East London mayor says cars are a ‘necessity’ while unveiling his borough’s new climate strategy
Around 15 per cent of people in Tower Hamlets own a car. But mayor Lutfur Rahman, who pledged to remove the borough’s low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs), said cars are the “safest way of travelling” for some
The conference aimed to set out the borough’s path for a greener future. (Image: Tower Hamlets Mayor’s Office)
Tower Hamlets mayor Lutfur Rahman has said that cars are necessary for the people in his borough while unveiling his strategy to tackle the climate crisis.
“Cars are necessary, sometimes people need cars for families, for work purposes etc,” Rahman said on Thursday during an event announcing the council’s plans for A Cleaner and Greener Future for Tower Hamlets.
The extensive green strategy, which includes heavy investment in electric waste vehicles and charging points, recycling, community clean-up and waste, makes no mention of cutting down private car use or emissions from transport. And it hasn’t gone unnoticed by clear air campaigners.
The council’s strategy states “being green and supporting residents is not an either-or-choice” and highlights the need to “avoid impacting those in our community who depend on their car for work or mobility”.
In response to a question from an audience member about reducing car use, Rahman said: “In my borough, cars are a necessity for a lot of people. We have extended family members who need that mode of transport to travel around, we have carers who need to visit people.”
Data from The Health Foundation has also found low-income households are seven times less likely to have a car, while a study commissioned by insurance company By Miles in 2021, carried out by the University of Manchester, found low-income households drive 40 per cent fewer miles than people in higher income brackets if they own a car at all.
Hirra Khan Adeogun, head of car free cities at climate charity Possible, who lives in Tower Hamlets, said: “We are in a climate crisis and mayor Lutfur Rahman has acknowledged that we’ll need to change our way of life to protect and preserve our communities. But he is rowing back on the big changes we need to radically cut private car use and shift towards more walking, wheeling, cycling, public transport and shared mobility options like car clubs.”
“It is deplorable that our children are growing up with stunted lungs due to unrestricted through-traffic and it is time we reclaim space away from cars and invest in sustainable alternatives,” Adeogun continued.
She added: “Of course, some people – like some disabled people or taxi drivers – cannot get around without a car, but reducing the number of private cars will make their lives easier too by reducing the dangers, pollution, emissions and congestion that comes with mass private car dominance.”
The Tower Hamlets strategic plan, published in 2022, set out a “clean and green future” as a priority for the council and wrote that the council would “avoid penalising those in our community who drive, who in many cases are not responsible for the bulk of air pollution”.
Additionally, Friends of the Earth found that transport is responsible for 26 per cent of Tower Hamlets’ “climate-wrecking emissions”.
However, the mayor noted that he and his council are continually looking for ways to “make that small contribution to a greener planet”.
His climate strategy primarily focuses on plans to increase the number of electric vehicle charging stations to 1,400 by 2026, and to introduce air quality monitors to root out what causes air pollution in the borough as well as introducing new anti-idling measures.
It also plans to plant 1,000 trees to absorb carbon dioxide and provide shade, as well as coordinating with TfL to improve public transport in the borough and encourage people to use active methods of transport.
“We encourage cycling. I’ve always said cycling is important for good health, for good wellbeing, and walking certainly,” Rahman said.
The strategy states this will aid the borough to become net zero by 2045.
Rahman, who lives in Tower Hamlets and grew up there too, was re-elected in May 2022 after beating Labour incumbent John Biggs. He had previously served as mayor of Tower Hamlets from 2008 until 2015, when he was found by an election tribunal to have engaged in corrupt and illegal practices and banned from standing for public office for five years
Andrew Wood, an independent councillor for Canary Wharf, previously said Rahman’s victory was in large part due to his pledge to reverse low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) in the borough, which had been introduced by his predecessor.
During the conference, Rahman said: “The vast majority of the people in this borough who voted for me, they wanted me to reopen the roads. I believe in listening to people and hearing people out.”
There is currently a consultation to reverse the LTN decisions and reopen the roads to cars. Several residents in the area told The Big Issue that they were unhappy with the possibility of the LTNs being removed, fearing for their children’s safety from cars and air pollution if the roads are reopened.
One resident, who has lived in Tower Hamlets with her two children for the last eight years, said: “We are in support of Liveable Streets and all traffic calming measures. People from outside the borough come here and use this area like a big parking lot. We get cars and even trucks that use the small roads of this neighbourhood, following their navigation apps, endangering the lives of children going to school.”
“I don’t understand why the mayor insists on making local residents’ lives more miserable by putting more cars on these congested roads, instead of encouraging people to cycle or walk,” she added.
However, as the mayor suggested, there are many Tower Hamlets residents who are in support of removing the LTNs – as a quick glance through several Tower Hamlets residents groups on Facebook will prove.
One comment in the Tower Hamlets Community group said that all traffic reduction measures, including LTNs and 20 mile-per-hour speed limits, “should be removed as they are causing lots of congestions and traffic delays” while other posts claim that LTNs have led to an increase in “crime and anti-social behaviour” and say there is no evidence that LTNs are reducing traffic but rather displacing it to surrounding areas.
A study published by climate charity Possible, in conjunction with the University of Westminster’s Active Travel Academy, found LTNs have led to an average traffic reduction of 46.9 per cent across London.
A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office told The Big Issue: “There is a consultation underway on the LTN scheme in Bethnal Green and Weavers and Brick Lane, and it is important to let that process run its course. Individuals may make their voices heard during a consultation period – just as voters did at last May’s election – but the council and the mayor are intent on respecting the process.”
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