At a Cabinet Member Decisions Highway Management meeting on 22 June 2023, a decision was taken to:
- install automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras at three low traffic neighbourhood (LTN) filter points in Cowley: on Littlemore Road, Crescent Road and Littlehay Road, replacing the current bollards and planters; and
- allow emergency service vehicles, taxis, private hire vehicles (PHVs) and Universal Service Providers (USPs) through all of those ANPR filter points.
See video link to the decision meeting.
However, the public consultation was limited to the following exemptions:
- Littlehay Road – emergency vehicles only
- Crescent Road – emergency vehicles only
- Littlemore Road – emergency vehicles, local buses, taxis, private hire vehicles, and Universal Service Providers
See link to the Council’s consultation page.
Despite the consultation being limited to emergency vehicles only for Littlehay and Crescent Roads, the Officer’s Report, released just one week before the decision meeting, recommended allowing taxis, PHVs and USPs through all three filter points. See Cabinet Report, item 5.
This decision has met with huge public opposition, both from people who support LTNs and those who oppose them. In other words, a decision that has made no-one happy except – one assumes – taxi drivers.
The result of this decision is the creation of an effective ‘taxi superhighway’ through what are at present successful low-traffic neighbourhoods: taxis and PHVs will enjoy a congestion-free route linking Headington to South Oxford via the Temple Cowley and Florence Park LTNs (see map below).
Note that this isn’t about enabling taxi drivers to collect and drop off customers within the Cowley LTNs: they can already do that, as every property within the LTNs is accessible by car, and taxi drivers already have exemptions to pass through the existing/original ANPR filters on the bus routes on Bartholomew Road and Cornwallis Road.
With this decision, the Council is effectively granting taxi drivers privileged access to minor residential roads that should be access-only.
The inevitable increase in through-traffic enabled by this decision puts at risk vulnerable road users such as people walking, cycling or using mobility scooters or wheelchairs, with particularly negative effects for the safety and independence of children and disabled people.
Children who previously used these roads to get to school, visit friends and attend clubs and activities outside school by walking, cycling or scooting are now likely to be kept off them by parents, understandably fearful for their safety. Disabled people who are currently able to use mobility scooters and wheelchairs in the road, avoiding the often cramped, uneven or obstructed pavements, are now likely to feel harassed off the roads.
The ‘slippery slope’
ANPR is politically appetising as it appears to allow compromises to “make LTNs work for everybody”, as some councillors have put it. But, in practice, removal of a physical filter inherently weakens an LTN, by allowing through:
- speeding and reckless drivers
- confused drivers
- drivers who don’t notice the signs/cameras
- drivers with cloned, covered or conveniently dirty number plates
- drivers whose cars are registered to a false address
- drivers who just ignore PCNs
- and any number of future exemptions.
Once ANPR is in place and some exemptions granted, the pressure on the Council to keep adding more exemptions becomes huge as more and more groups request them and there are calls for “consistency” between the filters – exactly as happened with the Cowley LTN exemptions for taxis, PHVs and USPs. As the exemptions grow, traffic increases and the LTNs lose their benefits.
ANPR barriers objectively aren’t as safe as physical barriers, and importantly, don’t feel as safe. It is well documented that where there are physical barriers, children play; where there is ANPR, they don’t. (See this Guardian video about the campaign to reclaim children’s play space, which includes reference to the importance of physical barriers.)
See DRARA’s Do not dismantle our LTNs! petition for more detail on the problems the use of ANPR and taxi exemptions is likely to cause.
Liveable Cowley produced a shrewd assessment of the risks of using ANPR back in August 2022, just after Oxfordshire County Council received powers to use ANPR for traffic enforcement measures in places other than bus gates: If ANPR is the solution, what is the problem? It was clear to Liveable Cowley even then that the Cowley LTNs were at risk as a result of this new power, and it has campaigned since then to keep the physical filters in place and treat ANPR as an added control to address mopeds and motorbikes, rather than a substitute for physical closure to through-traffic.
