The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr X complained about road closures enforced by the Council as part of its Low Traffic Neighbourhood scheme. The Ombudsman found no fault in the Council’s decision-making.
- Mr X complained about local road closures enforced by the Council as part of its Low Traffic Neighbourhood scheme.
- Mr X said the Council did not:
- Follow due process.
- Carry out consultation.
- Base its decision on reliable data.
- Properly consider the impact of the road closures.
- Listen to the views of residents affected.
- Mr X said the road closures have meant extended journey times, causing distress. He also considers emergency services vehicles will be delayed.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We investigate complaints of injustice caused by ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. We cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3), as amended)
- If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)
- This complaint involves events that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Government introduced a range of new and frequently updated rules and guidance during this time. We can consider whether the Council followed the relevant legislation, guidance and our published “Good Administrative Practice during the response to COVID-19”.
How I considered this complaint
- As part of the investigation I have considered the following:
- The complaint and the documents provided by the complainant.
- Documents provided by the Council and its comments in response to my enquiries.
- Traffic Management Act 2004: network management in response to COVID-19 (published 9 May 2020).
- Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 (Section 9).
- Traffic regulation orders: guidance on the traffic orders procedure (Coronavirus) (Published 29 June 2020, withdrawn 4 May 2021).
- Mr X and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.
What I found
- The Government told councils to make changes to their road layouts to give more space to cyclists and pedestrians in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- While the Government recognised schemes will not be perfect, councils must give them time to bed in and schemes must be tested against more normal traffic conditions so the impact can be properly evaluated.
- For most schemes, councils need a Traffic Regulation Order to make changes to the road. The main types are permanent, experimental, and temporary.
- Experimental Traffic Orders (ETOs) are used to trial schemes that may be made permanent. Councils must monitor the scheme and have ongoing consultation once it is built.
- The initial implementation can be quick, but residents and businesses should be given chance to comment on proposed changes.
- ETOs are subject to a six-month ongoing consultation period once in place, including with bus operators, emergency services, and the freight industry.
- Experimental schemes should be left in place for the full six-month duration of the ETO, to allow time for them to settle in and for changes in travel patterns to become clear.
- Adjustments may be necessary depending on real world feedback, but councils should aim to adjust schemes and not remove them without substantial evidence.
- When making ETOs, councils need to consider the impact on all road users. They should consider access for emergency services, postal and delivery services, and blue badge holders.
Low traffic neighbourhoods
- A low traffic neighbourhood (LTN) is a scheme which reduces the amount of motor vehicle traffic in residential streets. LTNs aim to reduce air pollution, noise pollution, and road accidents while also connecting people to local amenities and benefitting local businesses.
- Traffic is reduced using temporary or permanent barriers, like bollards. Or the scheme can be enforced by cameras to identify vehicles that are not complying.
- Motor vehicles still have access to homes and businesses but not by driving directly through the neighbourhood.
- LTNs provide space for people to safely travel through an area on foot, by bike, or using public transport. Emergency services vehicles can also be prioritised to help them reach destinations quicker.
- The Government proposed an emergency transport scheme fund in May 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Transport for London (TfL) reached an agreement with the Government for funding of borough led transport measures to aid social distancing and encourage active travel (walking and cycling).
- The conditions of TfL funding meant councils had to set up new travel schemes by September 2020.
- The Council’s Cabinet met on 16 June 2020 to discuss possible schemes it could put in place. The Council considered the schemes would promote social distancing, relieve public transport capacity, and help reopen the local economy.
- The Council looked at setting up six types of measures it could seek funding for. One of the measures was LTNs.
- Cabinet noted the urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic meant putting measures in place quickly, to maximise public safety and to benefit residents and the local economy.
- The Council therefore planned to set up the schemes at speed using temporary measures with a view to make them permanent later.
- In terms of consultation, the Council says it aimed to keep ward councillors and stakeholders informed by email. It considered it was not possible to undertake the usual consultation process because of the funding criteria and the impact of COVID-19.
- The Council intended to use ETOs. Under Department for Transport (DfT) guidance, issued in response to COVID-19, ETOs require a one-week statutory consultation period. That is followed by consultation about 6 months after implementation to decide whether to make the scheme permanent or not.
- Mr X emailed the officer in charge of the LTN scheme on 3 August after reading the Council’s plans on its website. He asked the Council not to close two key distributor roads in the area. He said the Council’s plans were ill-considered and the scheme would create displacement of traffic onto other roads.
