Andrew Gilligan, until recently Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s special advisor on transport, has accused Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham of “cowardice and feebleness” for not pushing on with a clean-air zone for Central Manchester.
Gilligan was speaking at a fringe event at the Labor Party conference in Liverpool on September 26. He mocked Burnham as the “great radical Labor hero” who, although he had an overwhelming mandate to change Manchester for the better, didn’t have the “ political strength” to implement a clean-air zone in the city.
“That is the kind of level of cowardice and feebleness that [the last Tory administration had to deal with,]” added Gilligan, speaking to the Policy Exchange event remotely.
Burnham “can talk the talk,” continued Gilligan, but “currently walking the walk, even in a tiny way—he’s not up for it.”
The Greater Manchester Mayor came out against a scheme to charge high-emission vehicles entering the city; the plan has now been delayed.
“Central Manchester has got the highest levels of asthma, the highest levels of lung disease in the country and despite winning every single one of the 215 Wards in Greater Manchester at the election last year, despite the plurality of 48 points—he got 67% to 19% in the mayoral election—[Burnham] still doesn’t feel he has the political strength to charge a few vans and taxis a few quid for driving to Central Manchester,” said Gilligan.
“That is the level of cowardice and feebleness that we’re dealing with.”
Gilligan was a special advisor to Johnson from 2019 but left when the then Prime Minister was ejected from 10 Downing Street earlier this year. Gilligan was also a transport advisor to City Hall when Johnson was Mayor of London between 2008 and 2016.
As well as ripping into Burnham, Gilligan criticized a Labor MP for lacking courage in supporting active travel measures in her constituency. Gilligan didn’t name the London MP, but he likely meant Rupa Huq, the Labor MP for Ealing Central and Acton.
“People in the Labor party go into politics to change the world,” claimed Gilligan, “so it was depressing how many Labor politicians saw themselves as defenders of the status quo in London. I remember arguing with a London Labor MP who was complaining that we wanted to take some parking spaces out, and I said to her, ‘look, you’ve got a majority of like 26 000 or something so why not sacrifice a few dozen of those votes to make the place better for everyone?’”
“Why become a Labor MP if you don’t want to change anything,” chided Gilligan, who said that changing the public realm, such as adding protected cycleways and implementing Low Traffic Neighborhoods, “really does work, and it works really quickly, and it’s popular.”
Gilligan continued: “When you improve facilities for walking and cycling, you get a dramatically increased number of people walking and cycling; [these modes] doubled during COVID when the roads were quieter but now the roads have gone back to more like normal levels, the number of people walking and cycling is still 30% to 40% higher than it was roughly in 2019 partly because of some of the measures we put in.”
He admitted “they’re controversial though,” and “one of the key tasks that politics’t quite managed yet is how you overcome that controversy.”
“Normally, these measures have majority support,” he added, “but the minority are very noisy, and they make much more noise.”
There’s no campaign to get people to stop driving, inferred Gilligan.
“People don’t have to abandon their cars completely; just use them less,” he said.
“Most people don’t have an ideological or tribal view about this; if you look at the polling, it’s very clear that roughly two-thirds of those who express an opinion support schemes to reduce rat-running in their areas; it’s just having the political will and political bravery to get through the inevitable backlash from the minority and see it through.”
Gilligan remembered how in 2015 when he was working for Johnson during his stint as Mayor of London, he attended the opening of a “mini-Holland” street makeover in the borough of Waltham Forest that was derided at the time but is now overwhelmingly backed by locations.
“[We were confronted by] screaming demonstrators carrying a golden coffin to symbolize the death of Walthamstow Village. Now seven years later, that place has been completely transformed, and one of the men carrying the golden coffin has opened a pavement cafe and is doing very nicely out of the fact that pedestrian and overall footfall has gone up dramatically.”
“Now, only 7% of people would take that scheme out,” said Gilligan.
“What normally happens is that there’s a period of backlash, but if the council has the balls—as the Labor council of Waltham Forest did, to stick with it through the backlash—then people forget they ever hated it and they never want to see it gone, so a lot of it is about political leadership.
“It’s very interesting how different councils are; it often comes down to the personal qualities of individual cabinet members at councils. Some are terrible, regardless of party; some are brilliant, regardless of party.”
Gilligan’s views about the new Tory Prime Minister Liz Truss were not shared at the fringe event, but it has been feared that the slash-and-burn administration could reverse many of Johnson’s policies, including those supporting active travel.
“I hope the new government realizes that active travel is actually an answer to an awful lot of problems,” stressed Gilligan.
“It’s an answer to problems of health; it’s an answer to problems of pollution; it’s an answer to problems of congestion. I’ve always argued that active travel is an extremely Tory way of traveling because it’s individualistic—it can replace the ability to individual journeys that private cars give you in a way that public transport can’t, so I hope [the Truss adminisration] continue with the policies that we [pursued.”
Active Travel England
One of the Johnson administration’s key achievements was the creation of the arms-length government body Active Travel England (ATE), but there are fears that Truss, a small state ideologue, could derail the new body.
With Gilligan no longer advising the Prime Minister on transport matters, no one in Downing Street is actively championing ATE.
Instead, in last week’s not-a-budget statement that later led to the devaluing of the pound against the dollar, the government stressed it would prioritize road building.
Earlier, in the leadership campaign, Truss and her main rival Rishi Sunak, said they would “end the war on the motorist.”
Power to the people
Gilligan isn’t anti-car.
“I think electrification of the road vehicle is the single biggest thing we can do to reduce our stubbornly high carbon emissions in transport,” he told yesterday’s fringe event, “but I was always quite worried that some policymakers thought it was the only thing we needed to do or at least the only thing they were comfortable talking about.”
The manufacture of electric vehicles (EVs) “carries a substantial carbon load,” pointed out Gilligan, “and there is a real risk that because EVs are taxed much more lightly than petrol and diesel vehicles they will be driven more so canceling out some of the carbon savings.”
Other new technologies “also have the potential to increase carbon emissions,” claimed Gilligan in the Policy Exchange event.
“Driverless vehicles may be the revolution that never quite arrives, but if they do arrive, this will significantly lower the barriers [to use]; you won’t need a license or insurance or a parking spot or take a [driving] test so why would anyone bother with public transport?”
Instead, Gilligan pins his hopes on “behavior change,” believing building facilities for active travel will decrease demand for motor vehicle use.
Gilligan is probably one of those to be gonged in Johnson’s forthcoming resignation honors list, should the House of Lords Appointments Commission approve the contentious recommendations.