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Conservative Politicians and Press ‘Driving Spike’ in Disinformation on Low Traffic Neighbourhoods and 15-Minute Cities, Report Finds

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 23/05/2024 - 9:01am in

Cases of online disinformation and conspiracy theories about Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) increased fivefold from 2022 to 2023 – a problem exacerbated by the Government’s hostile rhetoric about the traffic-easing schemes, according to a new report by think tank Demos. 

The increase in disinformation has led to heightened community divisions, with a swathe of cases of infrastructure damage, and even death threats against local councillors during the past few years.

The study paints a portrait of a "failed policy introduction" and fierce local splits over the issue, partly driven by cynical media coverage and electioneering from right-wing figures.

In 2020, the Government instructed councils across the country to implement LTNs “swiftly”. However, last July – amid widespread disinformation, accusations of undemocratic governance and death threats directed at councillors – Rishi Sunak ordered a formal review of the schemes.

Following this announcement, the Conservative Party continued to double-down on an anti-LTN stance – and went further. 

The report points to media outlets such as the Mail on Sunday running segments including: "How 15-minute cities could be coming to the UK" – linking Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, which are designed to reduce rat-runs through residential areas, to conspiracy theories about supposed Government plots to stop people leaving their local areas. 

In practice, the idea of a '15-minute city’ is a simple one: planning laws for urban areas should encourage density and good public transport to make them easily accessible and walkable. In the same Mail piece published last March, the newspaper stated that the residents who vandalised the LTN planters in Rochdale "launched a rebellion".

The story of the 'Rochdale fire' was also latched onto by hard-right figures. An unknown member of the public set fire to several planters hours after they had been installed to
restrict traffic on 25 March 2023. In the next couple of days, anti-LTN activists and a journalist from GB News, Martin Daubney, expressed support for the act of arson online, declaring it a "revolutionary spirit". He has previously criticised non-violent activists such as Just Stop Oil for being "reckless".

Social media analysis conducted for the report found that levels of LTN-related disinformation with significant reach and engagement doubled from 2022 to 2023.

Some Conservative figures have latched onto the online anger.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper, for instance, gave a speech stating that he would end “the mis-use of so-called 15-minute cities” and “ensure no government money” funds LTNs in the future. It was seen as a dog-whistle to the fraction of voters who believe they are part of a sinister plot. 

Just last week, Women’s Minister Maria Caulfield faced calls to apologise for 'dishonest' claims that residents would have to pay road charges to drive more than 15-minutes from their home, in an election campaign leaflet. Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader Daisy Cooper MP told Yahoo News that she was “spreading baseless claims” and “misleading the public to try to save her own job".

Stark Findings

Analysis of the most popular social media posts on the subject between 2022 and 2023 reveals that the proportion classed as 'disinformation’ – including conspiracy theories – rose from 5% to 28% year-on-year, the report by the cross-party think tank Demos and the Public Interest News Foundation found. 

In parallel, the proportion of the same posts that could be classified as anti-LTN rose from 48% in 2022 to 79% in 2023.

Demos says that the stark rise in disinformation came in the year that “Rishi Sunak attacked councils for the introduction of the policy his Government had previously championed”.

There were also concerns that councils failed to properly engage and consult communities as the Government funding was dependent on fast implementation of the schemes. Direct attacks on the infrastructure such as planters, cameras and bollards have followed, as well as death threats against local councillors, the study found. 

The report – 'Driving Disinformation: Democratic deficits, disinformation and Low Traffic Neighbourhoods’ – involved researchers analyse more than half a million social media posts, with interviews of residents, local politicians and journalists in three LTN hotspots. 

It reveals that: 

