20mph in Brighton and Hove – where do we go from here?

The latest twist in the saga of Brighton and Hove Council’s plan to introduce a 20mph limit across most of the city involves a letter from Labour Environment lead Gill Mitchell in the Brighton Argus yesterday. It’s worth reproducing in full:

As the debate on the implementation of a citywide 20mph scheme gathers pace it is becoming clear the Greens of Brighton and Hove City Council should pause and think again (The Argus, September 27).

They could re-read the sensible recommendations of the council’s own detailed investigation into the feasibility of introducing 20mph limits, held three years ago, in which the taxi trade, police and bus company raised their concerns.

Instead the Greens seem to have ignored this and gone off on their own ideological path.

Nowhere in the consultation literature does it point out that the scheme as proposed is unenforceable and that the only way it could be is for the limit to be supported by physical engineering measures, something the Greens will not consider.

The Greens need to work with all interested parties to develop a scheme which can deliver genuine speed reductions in residential areas and takes into account the needs of all road-users, including public transport providers.

Councillor Gill Mitchell, Labour and Co-operative Group, Brighton and Hove City Council

For those of us who strongly support the principle of a 20mph speed limit in the city the tone is rather disappointing – it seems to me that it concedes rather too much to the position of groups like Unchain the Motorist who, as I’ve argued here before, are essentially defending motorists’ privileges rather than acting as advocates for the city as a whole – especially the 40% of people in the city who do not have access to a car.

But the key point is in the last two paragraphs.  Enforceability remains a key issue – it determines whether the scheme will work, and above all whether it will work fairly.  The basic principle of 20mph schemes is that they should be self-enforcing; the use of complementary traffic-calming measures means that it becomes extremely difficult to drive routinely at more than 20mph.  Those who do – and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of high-speed rat-running in the current central 20mph zone – are clearly behaving outside the acceptable mainstream.

The 2010 Scrutiny Report on speed management in Brighton and Hove raised this issue and referred to the city-wide scheme being implemented in Portsmouth, referencing an interim DfT-funded report that showed that the scheme was on course to work.  It is quite difficult to establish what has happened since then – the DfT has withdrawn funding for further studies – but this more recent comparative review by the University of the West of England suggests that the Porstmouth story is not straightforward and raises some worrying issues for Brighton and Hove.  In particular it points out that:

  • There has been quite specific police intervention, in the form of regular enforcement blitzes;
  • The policy has been backed with intense local information campaigns involving the local fire and rescue services as well as police, and in particular through road safety education in local schools;
  • Although there have been demonstrable safety benefits, there are still issues around public support – especially from pedestrians and cyclists, the people who should benefit most from a 20mph scheme.

In other words, the argument that a 20mph scheme can be self-enforcing across a wide area remains unproven and there are issues that need to be addressed.  None of this affects the principle of 20mph zones, but there are issues around implementation, which should be acknowledged.

I have argued before that part of the problem over 20mph in Brighton and Hove is that it has become the forum in which other politics is carried on.  In truth, the main parties are not far apart.  Nobody is suggesting that all streets should have 20mph limits (although defining what is a residential road and what is a main road is not easy – Carden Avenue in my own suburb of Patcham is clearly both, and I’d argue that with strong issues of community severance it should have a 20mph limit).  It should be entirely possible to address concerns about enforcement and feasibility within the context of a bold and ambitious city-wide strategy – although doing so may mean accepting the need for much more engineering and physical traffic calming than resources might currently permit – and without surrendering to the Mr Toad mentality of Unchain the Motorist. But it needs calm and reasoned and above all cross-party debate about the practicalities.  Labour supported the principle of a city-wide scheme, after all.

There is behind all this a desperate irony.  Labour and even some Tory councils around the country have managed to introduce ambitious 20mph schemes without the toxicity that the issue has generated in the only Green-administered authority in Britain.  They have been prepared to make the case and reap the real safety benefits, and make their communities more liveable as a result.  Why not here?  I think there are a number of reasons –  the weakness of a divided administration that has failed to make its case more generally, and seems unwilling to engage in a real debate.  It’s almost as if Greens assume that 20mph is so obvious that you don’t need to argue the case, and that people who question the detail are somehow not getting the obvious point; if so that’s an arrogant attitude and one that deserves to fail.   A party whose councillors have grandstanded around hare-brained schemes like Progressive Council Tax, or charging higher bus fares to visitors to the city, or a differentiated hotel bedroom tax, appears unwilling to engage in the heavy lifting of evidence-based policy-making on issues where the way the evidence points is often counter-intuitive.

My own belief  – as someone who passionately believes in reducing traffic speeds right across the city – is that the administration is at serious risk of blowing this issue, pushing 20mph off the agenda for years to come and handing the initiative to the car groupies and privilege defenders of Unchain the Motorist.  And Gill Mitchell, for all the disappointingly negative tone of her letter, is right; this is about consensus-building.  Greens should not be shy of holding Labour to their support for the principle of 20mph in Brighton; but the administration should now be prepared to talk.

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2 thoughts on “20mph in Brighton and Hove – where do we go from here?

  1. Pingback: 20mph in Brighton: a case study in the abandonment of politics | Notes from a Broken Society

  2. Pingback: Misleading and unsubstantiated: the official verdict on Unchain the Motorist | Notes from a Broken Society

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