- Mr X exchanged several emails with the officer in charge of the scheme between 4 and 21 August. Mr X argued the Council had not given evidence about how it made its plans. He said journey times would increase and cause more pollution.
- He asked the Council not to continue without more research. He said there were no traffic issues in the area and accused the Council of ignoring local knowledge. He said TfL maps do not have the necessary data to justify the scheme.
- In reply, the officer in charge said:
- Distributor roads is not a term used by the Council and it had not included any traffic sensitive roads in the LTN scheme.
- The scheme was in response to Government concerns about increased car use post-pandemic and reducing traffic in the area will reduce pollution.
- LTNs will prevent future through traffic, or rat running, of residential roads.
- TfL studied key areas likely to have more traffic after lockdown.
- He noted Mr X’s objections but said the Council wished to continue with the scheme and test it rather than have theoretical debates.
- Mr X emailed the Council’s chief executive on 20 August to raise a formal objection against a local LTN and to raise issues about the officer in charge. He asked the Council not to close the two roads in his area it planned to close.
- The Council wrote to residents and businesses on 2 September telling them about its plans to introduce LTNs and close some residential roads. It confirmed the scheme would start on 10 September. It also gave details about which roads it would close and the reasons behind the scheme.
- Also on 2 September, a Council director responded to Mr X’s objections. They referred to recent Government emergency legislation encouraging active travel and said LTNs were a key part of the national transport policy.
- The director considered LTNs would have benefits, such as reduced emissions, less noise, and making residential areas more pleasant and safer to walk and cycle in. They said the Council considered the benefits in this case outweighed the harm.
- The director saw no reason to question the professionalism of the officer Mr X complained about because their responses to Mr X were prompt and courteous. The director thought the disagreement about distributor roads was a distraction from the real issues Mr X was raising.
- Mr X replied the same day. He said the Council missed the point, which was that the LTN is flawed. He did not consider the Council set up the LTNs in a sound, measured way. He said the LTNs would increase journey times, adding to pollution, and the Council’s monitoring plan was undermined because there is no data from before the LTNs to compare with.
- Mr X sent a further email to the Council on 9 September. He said he received a letter from the Council about the LTN but, contrary to Government guidance, the Council had not carried out consultation. He said the local residents’ group gave the Council suggestions about improvements and minor changes, but the Council ignored them.
- A Council director replied to Mr X on 11 September. They recognised Mr X was not happy with the process but said the Council made a decision and officers were now working on a 6-month monitoring and consultation plan. This would provide an opportunity for discussion and review of the LTN.
- Mr X brought his complaint to the Ombudsman on 15 September. At that stage he had not completed the Council’s complaint process.
- Mr X emailed the Council on 2 November asking for a stage three complaint response.
- The Council sent its final complaint response on 3 December 2020. It said the relevant document for classifying roads in England is the DfT Streets Gazetteer. The DfT does not use the term ‘distributor roads’. Roads are classified by their sensitivity to traffic. The two roads closed by the LTN in Mr X’s area do not have a specific designation in the Streets Gazetteer.
- The Council said the LTNs are a trial, set up by the Council under an ETO. The Council advertised the scheme on its website and invited residents, businesses, and stakeholders to comment.
- It also said the Council was monitoring and reviewing the LTNs and had already made changes, such as replacing bollards with enforcement cameras and adding more planters to stop cars driving on footpaths.
- The Council said LTN schemes take time to settle in as drivers adapt their journeys. However, more data should be available at the six-month review stage when the Council will decide whether to make the scheme permanent.
- The Council recognised Mr X was not happy with the LTN in his area, but stressed it is a trial and that the Council would consider all relevant information when making a final decision. Mr X’s views would be considered along with all others received.
Response to my enquiries
- The Council told me it introduced LTNs to stop future rat running, rather than because it was an existing problem. The Government was concerned large numbers would travel by car after the first COVID-19 national lockdown, rather than use public transport, which could overwhelm main roads and cause rat running through residential areas.
- The Council said it selected roads by their closeness to major commuting routes, where a higher chance of rat running was possible. It also used TfL analysis, which showed areas likely to see significant increases in traffic.
- The Council carried out consultation as part of the ETO process and the ETOs were publicised. It sent letters to residents and businesses within the boundary of the LTN’s and placed adverts on its website.
