All over England, local authorities are quietly introducing 20mph limits to calm traffic and improve both road safety and the wider quality of life in urban environments. These schemes are strongly supported by local people, and generally uncontroversial – administrations of al parties are introducing schemes.
So why is the 20mph debate in Brighton and Hove – home of the only Green local administration in the UK – so poisonous?
Having introduced a 20mph limit in the city centre in April – with all-party support – the administration is consulting on extending the limit throughout the city. Recent weeks have seen a notorious and anonymous full-page advertisement in the local rag, the Argus, denouncing the extension of the scheme; and now a campaign backed by many Brighton businesses seeking, in its own words, to “unchain” the motorist.
So why is this campaign achieving so much traction in Britain’s self-proclaimed greenest city? It certainly isn’t by force of argument. This is not the place to examine the unchainers’ arguments in detail, but in summary:
- the claim that 20mph zones have no effect on road safety be debunked in less than a minute’s Googling. There is a serious and growing body of hard evidence that such zones do have a significant effect on casualties, which is why councils of all parties adopt them. We need to be honest about this debate – 20mph zones are about making life better for the large majority of the city’s residents
- the ” war on the motorist” argument is tired nonsense. All the evidence is clear: over the medium term the cost of motoring has fallen in real terms, the cost of public transport has risen. While it is easy to paint Brighton’s Green councillors as anti-car (a claim that gives a coherence to Brighton Green discourse that it sorely lacks) and to recoil from high parking charges, it is difficult to see any other administration acting in any other way. And it’s important to note that all the recent transport measures in the city have been backed by all its political parties;
- the real issues for Brighton and Hove, as for everyone else, are austerity and falling real incomes. Many of the businesses behind the Unchain campaign are the same organisations who criticise the Council’s living wage policy; they appear to be supporters of the very policy that is driving Brighton businesses to the wall. You cannot, logically, cheerlead a low wage economy and then complain people aren’t spending in your businesses;
- moreover, it’s always forgotten in this debate that car ownership and use is, generally, driven by income. Brighton has one of the lowest rates of car ownership in Britain; more generally, those without access to cars are usually the poorest in society and Brighton – despite its exorbitantly expensive bus service – is not one of those rural communities where no car means isolation (although the effect of car-centred planning policy is as evident here as it is in other cities, as part of the dynamic which ensures that car dependency increases inequality). ”Unchaining the motorist” is really, as in so much transport policy, the rallying-cry of the moderately entitled; it forgets that in the great car economy, it is the people without cars who have no choice at all.
- the whole thrust of the Unchainers’ argument appears to be that Brighton’s economy depends on easy and cheap access for car-borne visitors. As I have argued before, it is far from clear that this provides a sustainable long-term model for the city’s economy – there is no space for the big debate about what we want the future of Brighton to be. We also need to understand the economics of this argument – it is about businesses, many of whom are not locally-based and who do not invest their profits in the city, effectively being subsidised by the people of Brighton – most notably Brighton’s poorest people who bear the brunt of the externalities – when it is local investment that will provide the quality, sustainable jobs the city needs.
- the Unchainers have made a clarion call for park-and-ride. I have argued before that this is a trivial and unworkable approach to Brighton’s traffic problem. And the evidence base suggests that park and ride can only work if you curtail city centre parking – by reducing it or making it more expensive! Clearly, more homework needed.
In other words, the more you unpack this issue, the less it looks like serious policy and the more it looks like an emotional spasm of the entitled. Fair enough; the issues would be the same anywhere. But why the toxicity in Brighton and Hove, and why now?
The reality is that this is not about transport policy at all – 20mph has become a proxy issue through which fundamental divisions in Brighton politics are being fought. We have a weak and divided Green administration which – to the extent that it ever had a real vision for the city in a time of austerity – has lost its ability to drive debate. It is widely perceived as anti-car, largely as a result of changes in parking charges and now the 20mph zone, although we hear little of the alternative (given Brighton’s appalling traffic and air quality problems is anyone seriously suggesting that what Brighton needs is more, faster traffic?). This is about the weakness of the Green administration, and the opportunity to make the City safe for a right-of-centre consensus; for an economic model in which large businesses milk the cash-cow of car-borne visitors (and locals) while paying minimum wages in one of the most expensive cities in Europe, without the need to reinvest profits locally.
One of the problems is that the Green Party simply hasn’t gone out to sell its message – it seems to regard its views on traffic as self-evident. It has not understood that the whole ethos of motoring is founded on emotion – on narratives about freedom and individualism and control of private space that conflict with the collective realities of car use. Greens should spend more time watching Top Gear and car commercials to understand what they’re up against; in office in Brighton and Hove it has found that a rational approach to traffic management is, for individual car users, deeply counter-intuitive. Transport policy makers (and, as a senior DfT official for more than twenty years, working mostly on demand management and vehicle taxation issues, I was one of them) cannot depend on rationality alone; to effect change you have to argue the case, with logic and passion and above all patience. It is I think instructive that Greens, faced with power for the first time, have so completely failed to understand this.
On the other hand, the Tories are very comfortable with the petrol-headed power narratives of the Unchainers, and in presenting them as common sense. This is what Tories do; the private car as potent symbol of the narratives of neoliberal economics, presented as the inevitable outcome of human nature.
Labour’s position looks more equivocal than it actually is. It voted for 20mph in Brighton – and is implementing 20mph schemes elsewhere – but its language and framing are often very similar to the Unchainers; it uses the same phrases to describe the same issues (parking charges, 20mph enforcement) and has adopted one of the Unchainers’ key policies, park-and-ride. Its “on the doorstep” language can be read as intellectual and moral passivity, a reluctance to back change it believes in and make the case. Will Labour in Brighton, as it is elsewhere, be prepared to make the case for 20mph and the benefits it brings to the people who, after all, Labour is supposed to represent? In some respects they are in a far better position to make that case than the discredited Green administration.
Interestingly enough, Labour comes closest to a credible argument against the current scheme – far closer than the Unchainers, who appear not to do nuance – when it talks about enforcement. The point is hidden away in the depths of the 2010 Scrutiny Report on speed reductions in the city - a hugely useful document that summarises the arguments around 20mph powerfully, and had cross-party input. It concerns the structure of the 20mph zone. The theory is that 20mph zones are self-enforcing, because the road layouts and complementary traffic-calming measures mean that it is physically difficult for traffic to move at excessive speed. It also points out that the approach in Brighton and Hove mirrors that of Portsmouth, using much larger zones – but also notes the Portsmouth approach, after a single year, was unproven. The fact is that if enforcement is an issue, then 20mph has failed on its own terms – but, as the scrutiny report rightly points out, it takes at least three years until you can reliably discern safety and other traffic trends. In other words, the jury is still out on the city centre, and will still be out in 2015. The argument about whether 20mph has succeeded is not one that can be intelligently had until after the 2015 elections; anything else is anecdote and prejudice, and the defining failure of transport policy in the UK generally is the extent to which it based on anecdote and prejudice rather than hard facts.
The rational approach is obvious; make progress on the basis of evidence from elsewhere, and then make future decisions on the basis of what happens in Brighton and Hove when you can properly do so. But this debate is not about transport politics; it is about the political narratives that frame our city. And that’s why it’s so toxic, and why its implications for the city are so important.