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Plans for a low traffic neighbourhood in Prestwich have collapsed. So what went wrong?
‘The whole area has been gaslighted’
By Alex King
When I started reporting on low traffic neighbourhoods, or LTNs, I had one simple question: do they work?
Greater Manchester’s first LTN was introduced in Levenshulme last year — something Andrea Sandor reported on in one of the Mill’s most-read pieces ever. While the introduction of the LTN was shrouded in controversy, it doesn’t seem to have discouraged councils: Manchester City Council is about to extend the Levenshulme LTN into Burnage, and Bury Council has spent a year and a half trying to bring one into Prestwich.
But as I’d soon find out, this question didn’t lead to any straightforward answers. As I dug deeper and deeper, I realised that the question of whether or not they worked wasn’t exactly the right one. Perhaps the real question was: do councils genuinely want low traffic neighbourhoods to work?
At first glance, it certainly seems that way. There’s plenty of public money being invested in these schemes, with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) allocating £160m between 2018 and 2022 to create a fund which would help councils deliver LTNs, amongst other things. But our reporting has revealed that the latest high profile LTN proposal in Greater Manchester — in Prestwich — has fallen apart, after residents lost trust in the plan and the people organising it.
All of which begs the question: if the authorities are pro-LTN, why are they being so half-hearted about the communication and engagement that’s necessary for the public to embrace them?
‘It feels like they’re flying down here’
It’s mid-morning in Heaton Park: lorries bully their way down Bury Old Road as Parklife revellers trickle in on the tram. So far, there are no planters or placards in Prestwich.
Pete Liggins has lived on Bury Old Road for five years. He says he was “really glad” that his house was going to be in an active neighbourhood, another term people use for LTNs. “We’ve got a little one. There’s loads of little ones on the street. I think ideally you want to live somewhere where you think it’s fine if the little one wants to shoot off down the road to go to their school friend’s house two minutes away on their own.”
Pete’s road has become a rat run, he says. “Drivers see a side road like ours and they think they’ll put their foot down and make up for time lost sitting in traffic. It feels like they’re flying down here.”
The idea behind LTN schemes is to create safer walking and cycling links between homes, shops and schools. They’re supposed to make it more difficult to drive cars around, a move which has made city-dwellers happier and healthier in places like Amsterdam and Barcelona.
To do this, filters (ranging from bollards to planters) are placed in strategic locations on residential roads to block through-traffic while still allowing vehicle access to every home. As Andrea observed in her piece last year, government data shows that traffic on residential roads in the North West has increased 47% in the past decade, in part due to GPS apps routing traffic down quieter streets to shorten journey times.
LTNs are also designed to alleviate air pollution, a measure this city clearly needs. According to Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM), poor air quality caused by toxic gases like NO₂, the majority of which come from road transport, contributes to the equivalent of 1,200 deaths a year in the city region.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, there’s been a wave of LTNs across Greater Manchester in the last three years, like Walton Road in Trafford, Hazel Grove in Stockport, and Oldhams Estate in Bolton. In Levenshulme, 14 planters went in at the beginning of 2021 during phase one of the scheme. 12 of these planters are now permanent and Manchester council is in discussions with TfGM about rolling out phase two to neighbouring Burnage, possibly in 2022.
The process of designing Prestwich’s LTN began in 2021 and wrapped up in March this year but we’ve been told that the scheme has run into familiar problems of poor engagement with the community and a breakdown of trust with residents, and will soon be dropped by the council.
‘They might as well have not bothered’
So do LTNs work? Many Levenshulme locals I encounter wax lyrical about the advantages of living in one. As I walk down Victoria Road, which has planters on it, I see two men sit on a short red brick wall smoking cigarettes. They tell me that the area is quieter now. “People may have disliked them before,” one reflects, “but they adapt.” Brian, not his real name, who is pushing a pram down Broom Lane, a through lane in the LTN, tells me the streets are safer. “As a pedestrian with a baby who wants to walk around, it’s kind of helpful,” he tells me contentedly. “Everyone I know likes it.”
