20mph in Brighton: a case study in the abandonment of politics

Earlier this week, Brighton and Hove Council agreed recommendations for the implementation of 20mph limits in some Brighton streets.  The final agreement falls far short of the original aspiration  to turn the whole city into a 20mph zone;  the officers’ paper I discussed in my earlier post was watered down further, to exclude more streets from the zone, mostly in suburban areas where the limit would have been self-enforcing, justified by the needs of buses and taxis and the responses to the consultation.

I don’t want to go over the issues I discussed in that blog post again – except to point out that in pure transport benefit terms, as well as in terms of the return on investment in the scheme, the changes agreed at the Transport and Environment Committee mean that overall, the new scheme makes even less sense than it did.  I understand some of the points made about ensuring that criteria for inclusion across the city were consistent; however, an internally-consistent bad policy is still a bad policy.  It is on small local roads that the benefits of the policy were most likely to be realised, and where the criteria for self-enforcement were most likely to be achieved – but vast swathes of the city’s local roads are now excluded.  In transport policy terms the policy presented by officers was a mess, and decisions made last week have made it a bigger mess.

What I am more interested in is the political process, and the lessons we can learn from it. I believe the lessons matter, because they go to the heart of how progressive politics works in times of austerity.  I believe, ultimately, that the history of 20mph in Brighton is not so much a failure of politics but an abandonment of politics.

First, and most importantly, the Green administration has completely failed to sell what should have been a popular policy –  a policy that has been successfully implemented in cities across the UK by Labour and even some Tory administrations.  Even the City of London, hardly a hotbed of grass-roots environmentalism, has adopted a 20mph limit (the transport issues, obviously, are different there).  One of the symptoms of that failure was the way in which the consultation on implementing a policy that had been agreed by all three parties in the council chamber was turned into a series of street-by-street plebiscites; not the action of a confident administration.  But the extraordinary fact was that many of the streets that stood to gain most from the policy actually opposed it when the responses to the consultation were added up; a result in stark contrast to other areas of Britain where local campaigners have been desperate to calm traffic in residential neighbourhoods, around schools and other places where there are vulnerable pedestrians.  And the issue of traffic and urban space is – or ought to be – absolutely core Green policy.  The Green administration simply failed to build a consensus.  Now there are reasons for that; the administration is divided, inept and in many ways a laughing stock.  It appears to have disintegrated as a cohesive body and some Green councillors appear simply to use their position as a platform for grandstanding; an administration simply waiting for the electorate to give it quietus in 2015.  But most of all it seemed to assumed that the case should go by default, and never appeared to make any effort to build a consensus around the policy, and involve the key stakeholders. A very large part of the responsibility for the mess must lie with this piece of  Green Party arrogance.

But that is only part of the story.  Every bit as important is the way in which the political class in Brighton – all of it – surrendered the initiative to a well-funded, well-organised motoring lobby embodied by the Unchain the Motorist pressure group.   It is that group, not the elected politicians, who have set the terms and above all the language of the debate.  It is widely rumoured that the creation of Unchain the Motorist is inseparable from faction-fighting within the city’s beleaguered Tories, between more “centrist” elements and the hard modernising Right; if so it is perhaps as good an example as one can find of an unelectable faction finding a way to dominate the political debate.  And it’s an important lesson in how the Right can use networks to keep a grip on the political initiative and push policy agendas with no popular mandate. The fact that the taxi-drivers’ union, the GMB, was co-opted to this campaign by a group that elsewhere has expressed its opposition to the concept of a city living wage, only demonstrates the effectiveness of this approach.

And, with Unchain the Motorist exercising a Tea Party-like grip on the terms and language of the debate, it’s wholly unsurprising that an absolutely central issue was lost – that the politics of managing the private car is overwhelmingly the politics of privilege.  That is all the more the case in a city like Brighton with low car ownership; the voices of the 40% who do not own or have access to a car, who will include the poorest and most vulnerable in the city, are simply not heard.  It is a language and rationality that excludes the child crossing the road to school, the pensioner who has to cross a main road of speeding cars to get to the local shops.  Indeed, the whole mantra of the car as necessity is founded on decades of planning decisions that have privileged the private car, and whose mitigation and even reversal is essential to create a more equally entitled society.  And that is understood in places where traffic speeds have been constrained; and in Labour’s national policy that 20mph should be the default urban speed limit – most of all in suburban streets of precisely the sort that the scheme adopted by Brighton and Hove Council excludes. Hard-working families cross the road too.

