A grassroots revolt against councils closing or narrowing roads as part of a “cycling revolution” has led to campaigners preparing to sue over “abuse” of emergency coronavirus laws, The Telegraph can reveal.
In May, Grant Shapps, the Secretary of State for Transport, invited local authorities to bid for £250 million of an emergency fund to promote walking and cycling to relieve pressure on public transport during the coronavirus crisis.
The move came after bike sales rose more than 50 per cent as people shunned trains and buses during lockdown.
Many councils enthusiastically embraced the green emergency policy by introducing new or wider cycle lanes, closing some residential side streets to traffic and expanding footpaths, occasionally with little or no public consultation.
In what may prove increasingly embarrassing for the Tory Government, local conservatives are leading much of the opposition to the policy as motorists return to the roads, often seeing personal cars as a better form of social distancing than public transport.
The Telegraph can reveal the Alliance of British Drivers (ABD) has contacted solicitors to try to challenge whether councils have the right to close roads without a full public consultation.
Hugh Bladon, of the ABD, said: “This legislation has been rushed through and is being used by councils to close roads, creating pinch points, congestion and unwanted one way systems. Meanwhile, new cycle routes have cut road width causing more problems for motorists.”
He said road closures had increased congestion and pollution on main roads, with ambulances getting stuck in traffic, fire engines trapped by bollards closing off roads, and cars mounting pavements to get past closed routes.
Roger Lawson, ABD’s campaign director, is working with lawyers to try to establish whether ‘Temporary Traffic Orders’ (TTOs) – the rules allowing councils to close roads without a full consultation – were being used legally.
The group is planning to challenge Lewisham Council in South London over a series of closures introduced as part of the emergency legislation.
“We think these closures are being done illegally,” Mr Lawson said. “We believe Lewisham had already planned to close some of these roads and they are now using this scheme to push through those closures.”
Sophie McGeevor, Lewisham cabinet member for transport, said the use of TTO to close roads was perfectly legal and backed by the Mayor of London and the Government.
In Lambeth, local Conservatives recently launched a leaflet campaign against the council’s “low traffic neighbourhood” at Oval complaining “no one was consulted”. The council has two schemes up and running, with a third on the way.
Trafford Conservatives persuaded their Labour run council to reconsider a post-coronavirus cycle lane on the A56 which caused “severe” tailbacks on routes around Altrincham as more motorists took to the roads when lockdown was lifted.
Surrey County Council removed one Reigate cycle scheme after just a few days when Crispin Blunt, the local Conservative MP, reported an increase in traffic while local shopkeepers struggled to get access to loading bays. However, the MP remains broadly supportive of the schemes.
In just three weeks more than 700 people responded to council plans in Harrow, London, for nine traffic schemes to “enable more walking and cycling”. The vast majority of comments were opposed to the schemes.
While a recent AA survey found drivers want to cycle more and welcomed the Government policy, there remains concern authorities are rushing through road closures and cycle lanes without proper consultation.
Edmund King, the motoring organisation’s president, said: “As local authorities rush to get their schemes in place, some have created unintended consequences such as increased congestion and delivery restrictions on local businesses who are desperate to bounce back and aid the economic recovery.
“While schemes are being constantly reviewed, should a pop-up cycle lane cause more trouble than it is worth councils should not be afraid to act. Making adjustments to the initial plans might benefit everyone and they should not be afraid to remove the lane completely if it simply isn’t working.”
A Department for Transport spokeswoman said the Government was “determined” to make cycling and walking part of the “green recovery from Covid-19”.
“We are investing £2 billion to create a new era for cycling,” she said. “We brought forward £225m of this for emergency active travel measures to provide more room for cyclists and pedestrians and we have seen a rise in cycling throughout the pandemic.
“We gave councils clear guidelines which means local authorities need to take into account the needs of other road users, including for disabled people, emergency services, delivery vehicles, and buses and taxis in the design and delivery of these schemes.”
Councillor David Renard, transport spokesman for the Local Government Association, said councils had been “remarkably successful” at “reallocating road space to allow more active travel journeys” despite being asked to do so at “short notice”.
He added: “Not every scheme will be perfect the first time and it is natural that after discussion some schemes will be amended or taken forward in a different way.”
‘Tranquil oasis’ to noise and pollution: How one couple feel driven out of their home
For more than 40 years, Patricia and Peter Richardson have lived in what they described as their “tranquil little oasis” at the heart of a south London borough.
But, when the council closed their road last month as part of its fight against Covid-19, the 74-year-old former primary school teacher and her 81-year-old husband became the most unlikely local campaigners.
Lewisham Council fitted three so-called “modal filters” bearing “road closed” and “maintain social distance” signs closing off the bottom of their street, Manor Lane Terrace.
The couple say their once quiet, Victorian-terraced road now is regularly blocked with delivery vans, supermarket lorries and confused motorists reversing or performing three point turns after discovering only cyclists and pedestrians can get through.
“There is much more traffic and pollution on the terrace,” Mrs Richardson said. “We bought our home in 1979, but this is the only time we have thought about moving house.”
Mr Richardson, a former radio officer with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, resorts to military terminology: “We are simply collateral damage.”
The council closed the road as part of Grant Shapps’ £2 billion package to “create a new era for cycling and walking” launched at the height of lockdown in May.
The announcement declared “more side streets could be closed to through traffic, to create low-traffic neighbourhoods and reduce rat-running while maintaining access for vehicles.”
The Richardsons set up two online petitions urging the council to reopen the roads after “improper use” of powers granting councils the right to “deal with the effects of coronavirus.”
More than 2,000 people have signed their petitions.
“The root of the problem is a total lack of willingness to listen to local people and their needs,” Mrs Richardson continued, insisting while not opposed to the needs of cyclists and pedestrians she wants the council to consider the needs of older, less mobile residents.
Mr Richardson was born with two clubbed feet, and despite numerous operations struggles with walking.
What used to be a short morning drive to his local newsagents to buy supplies has now become a lengthy trip on congested main roads.
“We know there are traffic problems in the borough,” Mrs Richardson continued. “But, there needs to be a properly researched response. It can’t be solved by making other roads worse than they previously were.”
They also fear petty criminals will use bikes for a quick getaway among the “rabbit warren” of closed off roads which prevent police cars giving chase.
Mrs Richardson has also seen some “trapped” motorists drive over pavements to or down one way street to try to “escape” other borough road closures introduced as part of the scheme.
Councillor Sophie McGeevor, cabinet member for transport, said fewer than half of Lewisham residents own a car, and it was “vital” people felt safe walking and cycling and “we know schemes like this lead to reduced traffic and quieter streets”.
She added the council was actively seeking feedback on the schemes because officers were constantly reviewing them.
“Less than 50 per cent of households in Lewisham own a car,” she said.
“Before COVID-19 they either used public transport or walked and cycled to go from A to B. With a reduced public transport network due to COVID-19 it is vital that residents feel safe while out and are able to socially distance.
“The Government has pushed local authorities across the country to take these measures to support walking and cycling and we know that schemes like this lead to reduced traffic and create quieter streets. In turn that encourages people to walk and cycle more.
“The urgent need to support walking cycling and social distancing means that modal filters are being introduced using Temporary Traffic Orders, which do not require prior consultation. This approach and the need for action is supported by both the Mayor of London and the national government.
“We have been seeking our resident’s feedback on these measures via an online portal. These comments are being regularly reviewed by officers to inform future actions and we look forward to continuing working with our residents.”