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Conservative Politicians and Press ‘Driving Spike’ in Disinformation on Low Traffic Neighbourhoods and 15-Minute Cities, Report Finds

A landmark study on the LTN policy finds that Government figures have latched onto cynical fear-mongering

Protestors outside the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood in November 2023. Photo: Iain Masterton/Alamy

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Cases of online disinformation and conspiracy theories about Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) increased fivefold from 2022 to 2023 – a problem exacerbated by the Government’s hostile rhetoric about the traffic-easing schemes, according to a new report by think tank Demos. 

The increase in disinformation has led to heightened community divisions, with a swathe of cases of infrastructure damage, and even death threats against local councillors during the past few years.

The study paints a portrait of a “failed policy introduction” and fierce local splits over the issue, partly driven by cynical media coverage and electioneering from right-wing figures.

In 2020, the Government instructed councils across the country to implement LTNs “swiftly”. However, last July – amid widespread disinformation, accusations of undemocratic governance and death threats directed at councillors – Rishi Sunak ordered a formal review of the schemes.

Following this announcement, the Conservative Party continued to double-down on an anti-LTN stance – and went further. 

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The report points to media outlets such as the Mail on Sunday running segments including: “How 15-minute cities could be coming to the UK” – linking Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, which are designed to reduce rat-runs through residential areas, to conspiracy theories about supposed Government plots to stop people leaving their local areas. 

In practice, the idea of a ’15-minute city’ is a simple one: planning laws for urban areas should encourage density and good public transport to make them easily accessible and walkable. In the same Mail piece published last March, the newspaper stated that the residents who vandalised the LTN planters in Rochdale “launched a rebellion”.

The story of the ‘Rochdale fire’ was also latched onto by hard-right figures. An unknown member of the public set fire to several planters hours after they had been installed to
restrict traffic on 25 March 2023. In the next couple of days, anti-LTN activists and a journalist from GB News, Martin Daubney, expressed support for the act of arson online, declaring it a “revolutionary spirit”. He has previously criticised non-violent activists such as Just Stop Oil for being “reckless”.

Social media analysis conducted for the report found that levels of LTN-related disinformation with significant reach and engagement doubled from 2022 to 2023.

Some Conservative figures have latched onto the online anger.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper, for instance, gave a speech stating that he would end “the mis-use of so-called 15-minute cities” and “ensure no government money” funds LTNs in the future. It was seen as a dog-whistle to the fraction of voters who believe they are part of a sinister plot. 

Just last week, Women’s Minister Maria Caulfield faced calls to apologise for ‘dishonest’ claims that residents would have to pay road charges to drive more than 15-minutes from their home, in an election campaign leaflet. Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader Daisy Cooper MP told Yahoo News that she was “spreading baseless claims” and “misleading the public to try to save her own job”.

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Stark Findings

Analysis of the most popular social media posts on the subject between 2022 and 2023 reveals that the proportion classed as ‘disinformation’ – including conspiracy theories – rose from 5% to 28% year-on-year, the report by the cross-party think tank Demos and the Public Interest News Foundation found. 

In parallel, the proportion of the same posts that could be classified as anti-LTN rose from 48% in 2022 to 79% in 2023.

Demos says that the stark rise in disinformation came in the year that “Rishi Sunak attacked councils for the introduction of the policy his Government had previously championed”.

There were also concerns that councils failed to properly engage and consult communities as the Government funding was dependent on fast implementation of the schemes. Direct attacks on the infrastructure such as planters, cameras and bollards have followed, as well as death threats against local councillors, the study found. 

The report – ‘Driving Disinformation: Democratic deficits, disinformation and Low Traffic Neighbourhoods’ – involved researchers analyse more than half a million social media posts, with interviews of residents, local politicians and journalists in three LTN hotspots. 

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It reveals that: 

On Lyham Road in Lambeth, a street sign is vandalised with black spray paint in October 2023, on a road with traffic-calming measures. Photo: Anna Watson/Alamy

Residents in Oxford, Enfield and Rochdale, where the research was focused, had previously complained of consultations which were poorly advertised, mistargeted and inaccessible for residents without digital access, resulting in the exclusion of vulnerable communities. 

There was also concern about how councils had interpreted evidence of the success of local trial schemes and the results of consultations, leading to accusations of deceit and citizens describing the overall processes as “undemocratic”.

The report said disinformation narratives emerged around the schemes being “totalitarian” and “authoritarian”, and that these encouraged other extreme positions, including the burning of LTN barriers. 

A Department for Transport spokesperson told Byline Times: “Traffic schemes must work for everyone in the area and should have local engagement and community buy-in before being implemented, which has not been the case for a number of LTNs. 

“Through our Plan for Drivers, we’re strengthening statutory guidance to ensure councils have the support of local residents, businesses and emergency services before implementing any new LTN schemes.”

The Government has threatened to take over council roads or pull local authority funding if they “fail to deliver sensible road schemes”, using powers from the Traffic Management Act.

Officials pointed to the Transport Secretary setting out his opposition to conspiracy theories around so-called ‘15-minute cities’, on Times Radio and during a statement in Parliament on October 16.


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Lights Ahead

The report makes three main recommendations: 

Hannah Perry, lead researcher at Demos’ Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, said there were shortcomings with the pandemic-era schemes. But “instead of working to bring a sense of calm, the government performed a screeching U-turn, in both policy and rhetoric, and ultimately fed the public backlash”.

Demos’ analysis “shows how this pivot coincided with the spike in LTN-related disinformation,” she added.

“It is absolutely essential that lessons are learned and that we radically transform how democracy takes place locally,” Perry said. “There is a worsening democratic chasm between councils and communities.”

The think tank is calling for extra local participation so councillors work “in partnership” with communities.

Jonathan Heawood, executive eirector of the Public Interest News Foundation, which backed the report, said: “Local journalists are keen to cover important issues such as LTNs, but we’ve found that they’re being held back by public abuse, online harassment and lack of investment in original reporting. 

“Whether they are for or against LTNs, the public are wary of journalism that sensationalises their arguments to create clickbait or treats them as conspiracy theorists. By contrast, they respect journalists who are rooted in the communities they serve, and who strive to present a rounded and objective view of the complex LTN debate.” 

He added that new Local News Funds across the UK, funded by dormant bank assets, could revitalise local news and strengthen local democracy.

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