Since the Council received its new ANPR powers, campaign groups and affected individuals have repeatedly expressed their concerns/warnings to OCC’s Cabinet Member for Highway Management, Cllr Andrew Gant, and local councillors that the cameras will be the start of a ‘slippery slope’ of exemptions that weaken the LTNs so much that they are no longer effective. They were assured this wouldn’t be the case. But this decision, including the promise to look at further exemptions, has proven that such people were right in their predictions and fears. (See the Council’s press release on the decision, which includes a commitment to review further exemptions for Blue Badge holders, NHS carers and other carers.)
In the decision, Councillor Gant promised continuous review of the impact of the decision ‘on the ground’. However, there is a concerning lack of detail or commitment from OCC about what monitoring and safeguards it will put in place to ensure that taxi drivers, having been granted this privileged access, drive responsibly, respectfully and legally, including adhering to speed limits. What are the Council's strategies for enforcing and monitoring taxi drivers' (and all other exempted vehicle drivers') compliance with laws and good driving standards and what sanctions will it impose if they don't comply? Will the Council set up a reporting channel to enable residents and road users to report incidents of dangerous driving and speeding to feed into this monitoring process?
An FOI response from the Council revealed that the ANPR cameras don’t track, monitor or record exempted vehicles (which includes taxis):
“All exempt vehicles are entered onto a whitelist in the bespoke ANPR system and therefore are not captured if they drive through one of the Cowley filters. We do not hold a record of vehicles that have NOT been fined for passing through the ANPR cameras. Only vehicles that have been captured and issued with a Penalty Charge Notice (PCN) are recorded.”
“Oxfordshire County Council does not hold [the counts of vehicles that have passed through the filters] as exemption vehicles are not captured.”
Another FOI request asking the Council what monitoring it carries out of the traffic passing through the Cornwallis and Bartholomew Road filters revealed that “no such monitoring is done by the Council”.
If the cameras don’t monitor exempted vehicles passing through the LTNs, what hope does the Council have of collecting the data it needs to continuously review and assess the impact that the new exemptions for taxis and USPs will have on these roads?
Why was this decision made?
Many view this decision as inexplicable, regressive, unsupported by evidence and in direct conflict with OCC’s own transport policies:
- A neighbourhood that has through-traffic is not an LTN: OCC’s definition of LTNs in its Local Transport and Connectivity Plan is “LTNs are residential areas where through motor traffic is prevented by traffic filters, whist still allowing access for cycling and other forms of micromobility such as e-scooters (where legally allowed). LTNs create walking and cycle friendly streets and a better liveable environment for residents.” This decision flies in the face of the Council’s own definition of low traffic neighbourhoods by enabling through motor traffic.
- No evidence that ANPR required for EMS: Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service admitted they had no evidence that there was any need to convert the physical LTN filters to ANPR-only enforcement. In a response to an FOI request they said: “OFRS have been involved with partner meetings hosted by OCC Highways regarding LTNs generally. However, no reports or evidence base has been produced by OFRS regarding the use of ANPR camera controlled point closures being used in place of steel/wood point closures.” In the decision meeting (at 1:36:43), Cllr Gant addressed the challenges raised about this lack of evidence, saying: “I’m perfectly happy to … take the judgment of the emergency services themselves as the evidence if that is what they say they require for operational reasons … frankly that’s good enough for me.”
- Ignores impact of the traffic filters scheme: The Cowley LTN ANPR and exemptions will come into operation from early 2024. This will only be a few months before the traffic filter scheme is due to launch – a scheme that is intended to reduce congestion to allow buses, taxis, emergency service vehicles, blue badge holders and carers to move around the city more quickly and easily via exemptions. So why not wait just a few months to see if the traffic filters fix the problem the LTN exemptions are supposedly fixing? No answer has been provided to this question, nor does this appear to have been sensibly taken into account in arriving at the decision
- Goes against Oxfordshire County Council’s ‘Road User Hierarchy’ policy: Policy 1 of the Council’s Local Transport and Connectivity Plan (p37) states:
Even if people can accept that taxis are public transport, they still rank below walking, wheeling, cycling and riding in the hierarchy, yet this decision clearly prioritises taxis above those other travel methods. Universal service providers and blue badge holders, NHS workers and carers using cars/vans would seem to fall within the “other motorised modes” categories, yet the Council is considering granting them priority over the first two categories via further LTN ANPR exemptions. As such, this decision seems to go against this key County Council policy.
