by Inside Croydon about how the donations were being banked and accounted for. Finlay’s own hostel business went bankrupt last year (“It’s been a devastating eight months for me and my family,” she said), and while she claimed that the legal fund was being administered by a solicitor and accountant, she refused to identify by name who these colleagues might be.
Nor did she provide any answers when asked what arrangements had been made by Open Our Roads to refund the Gift Aid which she claimed had been taken by mistake.
Today, the crowdfund page is still showing that £165 has been collected through Gift Aid.
The fund-raising appears to have stalled well short of the £20,000 target, the minimum required to pay for a Judicial Review. Finlay has remained tight-lipped, too, about how she might refund donations if the legal case fails to go ahead.
Residents who support the LTN, many of whom have had their own streets cleared of the blight of rat runners, say that they have seen through Finlay and the OOR campaign. “Their real agenda is that they want the back streets of Crystal Palace to go back to being over-run by speeding drivers dodging round busy junctions,” one said.
“But they know that they can’t be too bare-faced in arguing that.
“So they cast around for all manner of other apparently more respectable points, displaying new-found zeal for such issues as congestion and air pollution on main roads, or emergency service response times. Their problem is that research on similar schemes in Waltham Forest and elsewhere show these concerns are actually bogus.”
The resident asked Inside Croydon not to identify them because they, their family and home had been the target of abuse since the LTN campaigning began.
Similar abuse has been directed at the street furniture which implements the LTNs, too.
Wooden planters at the end of streets in Upper Norwood and South Norwood have been vandalised repeatedly. A CCTV camera which polices a bus gate on Auckland Road has more than once had its lens covered over so that it cannot complete its task of monitoring car drivers who illegally use the bus gate. By last month, the council was replacing the wooden planters with more permanent, and less easily damaged, concrete and steel.
It is not known who have carried out these acts of wanton and criminal vandalism, though it is a reasonable assumption that they have not been done by anyone who supports the LTN.
The matter goes to the council’s Traffic Management Advisory Committee, postponed from last week to this Tuesday, January 12, when it will supposedly be informed by the results of the consultation and with an official report recommending an 18-month trial using more cameras, ANPR, or Automatic Number Plate Recognition, which would allow registered residents to use their home streets, but would fine drivers caught using the roads as rat runs.
Ahead of the meeting, Open Our Roads has also produced its own “briefing document” for councillors, too. Inside Croydon has obtained a copy. It is a litany of half-truths and blatant contradictions.
Open Our Roads claim that the LTN streets “were quiet and without significant traffic”.
In the very next sentence they say that the impact of diverting that insignificant traffic “has been catastrophic to the surrounding neighbourhoods”. It is the essential contradiction which has exposed their arguments as flawed.
A few pages on, they say “the net effect of the closures has been to push an estimated daily 6,000 [to] 10,000 additional vehicles on to the main A roads in Crystal Palace.”
It is not certain, but these may be made-up statistics. As estimates go, this is a pretty broad range, but if true, it surely undermines their previous claim that the LTN streets “were quiet and without significant traffic”. Which are we to believe?
Fortunately, there is some hard data from a council traffic monitor which shows that in 2019, Auckland Road was carrying more than 10,000 vehicles a day, a greater volume of traffic than on the nearby main road Central Hill. This was more than three times traffic levels on Auckland Road in 2013, thought to be because of the growing use of satnavs, which divert traffic off main roads.
Open Our Roads also appear to be in complete denial of any benefits of the scheme. Instead, they make a claim that “we have seen no evidence, in the months that Auckland Road has been closed, of any significant increase in cycling”, even though surveys conducted last year show that OOR claim also to be untrue.
A frequently-used trope used by high-traffic campaigners is that areas served by LTNs are privileged, affluent, white enclaves, from which traffic and pollution are displaced to poorer areas where a higher percentage of black and minority ethnic residents. This claim has been convincingly debunked in an academic paper published two months ago by University of Westminster Professor Rachel Aldred.
Ultimately, the document is nothing more than a thinly-veiled piece of lobbying on behalf of motoring interests and their supporters, people such as Lawson and Buchanan. At one point, it actually says that it is “very sensible” that drivers previously used the narrow, parked-up Southern Avenue and Lancaster Road to dodge the traffic lights in the middle of South Norwood.
What do Open Our Roads, or the Association of Bad Drivers, think should be done about air pollution, traffic danger and an obesogenic approach to street management which stops children walking and cycling, certainly independently? In a 10-page document going on about how the council has got it all wrong, the single solution that they offer is… the council should carry out a traffic survey.
OOR might need to reconsider what their acronym stands for: Open Our Rat-Runs.
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