  • Levels of LTN-related online ‘disinformation’ with significant engagement exploded between 2022 and 2023, with the proportion classified as anti-LTN rising from 48% to 79% in 2023. 
  • Where this disinformation had previously been blamed for the vicious local rows over LTNs, interviews with those at the heart of the local rows revealed that weaknesses in local democracy, the lack of quality local journalism, and national politicians’ interventions all worsened community tensions. 
  • Councils failed to properly engage or consult residents in what the researchers call a growing “democratic chasm” between communities and their local elected officials.
  • The decimation of news ecosystems at a local level, as well as increases in the harassment of journalists, reduced capacity for local accountability and factual information available at a local level, with residents turning to the “cesspit” of Facebook for information.
  • National politicians adopted language used in disinformation campaigns, including referring to the 15-minute city conspiracy theory and labelling supporters of LTNs “anti-motorist”. 
  • Levels of LTN-related online ‘disinformation’ with significant engagement exploded between 2022 and 2023, with the proportion classified as anti-LTN rising from 48% to 79% in 2023. 
  • Where this disinformation had previously been blamed for the vicious local rows over LTNs, interviews with those at the heart of the local rows revealed that weaknesses in local democracy, the lack of quality local journalism, and national politicians’ interventions all worsened community tensions. 
  • Councils failed to properly engage or consult residents in what the researchers call a growing “democratic chasm” between communities and their local elected officials.
  • The decimation of news ecosystems at a local level, as well as increases in the harassment of journalists, reduced capacity for local accountability and factual information available at a local level, with residents turning to the “cesspit” of Facebook for information.
  • National politicians adopted language used in disinformation campaigns, including referring to the 15-minute city conspiracy theory and labelling supporters of LTNs “anti-motorist”. 
  • On Lyham Road in Lambeth, a street sign is vandalised with black spray paint in October 2023, on a road with traffic-calming measures. Photo: Anna Watson/Alamy

    Residents in Oxford, Enfield and Rochdale, where the research was focused, had previously complained of consultations which were poorly advertised, mistargeted and inaccessible for residents without digital access, resulting in the exclusion of vulnerable communities. 

    There was also concern about how councils had interpreted evidence of the success of local trial schemes and the results of consultations, leading to accusations of deceit and citizens describing the overall processes as “undemocratic”.

    The report said disinformation narratives emerged around the schemes being “totalitarian” and “authoritarian”, and that these encouraged other extreme positions, including the burning of LTN barriers. 

    A Department for Transport spokesperson told Byline Times: “Traffic schemes must work for everyone in the area and should have local engagement and community buy-in before being implemented, which has not been the case for a number of LTNs. 

    “Through our Plan for Drivers, we’re strengthening statutory guidance to ensure councils have the support of local residents, businesses and emergency services before implementing any new LTN schemes.”

    The Government has threatened to take over council roads or pull local authority funding if they "fail to deliver sensible road schemes", using powers from the Traffic Management Act.

    Officials pointed to the Transport Secretary setting out his opposition to conspiracy theories around so-called ‘15-minute cities’, on Times Radio and during a statement in Parliament on October 16.

    Lights Ahead

    The report makes three main recommendations: 

  • A new anti-disinformation standard in public life, ensuring politicians educate themselves on narratives that weaken relationships with democratic institutions and the rule of law before deploying them in their own messaging. 
  • A new ‘Local Civic Accord’ to restore trust in local democracy in local communities, including the creation of a council ‘local democracy’ strategy and a set of principles that are published and transparent.
  • A central government funding package to stimulate a new era of vibrant local news, starting at £50 million per year administered via Local News Funds.
  • A new anti-disinformation standard in public life, ensuring politicians educate themselves on narratives that weaken relationships with democratic institutions and the rule of law before deploying them in their own messaging. 
  • A new ‘Local Civic Accord’ to restore trust in local democracy in local communities, including the creation of a council ‘local democracy’ strategy and a set of principles that are published and transparent.
  • A central government funding package to stimulate a new era of vibrant local news, starting at £50 million per year administered via Local News Funds.
  • Hannah Perry, lead researcher at Demos’ Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, said there were shortcomings with the pandemic-era schemes. But "instead of working to bring a sense of calm, the government performed a screeching U-turn, in both policy and rhetoric, and ultimately fed the public backlash".

    Demos’ analysis "shows how this pivot coincided with the spike in LTN-related disinformation," she added.

    “It is absolutely essential that lessons are learned and that we radically transform how democracy takes place locally," Perry said. "There is a worsening democratic chasm between councils and communities."

    The think tank is calling for extra local participation so councillors work "in partnership" with communities.

    Jonathan Heawood, executive eirector of the Public Interest News Foundation, which backed the report, said: "Local journalists are keen to cover important issues such as LTNs, but we’ve found that they’re being held back by public abuse, online harassment and lack of investment in original reporting. 

    “Whether they are for or against LTNs, the public are wary of journalism that sensationalises their arguments to create clickbait or treats them as conspiracy theorists. By contrast, they respect journalists who are rooted in the communities they serve, and who strive to present a rounded and objective view of the complex LTN debate.” 

    He added that new Local News Funds across the UK, funded by dormant bank assets, could revitalise local news and strengthen local democracy.

    If you have a political story or tip-off, email josiah@bylinetimes.com.