- Taxis = public transport? One of the reasons given for granting taxi exemptions is that taxis are public transport and therefore deserve the same prioritisation and exemptions as buses. Some struggle to accept this as a reasonable or justified categorisation, particularly given the comparative fare prices and the obvious practical differences between the service offered by buses and taxis. Taxis do seem better placed in the “shared vehicles” or even “other motorised modes” categories. Furthermore, if the decision is based on the categorisation of taxis as public transport, shouldn’t the exemptions only apply to LTN roads that are on bus routes, so that their access is on a par with buses? Neither Littlehay Road nor Crescent Road form part of any bus routes.
- Taxi drivers = professional drivers: Cllr Gant said (at about 1:48 in the meeting) “I don't accept that taxis automatically speed. I'm sure that there are some who do. Just as there are regular drivers. But frankly they hold a licence; they are required to obey the law; and if they don’t, they’ll lose their licence, so I’d expect they would not do that. They’re professional drivers, very thoroughly trained, with expensive vehicles.” However, there are many people who – based on their experiences of using Oxford’s roads, particularly as cyclists – consider taxi drivers to demonstrate careless or inconsiderate driving and pose a particular threat to vulnerable road users. There is extensive anecdotal evidence of aggressive taxi driving, especially toward cyclists. Taxi drivers bent and drove over the plastic bollard filters in the East Oxford and Cowley LTNs on many occasions (all captured on CCTV) and it was a taxi driver who used their taxi to push over the new wooden bollard in wet cement on Littlemore Rd (also on CCTV). As such, many people who live on these roads or use them to get their children to school and other activities are quite horrified at the thought of taxi drivers having free reign on these roads
- Predicted taxi numbers unrealistically low: The Officer’s report stated that: “Data collected from both Cornwallis Road and Bartholomew Road bus gate shows that over a 12-hour period a total of 110 (approximately one every 7 minutes) and 309 (approximately one every 2 minutes) PHV and taxis travelled through each gate respectively. Those vehicles driving through Bartholomew Road will currently use Littlemore Road to either enter or exit Bartholomew Road and, therefore, it is anticipated that the number of taxis or PHV would not significantly increase traffic on these roads.”
Based on those figures, at 1:48:00 Cllr Gant said “The concern that ANPR will automatically result in more traffic and faster traffic.... Taxi numbers are predicted by officers to be low. There are those who would say that the comparison is not apt. But that is the information that I've been provided with by professional officers. And frankly we'll have to see whether it turns out to be correct or not.”
Many feel that the Council’s forecast for the likely number of taxis on Littlehay, Crescent and Littlemore Roads is unrealistically low given that opening up a route between two arterial roads will create an irresistible shortcut of great value to taxi drivers, in contrast to the limited benefits provided by the current Bartholomew Road and Littlemore Road bus gates
- Sends an alarming message: Some are also concerned by the message this decision sends out, which can be viewed as: if you campaign politely, obey the law, show decency and respect, spend hours writing considered, evidenced and polite pleas not to weaken LTNs with ANPR and exemptions – you’ll be ignored and have your daily life impacted negatively; but if you break the law by vandalising and driving through existing LTN filters, you’ll get your own way, with the Council granting you special privileges with VIP use of public roads within those LTNs. It very much feels to some like ‘the bullies won this one’.
Learnings from the Windmill School Street
Several Headington Liveable Streets members are/were parents at Windmill Primary School and acted as stewards for the School Street when it was manually operated with physical barriers.
