Yesterday, Brighton & Hove City Council’s transport committee decided to change the speed limit across most of the city to 20mph. This plan was championed by the local Green Party, which controls the council administration, although it does not have a majority of the seats. It will improve the city’s air quality and road safety. In particular, cycling will become significantly safer as a result. It is hoped that more people will be persuaded to take up cycling around the city.
The biggest lobby against the change were the local taxi drivers, who argued that they would face increased risk of violence from passengers late at night because they were travelling more slowly than before. This has to be one of the weakest political arguments ever made. Almost every time I’ve got a taxi in Brighton, the driver has broken the speed limit wherever that has been convenient. Whilst no-one has advocated a special exemption for taxis, it is a bit rich to hear them claiming they will observe limits all of a sudden. Sure, they will drive more slowly. All they have to do is inform their passengers that the speed limit is 20mph and that all political parties voted for the change (I discuss the politics further down this post.). Then they can have a good whinge about it.
Whinging seems to be the local drivers stock in trade, though you never hear them moan about their recent request to increase the number of taxi licences in the city and increase their fares. Normally, when supply increases the price comes down. Despite trading in a medieval style market economy, far too many of them complain about the politics of our modern city. I travel by taxi fairly frequently. Over the years, whenever my driver starts slagging off the local council, I ask them who they vote for. The majority say they do not vote. “Your opinion is irrelevant then“, I tell them. That’s how it is. If you vote or at least spoil your ballot, you can complain. Not voting is antisocial.
Having myself fought over 800 road traffic accident trials, when I practised as a barrister, I have particular expertise in this field. The fact is that most people seem to think that they are entitled to drive at the speed limit whenever they can. That is legal nonsense. You have to travel at the speed which is appropriate for the circumstances. Around the city, that means mostly you have to drive more slowly. Hurtling around the leafy suburbs of Hove at anything approaching 30mph is not safe. Driving down any of Brighton’s residential hills lined with parked cars is similarly dangerous because if a child steps out from between those cars, you will seriously injure them. Time and again an angry driver whom I’ve cross-examined has told me, “I had the right of way!” Since when did having the right of way allow you to drive like a nutter? In my view, there’s something about the way cars have combined with our culture that creates bad characters behind the wheel. All sorts of perfectly decent folk drive very badly indeed and they don’t even know they’re doing it. Decades of road safety campaigns has failed to stop people from driving right up against the limit whenever they can. As for the number of people who believe that ABS helps them brake quicker, don’t even get me started…
Curiously, the best driver I have ever travelled with was an ex-rally driver. He’d passed the advanced driver test. His experience with a car had trained him into being an extraordinarily safe driver. I lived on a remote farmstead with him in mid-Wales for a while. After that, I noticed that everyone else lacked his acute judgement. No other driver had his sense of spatial awareness or social awareness.
The local politics around this decision is even more curious. When the Greens first proposed the new limit, the Tories said that they would oppose it, if it harmed local business. At yesterday’s meeting, three Conservative councillors sat on the committee. Two of them ~ Tony Janio & Geoffrey Theobald ~ did not vote for the new limit, despite both representing outlying areas of the city where people frequently drive too fast. A third Conservative councillor ~ Graham Cox ~ voted in favour. Mr Cox used to be a copper. Perhaps his decision was informed by his knowledge of the real road traffic issues? The split vote by the Tories suggests that they had not reached any conclusion as to whether local business would be harmed.
The new Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner told me in an interview that she thought there needed to be evidence that a localised rule about a lower speed limit was required before it would be enforced. (4th paragraph at that link.) I had been asking her about police priorities, prior to her winning the election. That sounds worryingly close to her thinking that it is acceptable for the police to override the democratically expressed wishes of the people affected. She should now unequivocally state that the police will enforce the new limit. Otherwise, she risks a breakdown in trust between the citizens of Brighton & Hove and Sussex Police. Ms Bourne is a member of the Conservative Party.
From the Tory committee members’ split vote, you’d think that they weren’t greatly concerned by the plan. Yet collectively they proposed an amendment to defer it indefinitely. If they didn’t want it, why didn’t they all vote against it?
The local Labour Party’s policy on this issue has been muddled from start to finish. Initially, they misrepresented a statement by Sussex Police as a declaration that the new limit would not be enforced. In fact, Sussex Police had merely responded to enquiries by saying that it was a matter for the local council, which it is, of course. At the time, I contacted Sussex Police to ask whether Labour was right to say that the police would not enforce the new limit. They replied to say that they would.
At the committee, the Labour councillors proposed an amendment to remove a large number of roads from the new limits. Bizarrely, the roads that they wanted removed included North Street, which already has a 20mph limit. Since North Street is right at the heart of the city, this request cannot be explained away as a minor mistake. The Labour amendment was defeated. In the final vote, Labour councillors Gill Mitchell and Alan Robins voted in favour of the plan. Presumably, they changed their minds during the course of the committee meeting? How else can their policy gymnastics be explained?
The final vote was eight in favour (all the Green committee members voted for it), none against and two abstentions. The new speed limit will start to come into force this April and will be phased in completely within four years. Since no-one voted against it, we can assume that both Labour and the Conservatives will not campaign against it in future. The police will have to enforce it, regardless of what Katy Bourne thinks.