    Nationalised rail – but don’t mention the banks

    Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 27/04/2024 - 7:52am in

    It is not often I link to the Morning Star – which is now a journalist’s co-operative rather than a USSR tool! They are spot on about the alleged rail nationalisation from Labour – it completely leaves out the rail leasing companies – operated by banks, usually using ‘tax efficient’ offshore operations… They state: It’s... Read more

    Costs of Curtailed HS2 Rail Link Still ‘Running Out of Control’

    Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 07/02/2024 - 11:51am in

    The last remaining section of HS2 – the high-speed rail link from London Old Oak Common to Birmingham – is very poor value for money and the Government appears to have skewed the cost to justify it being completed, MPs say in a critical report today.

    The Commons Public Accounts Committee is highly critical of the benefits of high-speed rail after Rishi Sunak cancelled the extensions to Crewe and Manchester and East Midlands airports on the last day of the Tory conference in October.

    The report highlights the accelerating costs of providing the last remaining link, the failure so far to find private money to extend the line to London Euston, and the prospect of slower trains to Manchester than the current tilting trains when the new high speed rolling stock has to use the West Coast mainline.

    MPs tried to examine how Dame Bernadette Kelly, the permanent secretary and accounting officer at the Department for Transport could justify continuing with the project and are not satisfied with the Government’s explanation.

    To justify continuing the project, when ministers knew it was poor value for the taxpayer as a stand-alone line, she wrote off the £23 billion at 2019 prices already spent on the project and included the saving of £11 billion it would cost to compensate contractors and restore the land if it was scrapped as a benefit to continue building the line.

    But the report points out that costs are still running out of control with the final bill to complete the line going up to £67 billion at 2023 prices because of the huge hike in inflation that followed the Liz Truss government.

    The report says to save money on the now scrapped extension HS2 will have to build a new connecting link to join the West Coast Line near Litchfield. The place chosen is Handsacre junction which is already described as “a choke point” for freight and passenger trains, suggesting the new HS2 service to Manchester could be held up there.

    MPs also tested Rishi Sunak’s announcement promising private finance to build the Old Oak Common link to Euston and replacing the money saved by scrapping on new rail projects in Network North.

    They found – five months later – that nothing had been done yet to secure any private finance and the Treasury was still looking at whether higher property values in London could justify asking for private finance. And there is no definitive list of new rail projects and some of the ideas – like the electrification of the line from Chester into North Wales didn’t even have a business case yet.

    There is also a warning that if work on the link from Old Oak Common is halted it will cost much more money to restart the project.

    Labour's Dame Meg Hillier MP, chair of the committee, said: “The decision to cancel HS2’s Northern leg was a watershed moment that raises urgent and unanswered questions, laid out in our report. What happens now to the Phase 2 land, some of which has been compulsorily purchased? Can we seriously be actively working towards a situation where our high-speed trains are forced to run slower than existing ones when they hit older track? Most importantly, how can the Government now ensure that HS2 deliver the best possible value for the taxpayer?

    “Here we are after over a decade of our warnings on HS2’s management and spiralling costs – locked into the costly completion of a curtailed rump of a project and many unanswered questions and risks still attached to delivery of even this curtailed project.”

    A DfT spokesperson to Byline Times: “We disagree with the Committee’s assessment. Their estimated cost figure for Phase One also does not reflect our decision to secure private funding for Euston, or the direction not to proceed beyond the Midlands. 

    “Our plans for Euston have already received extensive support from the private sector to invest and will offer a world-class regeneration opportunity, mirroring the successful Kings Cross and Battersea and Nine Elms development programmes.

    “The Permanent Secretary has already written to the Committee chair setting out her assessment on value for money, and we have repeatedly made clear we will continue to deliver HS2 at the lowest reasonable cost, in a way that provides value for taxpayers."

    Stranded

    Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 15/01/2024 - 9:31pm in

    Privatisation and austerity don’t cut costs: they just pass them on to us.

    By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 12th January 2024

    The weather was worse than forecast. By the time I reached Bristol, at 5pm, all trains to the south-west had been cancelled, because of rising flood waters. It was no one’s fault – just one of life’s vicissitudes. What happened next was a different matter. I believe I’m still suffering the effects of it: I think privatisation has made me sick. In various ways, it has sickened the whole country.

    Hundreds of people travelling to Somerset, Devon and Cornwall were ejected from my train at Bristol Temple Meads. In the information office, we were sorted into groups of four. Each group was issued with a code written in ballpoint on a slip of paper. This, we were told, could be handed to a taxi driver outside the station, who would take us to a station near home. It seemed an extravagant way for the company, GWR, to discharge its legal duty to provide either alternative transport or accommodation.

