Leading on change

What lessons can be learned from the introduction of emergency transport measures during the pandemic?

Last summer, the Government invited councils to implement emergency transport measures under the Emergency Active Travel Fund (EATF, later ATF). 

In unusual circumstances, councils were asked to act in unusual ways to support social distancing and promote active travel (cycling and walking), by introducing measures such as low-traffic neighbourhoods. 

Many of those changes have been welcomed and accepted, while some have been controversial and even reversed. 

The process should be seen as a positive experience for councils required to make ongoing disruptive changes to hit important but ambitious carbon net-zero targets to tackle climate change, as well as deliver more sustainable and active travel. 

But what lessons does EATF have for local politicians who are keen to ensure these disruptive changes can happen faster, better and more smoothly?

The LGA asked the University of Westminster’s Active Travel Academy, supported by Fern Consulting, to compare areas with different EATF scheme experiences. Four linked lessons have emerged so far.

The first is about vision. Where the council’s vision had already been broadly accepted by the community, it proved easier to introduce a given scheme without having to re-enter a debate about the underlying values. 

More generally, councils need to be emphatic about their vision and to explain how individual schemes will serve it.

This leads to the theme of narrative. Of the various interventions implemented, low-traffic neighbourhoods were the hardest to justify on grounds of social distancing. 

Many authorities therefore struggled to present a compelling, pandemic-based justification for their actions, which were in fact more often motivated more by the climate emergency. 

In some locations, the resulting dissonance in public perceptions was sufficient to jeopardise entire programmes.

A third point relates to communication. In large part thanks to the constraints imposed by central government, many authorities were not in a position to provide their communities with advance warning of the changes that were coming. 

More (and clearer) notice would have reduced the shock that contributed to negative reactions. 

In addition, if the widespread use of trials without extensive advance consultation is here to stay (and there is much to recommend this approach), councils need to convince their communities that schemes will be altered or removed if they are not delivering. 

A good way to do this is to publicise the relevant success criteria in advance of implementation.  

There is an associated need to be open about the trade-offs inherent in these types of measure: the gains may significantly outweigh the losses but that does not justify treating those losses as negligible.

This leads to the issue of trust. We found that authorities with a history of engaging constructively with their communities tended to fare better when introducing contentious changes at pace than authorities that had less of a track record in community engagement in the past. 

Robust ‘civic infrastructure’ built over time fosters trust, confidence and strong relationships between councils (officers and elected members) and the public. The stronger the civic infrastructure, the less opposition arose, and the better equipped authorities were to respond to that which did.

Last summer, councils found themselves in an extremely challenging situation as the pandemic hit. In such circumstances, excellent work was done, and some mistakes made. 

We hope that our emerging lessons will help councils respond to future emergencies but also improve schemes created under the ‘business-as-usual’ climate emergency response up to 2050.

 The LGA is holding a webinar on ‘Stakeholder engagement in an emergency: lessons from low-traffic neighbourhoods’ on 19 May. For more information and to book a place, please visit www.local.gov.uk/events


Protecting public spaces

Digital making a difference