UK’s Transport Secretary Harper attacks ‘sinister’ local govt traffic measures

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UK Transport Secretary Mark Harper attacked local government efforts to rein in road congestion, tapping in to fringe conspiracy theories around so-called 15-minute cities.

Describing the governing Conservative Party as “proudly pro-car,” Harper lashed out at London’s Labour Mayor, Sadiq Khan, for ex-panding anti-pollution charges on cars to outer London and slammed “blanket 20 mile-per-hour speed limits” introduced in Labour-run Wales.

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“Right across our country, there is a Labour-backed movement to make cars harder to use, to make driving more expensive, and to remove your freedom to get from A to B how you want,” Harper told the Tory Party conference.

Referring to 15-minute cities, he appeared to repeat a key tenet of conspiracy theorists, particularly on the climate skeptic fringe, who see them as a tool of government control. “What is sinister, and what we shouldn’t tolerate, is the idea that local councils can de-cide how often you go to the shops, and that they can ration who uses the roads and when, and that they police it all with CCTV.”

Harper’s remarks show how Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s govern-ing Conservatives are tapping into populist undercurrents as they seek to close a 20-point polling gap on the opposition Labour Party, with a general election widely expected next year.

The Tories are also rowing back on measures to eliminate carbon emissions, and engaging in an internal debate on whether the UK should leave the European Convention on Human Rights.

Conspiracy theories about 15-minute cities — a concept of urban design aimed at reducing traffic and encouraging walking and cycling -- are prominent on social media and have triggered protests in Oxford, Bath and other places.

On the political fringes, the idea is linked with lower speed limits, congestion, and pollution charges as a broader plot to confine people to their homes. The coronavirus lockdowns have played a key part in the narrative.

“I am calling time on the misuse of so-called 15-minute cities,” Harper said, while adding: “The government will investigate what options we have in our toolbox to restrict overzealous use of traffic management measures including cutting off councils from the DVLA database if they don’t follow the rules,” he said, referring to the national repository of car license plates and owners.

Harper said a review into the use of so-called low-traffic neighbor-hoods is ongoing, and that the government will change guidance to local councils to state that 30 mph should be the default speed limit, with lower limits used only “where there’s good reason.”

One thing the minister didn’t mention was the transport topic that dominated the run-up to the Tory conference: whether the government will scrap or delay the Birmingham to Manchester leg of the HS2 high-speed rail project because of spiraling costs.

Read more: London Mayor Sadiq Khan defends stance on vehicle emissions area expansion

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