Uproar as Tower Hamlets rolls back on Low Traffic Neighbourhoods

Mayor Lutfur Rahman. Pic: Adam Kash

By Rupert Birkett-Eyles, Luke Cromhout, Harry Merrell and Lilly Khaokham

The low traffic neighbourhood project in Tower Hamlets is to be scrapped after the decision was narrowly backed by councillors amid shouts of ‘vermin’ from the public gallery.

The decision came despite a strong warning from more than 80 headteachers of primary and secondary schools across the borough of the ‘negative impacts’ on young people. In an open letter to Councillor Musthak Ahmed, chair of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee they said: “The council’s own equalities impact assessment […] flagged that the mayor’s decision would have particularly negative impacts on young people, a protected characteristics group, due to the increase in road danger, pollution and discouragement for walking and cycling”.

The Overview and Scrutiny Committee had the option to conduct a full review of Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s plan in light of public and opposition support for the initiative.

No member of the Aspire party was present at the debate on the Aspire party’s decision to scrap the scheme, with Labour criticising Rahman and councillor Kabir Hussain, the cabinet member for environment, for failing to show up.

Labour councillor Asma Islam said: “There is absolutely no political representation for this call-in. This is clearly a political decision”.

Labour councillor Marc Francis told the meeting: “Politicians shouldn’t hide behind paid members of staff.” Francis said the vote was evidence of a failure of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee itself which was failing in its aim of being transparent and accountable. 

The Deputy Statutory Mayor, and three cabinet members observed from the public gallery rather than face questions directly. 

Rahman’s decision to roll back the LTNs, which involves road closures and other traffic calming measures around Tower Hamlets was backed by the OSC by four votes to three, split along party lines.

Once the vote was cast, the gallery emptied, with members of the public shouting, “Shame on you!” and “Vermin!” at the Aspire members who voted against reviewing Rahman’s decision. 

Asma Begum, also a Labour councillor, said after the vote: “Matters coming before the committee should not be prejudged. Members should not be whipped. We all asked for evidence to back up the mayor’s decision, but they still voted in favour. I’m sorry, I can’t get any more political than that.”

Eastlondonlines approached the council officers and Aspire councillors, all of whom refused to comment. 

The absence of any representative from the cabinet has raised questions on the role of the committee.

Overview and Scrutiny Committee Meeting at Tower Hamlets Town Hall. Pic: Harry Merrell

Councillor Asma Begum said: “The decision is two fingers to the committee and two fingers to the residents. It’s really bad democracy.”

Liveable Streets is a low traffic neighbourhood project introduced by Labour in 2019. In phase one of the scheme, LTNs were introduced in Bethnal Green and Weavers. The project was intended to cover 60 per cent of the borough, but all four phases have since been scrapped.

The project was designed to improve ‘community cohesion’ and create a safer environment for children. 

The letter from headteachers follows an earlier letter in January 2023 from head teachers from five of the ‘most affected’ primary and secondary schools in Bethnal Green: Oaklands, Lawdale, Elizabeth Selby, Virginia and Columbia. The letter backed current street layouts and expressed their concerns over the rollback’s impact on the health and safety of children.

The letter said: “Please reconsider your proposal and work with us and other stakeholders and the wider community […] Don’t go back to square one. Look to improve what is already there.”

Low Traffic Neighbourhood Sign. Pic: Secretlondon

LTNs are intended to make streets safer, more pedestrian and cyclist friendly, reduce air pollution and reduce anti-social behaviour.

Rahman’s Aspire party won control of Tower Hamlets Council in May 2022 and the mayor was elected on a pro-motorist mandate.

The council announced it would scrap the LTN scheme last month, saying it would find “less divisive ways to achieve cleaner air”.

But the removal of the scheme has proven controversial. Lengthy and expensive consultations, which cost £181,000, showed 57.3 per cent of Tower Hamlets residents want to keep Liveable Streets and 41.7 per cent are in favour of removal.

A council officer said that Rahman’s decision on September 20, 2023, to roll back the scheme “did not disregard the results of the consultation”. But Labour believes it was “a missed opportunity to bring the community together”. 

A resident of Tower Hamlets, speaking outside of the committee meeting, said the vote is: “Disappointing. The residents’ opinions have been disregarded, absolutely.”

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