Twenty’s plenty (except in Cambridgeshire)

This article was published in 2008, in Newsletter 79.

Sign indicating a 20 mph zone in Norwich.
Image as described adjacent

Everyone knows that lower speeds save lives and make streets pleasant places for people rather than just conduits for cars. The government recognised that research was showing more clearly the adverse effects of speed, and in 2006 new guidance was issued to local authorities. A major plank was that local authorities would be able to designate 20 mph zones far more easily and without the need for expensive traffic calming.

Although some cities such as Hull had already proved that 20 mph zones with traffic calming could bring very significant reductions in crashes, especially those involving pedestrians and cyclists, the door was now open for other authorities to introduce extensive 20 mph zones at relatively low cost. First off the blocks was Portsmouth, which has now completed a programme of 20 mph zones over much of its residential areas. The first results from this are expected in September. Now both Norwich and Oxford have similar proposals.

So what’s happening in Cambridgeshire? Nothing? No, not nothing, the Cabinet has gone into reverse at more than 20 mph.

Last year there were formal consultations about adopting the new government guidance on speed limits, and papers were available at the four Area Joint Traffic Management Committees for us to lobby and councillors to discuss. After this process the new guidance was formally adopted at a Cabinet meeting on July 2nd 2007.

Imagine my surprise to read in papers to Cabinet in April this year that the section on the County Speed Policy was changing again, and that the rules for 20 mph zones were proposed to be effectively the same as before the new government guidance. Cabinet passed the changes, with officers later suggesting previous changes were a mistake or a typing error.

In simple terms this means that now, to introduce a 20 mph zone without traffic calming, average speeds must already be below 20 mph whereas government guidance would permit such zones where the average speed is below 24 mph. Under the government guidance many large residential areas could have become ’20 mph zones’ at little cost, sending a clear message to motor vehicle drivers. With the 20 mph rule any such areas would be very patchy, unless expensive and often unwelcome traffic calming was also installed.

When certain Councillors were made aware of this ‘change’ the Liberal Democrats ‘called in’ the decision and it was referred to a County Scrutiny Committee. I was asked to appear as an ‘expert witness’ (I haven’t been asked to do that for over 20 years) as one with knowledge of some of the research, and who had followed the process and read the government guidance in detail. The discussion from Officers and Councillors was of a good standard, and the meeting lasted some considerable time, but perhaps inevitably, the committee voted on party lines, rejecting the opportunity to refer the decision back to Cabinet for reconsideration. What a waste of half a day’s leave.

So what next?

Firstly we need to wait for the initial results from the Portsmouth 20 mph changes.

Take Action

If you’ve a local Residents Association that might be interested, point them at: 20’s plenty for us

Secondly there is now a very active national campaign ’20’s plenty for us’, and there is to be a national day of action to promote 20 mph limits in all residential areas by 2010. This will be on October 20th, and we must all mobilise to ensure this is well publicised in Cambridge.

Finally, and not least, as Cambridgeshire now has ‘Cycling Demonstration Town’ status it, as a prerequisite, has committed itself to: ‘A willingness to restrain traffic volumes and speeds and to give advantage to cyclists’.

I still don’t understand the reason for reversal of policy or why it was done in such an apparently underhand way. 20 mph limits are normally very popular with residents, and these changes mean introducing them is very much more expensive.

Jim Chisholm