Manchester City Council insists that the Levenshulme LTN is working. A study carried out by the Manchester Urban Observatory on behalf of the council found “major increases” in walking and cycling both on roads with planters and roads inside the general filtered area. The same study found that traffic increases on roads at the edge of the scheme were “modest”.
The jury’s still out on whether the Levenshulme LTN will improve air quality. The study says that air quality measurements from six sites in Levenshulme show “comparable levels to across Manchester and other similar sites in the UK”. A report from the think tank Centre for London observes, however, that there’s a lack of evidence on how LTNs affect air pollution, in part because many local authorities didn’t install air pollution trackers on LTN streets before and after their introduction.
Which is exactly what opponents of the Levenshulme LTN say happened here. “The council installed the air monitoring equipment four months into a six-month trial,” says long-time critic and Levenshulme resident Jeremy Hoad, meaning there was no baseline against which the council could assess the filter’s effects. “If you're going to trial something, you measure beforehand, you do your trial, you measure again, and you compare before and after.” He shakes his head. “They might as well not have bothered,” he says.
‘The whole area has been gaslighted’
This won’t be the last time that I encounter allegations of local government incompetence. In January 2021, TfGM set up the Heaton Park Active Neighbourhood scheme in Prestwich which is currently designing an LTN for the local area. Like the Levenshulme LTN, the scheme forms part of the Bee Network, TfGM’s 10-year plan to deliver a cycling and walking network across Greater Manchester. The partnership designing the Heaton Park LTN is headed up by TfGM, and is also supported by Bury Council, as well as Sustrans, a cycling charity which administers infrastructure projects for the UK government and also helped deliver the Levenshulme scheme, and the professional services firm Arup.
They marked out a broadly triangular area between Bury Old Road, Bury New Road and Scholes Lane to curb “rat running issues to and from Bury Old Road and Prestwich Village”. The partnership then kicked things off by posting a survey to every household inside and just beyond the area — “2,767 addresses in total”, its website states. The same website says local residents were invited to three design workshops, while TfGM also stated that there was both a postal and an online survey.
“If you decide to do a fluff piece on the environment, you will be ignoring major ethical issues with the ‘consultation’ process involved here,” Sarah, not her real name, a Heaton Park resident, warns me. “The whole area has been gaslighted into thinking the issues they complained about are being addressed but are still not being permitted to see the final plans.”
The partnership launched the project in January 2021 with flyers and the surveys and workshops mentioned above. But Sarah says she doesn’t recall receiving these, saying she only found out about the workshops through a Facebook page she follows.
Indeed, the community page she’s referring to, ‘Original Prestwich People’, is awash with posts from incandescent residents who feel blindsided. “Not seen a thing, and I live in [the] Heaton park area!” wrote one user in February. “I do not know of any one that has received this consultation,” posted another in March. “You must make an effort to fill out the survey if you disagree with the daft proposals.”
A council source told The Mill that local councillors were unimpressed with the outreach Sustrans had organised, and pushed the group to engage much more proactively with the community. Figures at the council feared that Sustrans was so convinced of the case for LTNs that they might not be making enough effort to bring residents along with the idea, a comment which raises an interesting question that reared its head in Levenshulme, too: are the biggest advocates of active travel schemes really the best people to sell them to the public?
Some argue that councils need to show a bit of leadership on the issue, even if they are not the right people to run the consultations. It isn’t abnormal for politicians to advocate for LTNs. There is a stark contrast here to the handful of areas in England where local leaders have been vocally supportive of the need to address traffic and emissions via LTNs. For example, Lambeth leader Claire Holland has tweeted her support for LTNs 26 times. By contrast, former Manchester City Council leader Sir Richard Leese, his successor Bev Craig and Bury Council leader Eamonn O'Brien have never tweeted about it.
