Nigel Farage says that his Reform UK party will target councils that promote cycling and walking in next year’s local elections in England as the issue of emergency active travel infrastructure, promoted by the government, becomes increasingly politicised – with Shaun Bailey, the Conservative candidate for Mayor of London, also making his opposition to such schemes a key policy as he seeks to oust Labour’s Sadiq Khan.
Former UKIP leader Farage last month rebranded his Brexit Party as Reform UK, with its main policy being to challenge the restrictions in England encouraged by the government to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.
A fortnight ago, in a column for the Mail on Sunday, he dragged out many of the usual, easily repudiated anti-cycling clichés, as well as railing against emergency cycling infrastructure, claiming that “For much of the day these new bike lanes with their endless lines of shiny white posts lie empty while traffic jams block what is left of the roads.”
Vociferous opponents of pop-up cycle lanes and low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) have included former UKIP councillors and candidates, and with the row over the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea’s decision to remove the emergency cycle lanes on Kensington High Street gaining a great deal of mainstream media attention in the past week, Farage now appears to see opposition to such schemes as a vote winner.
Writing in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph, he described the initiatives as “madness” and accused the government of “virtue signalling,” while also repeating his claim that cycle lanes went unused and caused congestion.
“The volume of cyclists using many of the new cycle lanes is … so low that they cannot be justified,” he insisted. “In far too many cases, all the lanes and road closures have succeeded in doing is cause traffic jams, therefore increasing pollution and triggering huge frustration in a population that has had about as much as it can take for one year.
“My new party will stand candidates against any and every local councillor who backs these new cycle lanes and road closures in next year’s local elections,” he added. “If measures to improve the environment really are necessary, they can only be introduced sensibly,” he added.
Scheduled for 6 May 2021, elections will be held for all county councils in England, and for either full councils or one third of council seats, in the country’s metropolitan boroughs, unitary authorities and district councils.
The London Mayoral and London Assembly elections are planned for the same day, as well as those for directly elected mayors in a number of combined authorities including Greater Manchester and the West Midlands.
Elections are also being held for the devolved Scottish Parliament and Welsh Parliament, and for police and crime commissioners across England.
Bailey, the Conservative candidate for Mayor of London, said in a Daily Telegraph last week that if elected, he would suspend the rollout of LTNs in the capital.
“Over the last few months, Sadiq Khan has pushed councils across the capital to introduce LTNs,” he wrote. “And to be fair, the thinking behind the scheme wasn’t entirely misguided. LTNs are essentially roads that have been blocked off to cars. The idea is that preventing drivers using certain streets as rat-runs will cut pollution, clean up our air and keep drivers moving. Unfortunately, this scheme has had the opposite effect.”
He went on to outline some of the main objections to such schemes, which again do not stand up to close scrutiny, including that through deterring rat-running drivers they lead to more congestion and air pollution on main roads, as well as inconveniencing residents in the LTNs themselves and hold up the emergency services.
He also repeated the claim, also made by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, that the mounting deficit at TfL was due to what they see as Khan’s mismanagement of it since he was elected Mayor in 2016 – although the Mayor insists that TfL was balancing its books before the coronavirus pandemic struck, resulting in plummeting passenger numbers and fare revenues.
“Come May, I know what I’ll do,” Bailey said. “On day one as Mayor, I’ll reverse Sadiq Khan’s congestion charge hike, cutting the cost of living so businesses and workers can afford to keep moving. I’ll cut Sadiq Khan’s waste at TfL, investing taxpayers’ money in improving services, not in funding free travel for friends of TfL staff.
“And I’ll suspend LTNs, only introducing one if a majority of residents support it,” he added. “This is how we’ll help to kickstart London’s recovery — and help to lead the UK’s recovery too.”
Much of the opposition to LTNs, and to initiatives such as the Kensington High Street cycle lane appears to come from outside the areas concerned, and while even before the COVID-19 crisis struck active travel schemes always attracted vocal opposition, consultations regularly showed a majority of people in favour of them.
But in recent months, it’s clear the issue has become increasingly politicised and there are signs that the opposition is becoming more organised.
And given the number of votes we have had at national level in the past five years – three general elections, the EU referendum and the elections to the European Parliament – there is a risk of election fatigue setting in among the wider population.
Add to that the ongoing coronavirus crisis, the potential fallout from Brexit and the opportunity that local elections give to whip up opposition to government policy, the danger is that in some parts of the country at least, active travel initiatives could be a casualty.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.