And hence the mess of the consultation, which the administration and officers managed to turn into a series of local plebiscites.  I have seen this described in some quarters as people-power; it’s nothing of the sort.  It’s about a political class that, collectively, seems paralysed in the face of the need to take decisions that are unpopular but right; decisions whose outcomes lie in the long term.  In many respects it’s the opposite of politics – a refusal to take collective responsibility for decisions you think are right.  I’ve written recently about the fundamental irresponsibility of the Green administration; I think on this issue the entire political class in Brighton has done the same thing.  The Council voted on a cross-party basis for 20mph for a reason, and then, in the face of organised privilege, did not have the courage of its convictions. The really striking thing about this debate is that, having raised issues of enforcement – which obviously matter – the streets the council has left at 30mph are precisely those where self-enforcement is possible.

I do not want to blame Labour councillors in particular who were working to make the best of a wholly bungled piece of policy. But there are important lessons.  The Labour administration that I hope will be running the city after 2015 will have to take incredibly difficult decisions in the face of great financial stringency; it will have to make difficult strategic trade-offs.  But the precedent that the 20mph decision sets is vastly damaging; it establishes the principle that decisions taken in the council chamber across the city as a whole can be derailed by plebiscitary consultations.   And if you agree that democracy is about process and structures as well as votes, that’s a pretty undemocratic state of affairs. Moreover, decisions about traffic flows quite obviously go far wider than limits in individual streets; this is a strategic issue about what sort of city we want to live in, in which people across the city have a legitimate stake.  Many of those tough decisions after 2015 will be just as strategic, but they will have more immediate, more drastic implications for some very vulnerable people.  Our political class’s apparent  acceptance of the 20mph process sets dangerous precedents; above all it undermines the very principle of political process.  And, without having any intention of doing so, it seems to me that on this issue they have risked playing into the hands of people who see local government as basically a procurement mechanism for outsourced services, without doing any real politics at all.

But the implications are wider.  Some time ago I wrote about how Brighton’s political culture is a lot less progressive than, in moments when we are feeling pleased with ourselves, we like to think it is.  I think this shows that there is still something fundamentally rather Thatcherite about the way, collectively, we do things; we can make some of the right noises but are very comfortable with arguments from individual privilege and willing to defer to them.  I think the way in which the language of the political class in Brighton has so often mirrored and been led by Unchain the Motorist is damaging and at a deep level undemocratic.  And most of all I am sad that here in faux-progressive Brighton we have lost the opportunity to do something that many less glamorous, less self-regarding localities have done to improve their quality of life.

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4 thoughts on “20mph in Brighton: a case study in the abandonment of politics

  1. Off-topically curious to hear what’s different about transport issues in London and why it’s obvious. I’m getting very fed up with special pleading that leads to London getting the lion’s share of all the cakes.

  2. “the politics of managing the private car is overwhelmingly the politics of privilege. That is all the more the case in a city like Brighton with low car ownership; the voices of the 40%”

    Are you serious????? ,the 60% (i.e majority) of people who have cars are not an overpriveleged bunch of toffs as you might suggest. I would volunteer the opposite. Only those who can afford very expensive city centre property don’t need cars to get around. Those of us who can’t afford overpriced property have to live far outside the city .Should we then spend all day on a bus or pay for taxis every time we want to visit the city? My neighbours are a mix of poor students ,the “working poor” and the middle class. All of us need a car as we are priced out of living in the city.Nobody on my street drivers an expensive car and most are over 10 years old. Give me the opportunity to buy a property for a reasonable price somewhere in the city where i can walk everywhere and i will happily hand my keys in. Otherwise don’t insult me as car driver and try and label me as “overpriveleged”. I cycle as much as possible for health reasons .Maybe if i get a “my other car is a bicycle sticker” you might be more reasonable?

  3. Pingback: No confidence: an epitaph for Green politics in Brighton and Hove | Notes from a Broken Society

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

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