Claire Stocks, an active travel campaigner in Manchester, agrees there has been a lack of local leadership on the issue, citing a senior leadership who was “not visibly supportive” of the changes in Levenshulme. “Perhaps that was in part because Low Traffic Neighbourhoods were still a new concept.”
‘I can’t say anything else’
At best, Heaton Park residents feel blindsided by the LTN plans; and at worst, they sense political interference behind closed doors in the way it’s been designed — a perception which has been disastrous for the scheme.
Pete attended the three design workshops in 2021 and recalls being really excited. “We got into the nuts and bolts. They were literally like, ‘Here's a map, show us where the rat runs are.’”
Pete had the impression that the process would be genuinely resident-led. That is until Sustrans published two proposals following the workshop and scheduled a ‘drop-in consultation’ for residents to provide feedback. The difference between the proposals is subtle but significant; while ‘Option 2’ has filters stopping east-west traffic across the entire LTN, ‘Option 1’ only has them in the southern half. Everyone I have spoken to says option one won’t work because it will ‘leak’ traffic from the southern half into the northern half.
Pete couldn’t fathom where option one came from, so he attended the drop-in consultation in March. There, he questioned James Tate, a senior transport planner at Arup, about what measures they’d put in to prevent leakage. It was here that Pete allegedly had an astonishing revelation. “James turned around and said, ‘option one will not work, I’ve got to be honest with you. I can’t say anything else.’”
There was silence. James allegedly explained himself. “He said we didn’t want to put it forward but that Bury Council had insisted. The council said they wanted fewer barriers.”
Nick Hubble, another resident at the drop-in consultation, tells a similar story. “They told me that the reason that option one existed was because the council insisted on residents having a choice. They didn't want it to seem like they were imposing this severe change.”
Arup chose not to comment when we asked them about this story and Bury Council categorically denies councillors insisted on specific options. “At all stages, ward councillors have been keen to ensure the public are consulted so that any scheme proposed would have widespread public support”, a spokesperson told The Mill. A former Prestwich councillor also says it was “bollocks” that councillors interfered, instead labelling it “a botched compromise”.
The consultation on the two proposals ran until 20 March. Since then, residents say they’ve not heard anything from Sustrans or Bury Council. “Three months later, I have been unable to get copies of the final plans from Sustrans,” Sarah tells me.
Pete speculates that a majority of residents voiced support for option one — with filters just in the southern half of the area — because it seems like a compromise when in fact it would saddle the community with a terrible LTN scheme. He now finds himself in a peculiarly paradoxical position of supporting LTNs but opposing this particular one. “I can’t support it if it means more traffic coming down my street.”
Near the end of reporting this story, I learned something that none of the residents have yet been told — that the Prestwich LTN is going to be scrapped entirely. A council source says the breakdown of trust over the botched effort to present two options has scared the council off from continuing, after 18 months of preparation work. On the face of it, Prestwich is perhaps the most promising neighbourhood in Bury for a scheme like this, but it doesn’t look like its residents are going to get one.
The Mill asked TfGM and Bury Council to confirm that the scheme is being spiked, but so far they have chosen not to do so. A spokesperson for TfGM told me: “Active Neighbourhoods [LTNs] are a key part of the Bee Network vision and can have dramatic positive effects on air pollution, congestion, residents’ health and wellbeing, and safety on residential streets.
“The two options proposed for the Heaton Park Active Neighbourhood scheme are both viable options that incorporated the views of residents following extensive engagement with the local community.
“Due to the high number of responses, the results are still being considered and more details will be shared when this thorough review is complete. We’d like to take the opportunity to thank everyone who took the time to respond to the recent engagement process for this scheme.”
They also said that the final cost of the engagement exercise for the scheme was £23,731.
A blame game for the collapse of the scheme has ensued, with our Bury Council source partially attributing it to Sustrans' meagre efforts to effectively engage local residents throughout the design process. The Mill asked Sustrans to respond to this allegation, and it declined, instead deferring to TfGM and Bury Council.