Stewards gave up their time for over a year, carrying the signs and barriers from the school to their positions on the roads, stewarding the barriers in rain, wind and sun, regularly receiving abuse, harassment and threats from drivers who were angry about not being allowed through, even being deliberately driven at on a few occasions. Some drivers got out of their cars to move the barriers or drove on the pavements to get around them.
However, at least during this stage there was truly a safe space around the school. Apart from the few aggressive drivers that unlawfully forced their way through, there were almost no motorised vehicles outside the school. Air pollution reduced significantly within the restricted zone. It was quiet and peaceful. It became more sociable, with children and their families more likely to chat with their friends. There was a deep feeling of sanctuary once you walked, cycled or wheeled past the barriers into the ‘safe zone’.
Because of the challenges of stewarding and difficulties in finding enough volunteers (particularly once people started going back to work as covid restrictions lifted), we were all looking forward to being replaced with ANPR.
However, when the consultation launched, many of us were dismayed to see the huge list of exemptions being proposed (see the Council’s School Streets exemptions webpage for detail). Despite objections and concerns submitted, all the exemptions were implemented.
Sadly, since the School Street became enforced by ANPR rather than physical barriers:
- There are now many private cars, taxis, vans and even lorries passing through the ANPR barriers, past the school.
- Taxi drivers appear to be abusing their whitelisted status to use the School Street as a cut-through or to drop their own children off at school (the exemption is only meant to apply to taxis dropping off or collecting a fare within the School Street zone).
Moving to ANPR has therefore essentially undermined the core purpose and aims of the School Street. It just isn’t a safe space any more. An FOI request to the Council asking how many contraventions had occurred and how many fines and warnings had been issued since implementation of the School Streets produced the information below:
That’s 2352 vehicles passing through the tiny restricted zone outside the school during the limited closure hours (term time, weekdays, 8:20-9:00 and 14:30-15:20) in the 2022/23 academic year, creating a physical threat to children, inflicting noise and pollution, and dominating the space. And 2,112 drivers who received no penalty for doing that.
Whilst we can’t know the cause of all the traffic going through the cameras, it’s likely to be a combination of: (i) drivers not noticing the signs and cameras and (ii) the ‘blunt tool’ of whitelisted vehicles enabling drivers of those vehicles to ‘cheat the system’ and drive through the cameras, even if they don’t have a legitimate reason to use the road.
OCC’s FOI response regarding the number of exempted vehicles that have passed through the School Street confirmed that – as with the LTNs:
“Oxfordshire County Council does not hold this information. All exempt vehicles are entered onto a whitelist in the bespoke Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) system and therefore are not captured if they drive through one of the ANPR locations. We do not hold a record of vehicles that have NOT been fined for passing through the ANPR cameras, only vehicles that have been captured are recorded.”
Windmill is the only one of the currently-operating School Streets that isn’t in a cul-de-sac. It faces particular issues because Margaret Road is on a major rat-run from the Ring Road via Headington Quarry to the NOC, Churchill Hospital, Warneford Hospital, Old Road Campus and Headington School. (However, even the other schools have reported significantly more motor traffic around them since the switch to ANPR.)
Whatever the cause of the high traffic volumes, the lived reality of moving to ANPR instead of physical barriers to enforce traffic restrictions on this through-road does not bode well for traffic levels and safety on Littlehay, Crescent and Littlemore Roads once they lose their physical barriers. The Windmill School Street is likely to be a portent for what will happen when LTN bollards are replaced with cameras.
Is this decision legal?
The issue of legality based on the lack of consultation on the taxi exemptions was raised by one of the public speakers. In response, a Council officer was asked to speak on this point. See 1:02:54 and 1:32:27 of the recording of the meeting for detail .
The officer’s response included “so [legal challenge] is a route, albeit realistically it’s quite an expensive route because there’s a legal process that has to be carried out and so how reasonable it is in this specific case is a consideration. Were we to decide that actually this change is sufficiently big for us to re-consult, then clearly we can very easily do that and we can bring it to a future meeting.”