    Outside, my group of four joined a queue that soon swelled, I reckoned, to more than 1,000. Most of us had no shelter. We stood in the rain, waiting – and waiting. At any one time, there were about 20 taxis on the forecourt, but scarcely any picked up people in the queue. On average, one group of four was finding a ride roughly every 10 minutes. At that rate, it would take two days and two nights to clear the existing queue, let alone deal with the new trainloads arriving. I began to feel pretty rough: I must have been starting a cold.

    Few of us wore the kind of clothes required to resist a steady downpour. In the queue were elderly people, young children and babies – I was by no means the most vulnerable. Even so, the longer I stood, the worse I felt. I managed to speak to one of the hard-pressed station attendants trying to negotiate with the taxi drivers. Why were they using taxis, not replacement buses? “We tried the coach companies, but no one’s answering the phone.” Had this happened before? “Oh yes, it happens a lot.” Why weren’t the taxis taking people? “Most of them don’t want to do the distance. They’re getting to the end of their shifts, or they’re working part-time, or because of the conditions on the roads.” So how were we going to get home? “We’re doing our best.”

    None of this was the fault of the workers, who were trying to achieve the impossible. But anyone could see that the numbers didn’t add up. Even if every taxi arriving at the rank had been available, there wasn’t enough capacity. Surely GWR wouldn’t just leave us there? After an hour and a half, during which our group moved forward only five metres and no alternatives were offered or announcements made, I realised I was going nowhere. I phoned a friend in Bristol, who kindly agreed to put me up for the night. By the time I reached his house, soaked to the skin, my cold had developed into a rattling fever.

    The following morning, the trains were running again. Masked and drugged (though testing negative for Covid), I shivered through the journey. One of the passengers asked the ticket inspector whether she could reclaim the cost of her accommodation from GWR. He said he didn’t know. This triggered a lively discussion: most of those near me turned out to have been stranded the night before.

    Some had waited till almost midnight, sometimes for six or seven hours, in one case coming dangerously close to hypothermia, before giving up and trying to find somewhere to sleep. At no point, they told me, did anyone inform them they were unlikely to get a ride, or offer an alternative to waiting for a nonexistent taxi. If someone with a health condition had died as a result of exposure, it wouldn’t have surprised me. Perhaps some people subsequently did.

    And then it struck me: by issuing those taxi chits, the train company, GWR, had discharged its duty to provide us, as the rules insist, “with alternative means of travel to your destination”. Both government regulations and GWR’s pledges are clear: either they must get you home or they must provide you with accommodation. The Rail Delivery Group, which represents all the train companies, promises “if the last train of the day is cancelled, we won’t leave you stranded”. Technically, GWR did not leave us stranded: it gave us a scrap of torn notepaper that would have procured a taxi, had taxis been available. What seemed like extravagance when the chits were handed out now looks to me like a highly effective means of reducing liabilities.

    When I described my experience on social media, people replied that similar things had happened to them, at the hands of different train companies. When I asked GWR how it justified its response, it told me: “No one was left stranded at Bristol Temple Meads overnight, and we were proactive in trying to help people complete their journeys in difficult circumstances … we are not aware of anyone who required overnight accommodation, or was not able to get a taxi.”

    My cold turned into an upper respiratory tract infection, from which I haven’t fully recovered, five weeks later. I’ve had to cancel quite a lot of work. I can’t prove that it was caused by standing in the rain for so long on 4 December. But it can’t have helped. As usual with privatisation and austerity, costs have not been cut, just transferred from one place to another. They are always transferred in the same direction: from corporations or the state to individuals.

    Similar things happen throughout our depleted public sector, whether it’s run by private companies or the tattered remains of the state. By letting flood defences crumble, the government’s balance sheet looks better, but much greater costs are passed to households and their insurers. By triggering, through austerity, a crisis in special educational needs provision, the Tories dump untold misery on families, in some cases forcing parents to give up their jobs to care for their children. By allowing the water companies to cut corners, the government ensures that swimmers and surfers are poisoned and tourism and hospitality businesses go under.

    There are no savings from austerity and privatisation, just a wholesale shifting of costs. The rich pay less tax and the public service companies in which they own shares make greater profits. The rest of us pick up the bill.

    www.monbiot.com

    Tesla wins – or not

    Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 20/12/2023 - 9:05am in

    This is an interesting Forbes article showing that Tesla has the highest accident rate in the USA. It found that Tesla drivers are involved in more accidents than drivers of any other brand. Tesla drivers had 23.54 accidents per 1,000 drivers. Ram (22.76) and Subaru (20.90) were the only other brands with more than 20... Read more