The Workers Party of Britain’s Birmingham branch held a well-attended rally on Saturday 5 June in newly pedestrianised York Road. This short road is said to be one of the main beneficiaries of the Birmingham low-traffic neighbourhood (LTN) scheme, as it transforms what is typically a wet side street into a veritable Venice Beach.
Well-endowed with trendy cafe and micropub life (priced so as to exclude working-class customers), York Road is at the centre of Kings Heath, a suburb situated three miles from Birmingham city centre, and the scheme is being touted by the city council as a local ‘first step’ in solving the world’s climate crisis.
A demonstration against cafe life might seem an unusual preoccupation for socialists. After all, on those rare sunny occasions, the ability to stand about in the street drinking beer or coffee is a welcome change in a country not famed for its street life, but in general the Birmingham passeggiata is decidedly unlike that enjoyed by Florentine residents.
However much the local ‘street culture’ may impress or depress, however, it is a minor aspect of a scheme that has far wider implications for the working class. The King’s Heath LTN, as in other parts of the country, has had the knock-on effect of funnelling large volumes of car traffic down the roads that lie on the scheme’s boundaries.
These roads, usually populated by poorer residents, are now suffering rapidly increasing levels of pollution and congestion, which has led to a growing number of residents voicing their anger and frustration at a council that refuses to listen, to engage with or to serve its residents.
Two-thirds of businesses unhappy
An article in the Birmingham Mail in February reported that a poll of York Road’s businesses had found that a large majority were opposed to the LTN.
The poll, carried out by a local business owner, found that two-thirds of the shopkeepers there opposed the pedestrianisation of the street, with a small number in support and a few remaining neutral. Among the problems it was causing them was cited the difficulty in receiving stock and a falloff in passing trade.
A recent article in the Times reported that such low-traffic zones, rather than really addressing the problem, simply end up forcing traffic and pollution onto poorer streets. They appear to be signally unsuccessful in persuading hard-pressed parents and workers to take to their bikes instead.
The article also laid bare the way that LTN schemes have artificially inflated house prices in more affluent areas:
“Average property prices within the new zones are up to 70 percent higher than on the roads that surround them, it found.
“The figures will fuel concerns that the policy of sectioning off certain areas of cities to through traffic is dividing communities and disproportionately benefiting middle-class homeowners.” (Low traffic zones ‘force cars into streets where poorer people live’ by Andrew Ellson and George Greenwood, The Times, 13 February 2021)
There has as yet been no update regarding the future plans for the Kings Heath LTN or for the next trial zone in Lozells, although Kings Heath and Brandwood Labour councillor Lisa Trickett described the experiments as a “success” before the trial had even been completed.
LTN: nice work if you can get it
Following the first lockdown in March 2020, councils across Britain took advantage of emergency legislation and central government funding to introduce LTNs, usually without any local consultation. In London alone, at least 96 such schemes were introduced between March and December.
In Birmingham, Councillor Trickett and her colleagues jumped at the chance of accessing this new stream of government funding.
Asked by the Birmingham Mail about the LTN, Ms Trickett said: “It’s not a cheap way of making policy.”
Trickett knows how to waste public money. In 2017, she was responsible for a war waged on the city’s binmen. For a saving of £300,000 a year, she and the Labour party spent more than £6m attacking the binmen’s terms and conditions, leading to months of strike action.
Now Trickett and the Labour council are chasing the cash being offered by government to councils who introduce LTNs.
“Birmingham city council said it would have to implement them before the end of August to secure government funds, having been allocated £1m from the first tranche of the Department of Transport’s (DfT) emergency active travel fund, with match-funding bringing the total to £1.6m.”
In December 2020, in response to a FOI request, Birmingham city council admitted to having spent £250,000 of the £1.6m allocated. That’s Labour party consultation for you. Not a cheap way of working for the taxpayer, but pretty lucrative for the council.
A divided community?
According to a report by the Birmingham branch of the Workers party (WPB): “Despite claims that a counterprotest by cyclists and others was planned, no such pro-LTN demonstration took place. During the rally 200-300 people participated in a good-natured and spirited community protest.
“Speakers from various shops and residents’ groups were given the platform, which was chaired by the regional secretary of the West Midlands section of the Workers party, Reuben Lawrence.
“WPB activist Lauren gave an overview of the effects of the LTN on local businesses. Lauren had coordinated the Saturday protest in consultation with businesses and residents, who had responded to the 8,000 leaflets distributed by the Workers party.”
Many businesses were worried about putting their name officially to the demonstration as they feared the backlash from the local councillors and their animated supporters, but eight shopkeepers were willing to publicly state their involvement in the campaign.
