Oxford’s traffic filters have been approved amid an acrimonious atmosphere following a debate featuring more than 50 opinions from the public.
Councillors from Oxfordshire County Council and Oxford City Council, representatives of lobby groups and ordinary members of the public came forward, but despite the presence of police and security, proceedings had to be paused twice because of shouting from the public gallery.
One of the speakers, an objector, was escorted away for refusing to stop speaking at the end of her allotted time as she shouted in the chamber at County Hall, calling on councillors to resign. That was partly responsible for one of the pauses.
Six new traffic filters, which close off routes to private cars during operational hours, are the headline parts of the Central Oxfordshire Travel Plan. Most of the comments were directed towards them.
Read more: Traffic filters, LTNs, ZEZ, WPL… an introduction to Oxford’s traffic initiatives
They are set to be placed on St Cross Road, Thames Street and Hythe Bridge Street in the city centre and on St Clements, Marston Ferry Road and Hollow Way.
One of the amendments to the original plan is to offer up to 100 day passes per year to residents and businesses affected by the changes, enabling them to travel through the filters without penalty.
There were more objectors than those speaking in support, although many raised issues about individual areas without necessarily addressing the scheme as a whole. Others conveyed support for the scheme’s objectives but requested alterations to specific elements.
Supporters praised councillors for standing up to vehement opposition on this and low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs), reiterating the council’s pledges to cut car trips by a quarter by 2030, deliver a net-zero transport network by 2040 and eradicate road fatalities or life-changing injuries by 2050.
Claims from objectors included that filters would displace traffic onto other roads, that there would be an impact on people with minor disabilities who do not qualify for permits and that sections of the city would end up cut off from each other.
A point raised many times and in many ways was over the perceived inequity of the permit scheme with claims it favours those in central areas that have good public transport links over those outside Oxford where provision is not as good.
After all of that, the county’s cabinet – the ruling group of Liberal Democrat, Labour and Green councillors – had to decide whether to progress, and there was still a sting in the tail.
There were two decisions. The first, to vote through the Oxfordshire Central Travel Plan, was taken unanimously, but the second, which dealt with the traffic filters separately, did not get universal backing.
Councillor Mark Lygo (Lab, Marston & Northway), the county’s cabinet member for public health and equality, voted against it, describing “sleepless nights” while wrestling with the issue.
He praised colleagues for listening to his concerns ahead of decision day but, advocating that the scheme be paused, he said: “Unfortunately, I am not going to vote for this. I am not going to put my name to the paper.
“Where some of the residents of Oxford disagree is the actions and the data driving them. Ideally, what we would have had was a starting point outlining what we would all want to achieve with unlimited resources.
“For me, and I may be wrong, there have been many failings throughout this process. What we need to do now is press reset, avoid blame and conflict and allow past mistakes to be forgotten, remove the politics and threats and form a proper coalition working group that ensures these proposals are reconsidered, recorded and set up for the long term, doing that with empathy and that human touch.”
Councillor Lygo went on to denounce the “toxic” and “unwanted” atmosphere created by members of the public behaving “appallingly” during the debate.
He added: “This is not personal. I am not here to embarrass the council, the cabinet or our amazing staff. I was elected to listen and take their (residents’) views forward, and I have.”
Much like the government, cabinets are typically bound by collective responsibility, an agreement to pull in the same direction, something county leader Councillor Liz Leffman (Lib Dem, Charlbury & Wychwood) was keen to stress after the rest of the cabinet voted in favour.
“This has been passed now by a majority. Collective responsibility means that going forward, we need to ensure we are behind what we have agreed, and there should be absolutely no deviation from this,” she said.
“If we start having an argument about the details of this paper, that is not going to help to propel this forward.”
Despite being passed, the filters will not be introduced until Network Rail completes work on the rail bridge over Botley Road, which is expected to lead to its closure as a through route for most of 2023.