Paul Murray is a Civil engineer who chose to specialise sustainable transport and spent several years in the charity Sustrans before recently joining Ridge & Partners to build an Active Travel Team.

 

Rhion Jones has commented on the eight forthcoming consultations announced in the Plan for Drivers, and asked Paul for his reactions …

November 14 2023

 

The Plan for Drivers

  

Rhion Jones in conversation

 

Where did all this come from?   Did you and colleagues in the profession see it coming?

 

Boris Johnson had some relatively progressive environmental and transport policies and I believe that this paper to some extent is a reaction to those policies in order to differentiate Rish Sunak’s leadership from his. Some of my favourite policies from Boris Johnson included the first committed budget for walking and cycling over a 5-year government term (albeit it is now significantly cut), implementation of the Biodiversity Net Gain of 10% for all new housing developments and the setup of Active Travel England. All these were unpopular within part of the Conservative Party and this new policy paper is an attempt to appease that faction of his party.

 

I believe that the Conservatives saw the 20 July Uxbridge by-election as an unexpectedly successful strategy by attacking the implementation of the ULEZ expansion and Mayor Sadiq Khan’s record on transport, as a way of winning the next general election. However, the U-turns on environmental policies, including delaying the Biodiversity Net Gain and scrapping the Northern leg of HS2 does not appear to have garnered enough support as shown in recently losing Conservative safe seats in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire.

 

The transport policy changes were not expected in the industry, which had come to expect more evidence-based decision making in the current government. They were certainly not expecting a policy paper like the Plan for Drivers.

 

Are there good things in the Plan? What are the positives?

 

Yes, there are some good ideas within the document.

More noise cameras will be a great thing for our cities. A recent RAC Foundation poll found that nearly 6 out of 10 drivers (58%) would like to see noise cameras installed. That excluded people who do not drive, and one could reasonably assume that they would have been even more likely to want them installed.

Investing £50 million into modelling could improve conditions for pedestrians and cyclists and ensure that there is more of a focus on them on our roads.

Smarter Road Closures would be a huge step forward and that part of the document references Lane Rental schemes in London. The GLA is doing amazing work right now with the Infrastructure Co-ordination Service(ICS) ensuring that road resurfacing and utility works are completed at the same time, with Sustainable urban Drainage Systems (SuDS), cycle lanes and street furniture installed when the carriageway/footway is reinstated. This could be rolled out across the UK

Additionally, bringing all parking into one app would be welcome and makes sense and the switch to zero emission vehicles is a key part of moving towards net zero in rural areas and cities and towns in some instances.

 

Where are there disagreements? What’s contentious?

 

Mainly, it is the different direction in transport policy, which includes some low impact ideas and some that could be harmful. The top 3 points that drew my attention are:

 

  • It is unclear whether the government wants to empower or take away functions from local authorities. For example, the government wants to revoke local authorities’ access to DVLA data to enforce LTN/School Streets schemes by camera. However, it has also suggested more powers for local authorities to enforce rules against noisy drivers; this would require same technology,
  • Unsure of the source of the statement that half of England’s traffic signals are working below optimal performance. The Government mentions tuning up traffic signals, but the systems that we have already do this (such as SCOOT or MOVE),
  • The Government wants to launch a campaign about motorway lane hogs, - a relatively smaller problem. Yet the 1,695 fatalities from road collisions in 2022 are not addressed.

 

 

The Government seems very harsh on “15-minute cities” Is this really a transport issue … or more a planning concept?

 

This is an Urban Planning concept driven forward by Carlos Moreno in Paris in 2020. Within Planning in the UK, there is a lot of transport-related guidance and regulations to follow when applying for planning permission. Therefore, the 15-minute cities concept is not something that we as consultants or councils really have much influence on. I see it more as a long-term planning aspiration and it seems as if they have conflated what a 15-minute city is with Low Traffic Neighbourhoods.

 

However, it’s alarming to see the language used on 15-minute cities in this paper. Had they left this out then the paper may have been taken more seriously by the transport sector.

 

 

And where do you and your colleagues stand on the 20mph controversy?

 

Transport schemes impact everyone’s daily lives and elicit strong opinions. This is why I work in this sector and specialise in Active Travel, to try to address those disagreements. Vehicles travelling at 30 mph are far more likely to cause fatalities or serious injury than those travelling at 20 mph. This 10 mph makes a huge difference in those statistics and the Welsh Government is trying to address it.

 

In Wales, there have been some embedding issues and a lot of changes to speed limits on roads in a short space of time, and maybe it is a little more ‘blanket’ than it needed to have been. I expect these issues will need to be smoothed out over the next year or so.

 

Consistent with many transport policies I have seen implemented, there is a sense that there is a silent majority in favour of this policy; however a very significant minority remain strongly against it. There should have been more support for councils from the Welsh Government though of course money is short across the board. Ideally, resource could have been used to sort through the exemptions to the 20mph limit and make the transition smoother.

 

Although personally, I think it is a brilliant policy that will eventually be seen as the correct decision, for example we are already seeing the ULEZ policy embed in after only one month.

 

Is it right to re-visit LTNs? (Low traffic neighbourhoods?)

 

If the monitoring completed by the council shows that there are issues with the scheme or that there is overwhelming local opposition to it, then the scheme should be re-visited. LTNs might be straightforward in terms of what you might change in the street, but the impact is significant. In Oxford there has been a vocal opposition. Yet the people I feel sorry for are those who have genuine concerns about the schemes, so when the narrative around the schemes is hijacked by people who live outside of Oxford, and there is vandalism and threats to councillors, the voice of local people can sometimes be lost.

 

Following the Plan for Drivers release, it may have been thought that the Oxford schemes would not be voted through council but in fact all 3 LTNs will be made permanent. This is a testament to the brave councillors and council officers carrying out the scheme. A survey taken in October 2022 shows that there is support for the schemes.

 

We need a focus on creating local support for these schemes. When you engage the public early and are open about the constraints on the project, you should end up with the best possible design. It is more a question of where the money will come from to build the public support If there is none forthcoming from the Government, it may just result in time-rich people from affluent areas canvassing the council and be able to secure LTNs in those areas, but only in those.

 

 

Many Councils have invested in Walking and Cycling plans in the last few years. What do you expect to happen to these?

 

This is a good question. Whilst I think that this Policy Paper sets out the direction that this Government is going take, many Councils will still disagree... I believe that councils may be confused about how to take things forward because of the lack of clarity in the plan. I have spoken to a few London councils as well, and they intend to carry on with their plans which are set until the end of March 2024 and beyond.

 

I would expect that some of these plans will be “put on ice” for a year or so. Councils might expect a new Government next year or early 2025, so this will further create uncertainty and I expect a period of standstill over the next year or so. Ultimately, however, we could see a huge investment into it because transport is the highest emitter of Greenhouse Gases in the UK (mostly from Road Pollution). Finally we might see a move away from building brand new roads whilst re-directing the funding into Active Travel schemes and road maintenance.

 

Rhion Jones, Consultation GuRU, comments

 

As Paul’s answers confirm, there is little support for the overall thinking behind this pot pourri of ideas found in the Plan for Drivers. It is far from being a strategy, and to the extent it has a common theme, that would be a populist slant on long-term transport thinking. I admire Paul’s optimism that the overwhelming logic of net zero will win the argument, but I personally fear that the forces of ‘stick to the status-quo’ will make politicians of all hues rather cautious.

The Plan for Drivers may just be the start; the omission of any reference in the King’s speech is not definitive and does not preclude the possibility that Ministers could yet choose to double down on scaling back net zero policies they think prove unpopular.