“This group of businesses in tandem with individual residents and the Workers party pointed out that the streets in Kings Heath belong to all residents, and that it was not fair to make some streets suffer an intolerable increase in traffic so that others could benefit.
“Lauren, to loud cheers, said that Birmingham (and Britain) needs real green policies, starting with public transport solutions that will reduce car usage. Selective road closures were not a solution.” (Large Kings Heath LTN protest ‘first of many’, Birmingham Worker)
The full video of the rally can be seen on the Workers Party of Britain’s YouTube channel.
Councillor Trickett still not listening
Reporting from the rally, Birmingham Live said that hundreds of residents had descended on York Road, and published photographs to prove it.
In a typical display of arrogance, Councillor Trickett, rather than listening to what the protestors had to say, questioned whether the reporter was even there: “Local journalism is incredibly important in an era of uncertain truths – Graeme brown (local journalist) – hyperbole for effect somewhat misses the point here – did you have a reporter there?”
Calling into question the journalist’s integrity because the story was not ‘on message’, Trickett displayed yet again the kind of intransigence which suggests that the fight against the LTN will need to be both united and protracted.
A week later, the Birmingham Mail ran a further story: “The Workers party rally gave those opposed to the scheme the chance to voice their displeasure via a microphone and public address system.
“The speakers all stood close to an unknown elderly gentleman with a walking stick. Sitting silently on a chair, his placard simply said: ‘I’m too old to walk to Asda.’
“After the event, Ms Wilson told Birmingham Live: ‘Some people say how wonderfully quiet their street now is (because of the LTN) and that their children can play out in the streets.
“‘But the streets aren’t for children to play in – times have moved on. That’s what Kings Heath Park is for (on
nearby Avenue Road).
“‘Kings Heath is one of the main commercial shopping areas in Birmingham and it’s for all of the residents to have a say on it – it’s not a private suburb.
“‘My interest is in the issue of raising the voice of the working class.’
“Vicarage Road resident Donald Steel, who had last month promised a ‘battle’ with the council about the level of pollution he and his neighbours were experiencing, was among those watching all of the speakers.
“Mr Steel said: ‘I have to say the Workers party event was very well organised. I didn’t know anything about them, but lots of people from all backgrounds stood up to speak.
“‘It also began on time, it ended on time, there were no firebrands, there was no trouble and the police were there, too. It all just summed up the strength of feeling that many people have about the LTNs.’” (‘I’m too old to walk to Asda’ – who said what after Kings Heath low-traffic protest by Graham Young, Birmingham Mail, 12 June 2021)
What would a real green policy look like?
We congratulate the Birmingham activists on their successful event. If a working-class party guided by a revolutionary theory is to be built in Britain, it must be able to organise working people on issues that can bring them to a wider appreciation of the inherent contradictions within the entire capitalist-imperialist system.
No local ‘green’ policies will be able to solve the global climate disaster, which is not produced by workers on the school run but by the entire chaotic system of overproduction and the oil-guzzling imperialist war machine, which operates around the clock.
Until we have a party that is listened to and trusted by working people, it will be impossible to break workers from the intoxicating effects of social democracy, to bring them out from the blind alley of racism and jingoism, to put them on the path of struggle against the ruling class, and to organise mass class-conscious education that raises their level of understanding.
Building that party requires socialists and communists to win support amongst a wide section of the population that is not already active in the labour movement:
“As a result of the fact that socialism can only become the real people’s party when it bases its programme of activity on the needs that are actually felt by the working class, and of the fact that to achieve this goal – the organisation of the working class – it must begin with agitation on the basis of the most vital demands, the minor ones that are clearest to the working class and most easily attainable … there are many pressures and many trifles can interest the worker.” (On Agitation by A Kramer and L Martov, 1894, our emphasis) 
Any policy to reduce emissions and pollution that aims to bring cars off the road must involve free public transport for all children in Britain. At present, it is often cheaper for a family of four to drive their private vehicle or to take a taxi than it is for them to travel by bus. Free transport for children would change this absurdity.
Agitating on this issue, the Workers Party of Britain is able to expose the hollow promises of the main social-democratic parties and agitate on a wider basis amongst workers, taking to them the fundamentals of socialism and an understanding that a better and saner world is possible.
“We had both the spontaneous awakening of the working masses, their awakening to conscious life and conscious struggle, and a revolutionary youth, armed with socialist theory and straining towards the workers.
“In this connection it is particularly important to state the oft-forgotten (and comparatively little-known) fact that, although the early socialists of that period zealously carried on economic agitation (being guided in this activity by the truly useful indications contained in the pamphlet On Agitation, then still in manuscript), they did not regard this as their sole task.” (V I Lenin, What is To Be Done?, Chapter 2)