- The Council consulted the emergency services before it introduced the ETO, and they did not raise any issues with the chosen LTNs. However, there was an error in the email address the Council used for the ambulance service which meant they did not get the information until later.
- The Council said it held regular meetings with the emergency services once the schemes were implemented and made changes where requested. The Council provided me with a copy of these communications.
- The Council said Mr X complained about closure of two specific roads, which he said are distributor roads. The Council disagrees. It said that term has not been used for over a decade. The Council considers the two roads are residential, and they are two of the busier roads in the area. The Council decided leaving these roads open could funnel added traffic past other residents’ houses.
- After an interim assessment in December 2020, the Council made changes to the way it enforced the LTN’s. It had previously used bollards to prevent access. Instead it introduced enforcement cameras. This allowed an exemption for blue badge holders and vehicles carrying people with mobility issues. The Council did not make any further changes and the roads Mr X complained about remained closed to through traffic.
- The Council continued to gather data about the scheme. That included traffic and air quality data, personal safety, emergency service response time, and impact on equality groups and businesses. The Council posted this information on its website.
- The Council told me its Cabinet met in September to discuss the Council’s review of the LTN scheme. The Council prepared a report before the meeting recommending some LTNs become permanent and that some are removed. The Council plans to remove the LTN Mr X complained about. That was because:
- Boundary road traffic volume had not materially changed but congestion increased.
- Internal traffic in the LTN fell by 72%.
- There were no material changes in air quality.
- There was no data on the impact on cycling and walking.
- There was significant local opposition to the scheme.
- The Council recognised many residents were concerned about the way it set up the LTNs and the lack of prior engagement. Even though the Council was satisfied it followed the statutory process and guidance, it decided to commission an independent review of public engagement on LTNs.
- Based on the findings of the review, the Council intends to set up a new approach to consultation and engagement on active travel. That includes preparing an engagement and communications plan, producing a charter for active travel, and reviewing its transport strategy.
- Councils were required to give advanced warning and publicity about the temporary schemes they intended to introduce. The Council did so via its website and letter to local residents and businesses. It also told the emergency services and had ongoing dialogue with them.
- It appears there was an administrative error when the Council first told the emergency services, meaning the ambulance service did not receive information about the schemes until later. Despite that small error, I have not seen evidence the Council failed to follow the correct procedure or that it failed to carry out consultation. I do not consider the error is significant enough to amount to fault because the Council was in regular contact with all emergency services.
- Mr X wanted the Council to consult with him and a local residents’ group before the LTN schemes were introduced, but that was not a requirement. The schemes were intended to be introduced straight away, as test schemes, with a set consultation period to measure how the schemes worked. That is what happened.
- Mr X is entitled to disagree with the Council about the merits of which roads it closed. But the Council is also entitled to its view. On the evidence seen the Council had reasons for choosing the roads it closed. It is not my role to say the Council was right or wrong to do so. I can only look at the process by which those decisions were made, and I have not seen any evidence of fault.
- The Council engaged with Mr X over his objections. It did not ignore him. It did not agree with him, but that is not the same. The Council made clear it was following Government guidance and wanted to put the measures in place temporarily to see if they would be worthwhile. I have not seen evidence of fault in that approach.
- The Council listened to initial feedback when it reviewed the scheme in December 2020. It took account of the impact on disabled users and made necessary changes. It also considered feedback from stakeholders, including the emergency services. The emergency services were concerned about some of the physical barriers in use, as they could affect journey times. They asked the Council for camera enforcement instead, which the Council put in place.
- When the Council reviewed the LTN scheme at the end of the statutory consultation period it recognised residents were unhappy and there were limits to the data it could capture.
- The Council appropriately arranged an independent review of its consultation and decided to make policy changes going forwards.
- The Council intends to remove the LTN Mr X complained about. That was due to local opposition and because the scheme did not have the impact the Council planned. In that respect, Mr X was vindicated in some of the issues he raised. However, that does not mean the Council was at fault. The scheme was intended to be temporary, and the Council was entitled to change its mind after the review period.
- The Council had to balance many competing interests and views when deciding about each LTN. I have not seen evidence of any arbitrary decision-making, nor have I seen evidence the Council disregarded useful data or feedback from residents.
- In summary, I have not seen evidence of fault in the Council’s decision-making.
- I have completed my investigation. I found no fault in the Council’s decision-making.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman