Madrid’s new mayor is trying to scrap the city’s traffic reduction scheme. It’s not going well

No go: the boundary of the Madrid Central traffic scheme. Image: Getty.

Madrid’s new mayor could not have chosen a more politically explosive moment to pull the plug on the fledgling Madrid Central scheme. As governments across Europe declare a state of climate emergency after months of protest and direct action waves, the Spanish capital intends to roll back green measures introduced by the previous city hall – for reasons, its critics say, of little more than revanchism and knee-jerk party politics

The Madrid Central initiative, which comprised a series of traffic restrictions in limited but key areas of Madrid’s snarled-up city centre, was one of a number of proposals encompassing the former mayor’s green vision for the city. Launched late last year, the scheme was found this May to have reduced air pollution in the city to its lowest levels in a decade. 

The new administration in Madrid’s city hall, though, has campaigned ferociously against the project and made it as much their flagship issue in opposition as it was the flagship policy for the previous government in office. It now finds itself stuck to a pledge to reverse Madrid Central since re-entering the Cibeles Palace (before 2015 the conservative Popular Party, or PP, had controlled city hall since 1991). But overturning the scheme has not proven straightforward.

Its earliest attempt to suspend Madrid Central stalled several weeks ago, as the traffic reduction measures were reinstated by a court order after a short-lived ban. During the days the scheme‘s traffic fines were lifted in the city centre’s new clean air zones, emissions were found to have risen sharply.

A map of the scheme. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The push to dismantle Madrid Central encountered further setbacks last week, as the precautionary decision to halt the new mayor’s moratorium was upheld by another court ruling. And last Friday a third judge in little over a fortnight ruled against city hall’s action.

Jorge Castaño García, a councillor who oversaw the rollout of Madrid Central as part of the previous city hall administration, told me: “This was the first experience of traffic-reduction measures in a historic part of Madrid. Really it was a small step and it has worked even better than expected”. He pointed to “the emissions decrease, a fall in road accidents and a rise in consumer activity around the city centre, smoother circulation for public transport, and a marked rise in the purchase of electric cars” as indicators of its success.

The attempted repeal of Madrid Central has provoked a considerable civic response. Two days after the ban was imposed, in sweltering temperatures exceeding 40 degrees Celsius, over 60,000 demonstrators gathered in central Madrid to protest the proposed scrapping of the scheme – marching down Gran Vía, the city’s main arterial thoroughfare, where one of the ex-mayor’s key traffic-reduction initiatives was piloted. June saw record-breaking temperatures not only in Madrid, but across almost all of Spain, as a series of wildfires devastated parts of Catalonia and other regions.


In light of the Madrid Central dispute, the European Commission has warned Spain it could be hit with fresh punishment for its failure to comply with air quality standards, adding to the 12m fines it incurred for urban waste and water treatment infringements in 2018. The role Madrid Central played in the decision last year to put on hold infringement proceedings was recognised by Europe in December. Still, Brussels has urged both Madrid and Barcelona to ramp up their efforts to combat climate change, beyond simply restoring Madrid Central. This week, it escalated its disciplinary action threats for the cities’ failure to take more “serious” measures, reopening the shelved case.

As the Madrid Central row rumbles on, Barcelona looks to press ahead with a more ambitious green agenda after its left-wing mayor, Ada Colau, successfully formed a new government last month. Colau’s administration is seeking to bring in its own extended low emissions zone in the city next year, alongside a raft of other environmental measures currently being debated as part of a “participatory process” forum open to Barcelona residents.

Manuela Carmena, the recently-departed mayor of the Spanish capital, told El País this month it is “unthinkable that the capital of Spain should be against the fight to prevent climate change”. She believes the new administration will soon run out of road and be required to perform a U-turn on Madrid Central.

Yet such a move is still far from certain. Carmena’s party won the most seats in May’s elections to city hall, but she herself missed out on re-election. As has been the case in other municipal and regional governments in Spain, a tripartite right-wing administration has been formed in Madrid with the combined votes of the PP, the more liberal-tinged Ciudadanos (Citizens) party and new far-right force, Vox.  

The newly incumbent mayor, José Luis Martínez Almeida, has complained about the New York Times’ recent coverage of his administration’s decision to reverse Madrid Central’s driving ban, openly criticising the newspaper in the Spanish press for allegedly having not consulted his office before running the story. The PP’s Madrid branch did not respond to a request for comment.

At both the regional and municipal level, PP leaders have raised eyebrows with their comments regarding Madrid Central – part of what García Castaño describes as the “culture war” a “radicalised right” has whipped up around the project. On the campaign trail, the party’s regional leader Isabel Díaz Ayuso bafflingly argued that congestion represented an integral “part of the city’s identity”, while national leader Pablo Casado asserted that Madrid Central actually fuelled pollution. Moreover, Ayuso and Almeida both suggested in recent weeks that Madrid Central had helped increase crime rates – claims that have since been rubbished by police and crime experts.

Despite the wild rhetoric, the new mayor has been forced to accept the principles of Madrid Central to a certain degree, even if critics say he intends to do so “in name only”. PP leaders now say they are instead looking to modify the scheme, rather than ditch it altogether. But, as the series of court defeats and Brussels’ ultimatums have made clear, the metre is running low for the new administration on a number of fronts.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.