It’s possible the decision could be challenged on substantive grounds set out in the ‘Why was this decision made’ section, rather than a procedural ground.
However, none of the active travel/liveable streets/safer streets campaign groups have the funds required for a legal challenge to the decision and the individuals negatively affected by this decision – families, people who can’t afford cars or taxis – aren’t in a financial position to contribute much, if anything to a crowdfund – particularly in the current cost of living crisis.
It feels like the Council considered that although the recommendation and decision was legally questionable, they could be pretty confident that the people who care or are negatively affected by the decision wouldn’t have the financial, time or emotional resources to challenge it.
What does this mean for Headington?
This decision is a real cause for concern for Headington residents and people who use active travel or wheeled micro-mobility on Headington’s roads, due to its weakening of the LTN concept and model across Oxfordshire.
There is a risk that, if Headington ever gets the low traffic neighbourhoods it was promised in 2022, if they follow the ‘Cowley’ model with compromised safety and higher traffic volumes caused by the use of ANPR and exemptions for taxis, PHVs and USPs, they will be of limited benefit.
Even more worrying for Headington is the possibility of further exemptions being made for NHS workers and care workers: at the 22 June meeting, the Cabinet Member for Highways Management also asked officers for an “assessment of the feasibility of actively considering” exemptions for NHS workers, care workers and “those functions in our communities who are finding it difficult (to get around)”.
At 1:57:19, Cllr Gant said:
“In terms of NHS workers and care workers, I would be just interested to get a steer from officers on their view about this one, again not part of the recommendation. However, I would certainly like us to actively assess the impact. It is a matter of concern. And a very important matter of concern. If those – you know – I'm just taking those functions in our communities who are finding it difficult to do that. So, I mean, what is the assessment of the feasibility of actively considering that, continuing to talk to the NHS trust about that – can we do that?”
To which an officer replied:
“Absolutely we can do that and when we're talking about care workers we're talking about broader than just the NHS.”
Obviously, as a significant proportion of the through-traffic in Headington Quarry and Old Headington is staff driving to the various hospitals in Headington, LTNs that exempt NHS workers would lead to almost completely ineffective LTNs here.
Furthermore, OCC is proposing to replace some of the East Oxford LTN bollards with ANPR cameras as described on its East Oxford LTNs – Traffic Restrictions & ANPR Enforcement consultation page about making the LTNs permanent. As with the Cowley LTN consultation, exemptions are only proposed for emergency service vehicles, but there are fears that taxi exemptions will be slipped into the officer’s report to be published a week before the Cabinet Decision Meeting (which is thought to be happening on 17 October 2023), as happened with the Cowley LTN decision. Even if this doesn’t happen, use of ANPR instead of bollards will weaken the East Oxford LTNs as described above, laying the ground for more and more exempted vehicles.
Either way, the proposed changes mean that Headington residents and people who travel to Headington from East Oxford for school or work will lose the benefit of the safe active travel routes between Headington and East Oxford that the East Oxford LTNs have created. This will be a particularly egregious loss for Cheney School pupils who currently benefit hugely from being able to use the safe, low-traffic Divinity Road LTN to get to school.
What can I do?
If you are concerned by this weakening of LTNs in Oxford, please consider:
- Signing DRARA’s petition against use of ANPR and granting exemptions to anyone other than emergency services in the East Oxford LTNs: Petition · Do not dismantle our LTNs! · Change.org.
- Writing to the Cabinet Members who will make the decision about whether to make the East Oxford LTNs permanent and replace certain bollards with cameras, asking them to make the East Oxford LTNs permanent but expressing any concerns you have about them being weakened by the removal of physical filters – write about how you (and/or your friends and family) use the East Oxford LTNs, why they are important to you and how the proposed changes will affect you. You may ask them not replace any of the bollards with ANPR cameras, or to strictly limit the ANPR filter access to emergency service vehicles only – this is up to you:
- Emailing the City Council taxi licensing team with any evidence of taxi driver behaviour that endangers people walking, wheeling or cycling (firstname.lastname@example.org).