Misleading and unsubstantiated: the official verdict on Unchain the Motorist

The Advertising Standards Authority has published its verdict on the advertisements published by the Unchain the Motorist pressure group in the Brighton Argus during last year’s consultation on 20mph limits in Brighton and Hove.  It’s devastating.  All 11 issues raised in complaints about the advertisement have been upheld by the ASA.

To understand just how devastating this ruling is, you need to read it in full. Faced with the need to justify themselves in front of an official body, Unchain the Motorist’s responses are shown up to be so intellectually feeble, so deeply indicative of ignorance and prejudice on almost every aspect of transport policy on which they chose to hold forth, that it would almost have been funny – had the effect on the transport debate in Brighton and Hove not been so utterly toxic.  Time and time again the ASA upholds complaints that Unchain the Motorist used arguments that were misleading and unsubstantiated; I find it hard to recall an occasion when I have seen such scornful language used in an official ruling. Some savage words are reserved for the pressure group’s failure to reveal who was responsible for funding the advertisements: whatever one may have thought of the political arguments, the lack of transparency was striking.

Where does this leave us?  As I’ve argued before, the outcome of the 20mph debate in the city is deeply unsatisfactory.  The  decision to treat the consultation as if it were a plebiscite has left the city with a wildly incoherent outcome in transport policy terms, with challenges now being mounted through petitions organised by residents appalled at the failure to reduce limits on routes used by the vulnerable – including key walk-to-school routes.  It has demonstrated just how futile playing the numbers game with consultation responses can be.  In the orders on which consultation closed last week we have many residential streets where 20mph would have effectively been self-enforcing left out of the scheme altogether; we have roads like Braybon Avenue, on the walk-to-school route for five local schools, left as a lethal high-speed rat-run.  And whoever is elected to replace the Green administration in 2015 will have to deal with this, in the certain knowledge that it will take years to drain the poison from the transport debate across the city.

There are important lessons to be learned across the spectrum of Brighton and Hove politics.  We need to understand just how the issue of 20mph became so toxic in the first place, when schemes have been introduced successfully by so many other authorities of all parties around Britain – and here the administration has to take much of the blame for the way it framed many of the issues.  It’s not that there weren’t questions about some aspects of the scheme – notably about enforcement – but that the debate was never at the level of groundedness where those questions could be intelligently discussed.  Brighton and Hove’s politicians need to be prepared to put in the political legwork to work towards consensus, in an environment where the objectives of policies are agreed and understood and the policy mix is based on evidence, not prejudice.  We need to ensure that the voice of vulnerable road-users is not drowned out of the political debate by organised privilege.  The events of the past year will make this immeasurably more difficult.

As some of us argued all along the politics of Unchain the Motorist have been shown to be dishonest, unsupported and deeply ideological: Brighton’s tea party. We must ensure that the next administration in this city works to build consensus for a transport policy that is sustainable, evidenced and works for the benefit of everyone in the city; and that the transport debate is never again hijacked in this way.

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