Do you support my campaign to overturn the 20mph default speed limit?
The Labour Welsh Government changed the default “national” speed limit in built-up areas throughout Wales from 30mph to 20mph on 17th September 2023. I have been strongly against these proposals, which I think are already proving to be unworkable, unenforceable, costly and deeply unpopular. They will damage the economy of North Wales, yet there is no evidence they will improve road safety or reduce air pollution as promised.
I believe there has been relatively poor awareness of the plans and that people do not feel that they have either been consulted, or given the plans their backing. I have spoken out against the proposals as Wales Office Minister at the despatch box in the House of Commons and at the Welsh Conservative Conference. I also condemned fledgling proposals as early as 2016 from the backbenches.
Roads across all parts of the United Kingdom are essentially subject to the same high standards of design, and our vehicles incorporate continually-improving driving aids and safety features. As a result, our roads are already some of the safest in the world and stand to become safer still through technological progress.
The 30mph speed limit in built-up areas was introduced across Britain in 1935 and, like the 60mph limit on single-carriageway roads and 70mph limit on motorways and dual carriageways, it remains etched on all of our minds through the national Highway Code. Speed limits are not “targets” but the maximum legal speed on that category of road. In some cases, achieving the limit is neither safe nor possible, as is recognised by dangerous driving legislation. For example, driving above 20mph around many estate roads with parked cars is already impractical. In other cases, the maximum speed that can be safely achieved will vary according to conditions or the time of day.
I don’t dispute that there is a place for defined and realistically enforceable 20mph zones. However, I believe that these should be at specific locations where drivers might otherwise routinely travel at 30mph but pose unacceptable risks of collision – for instance, outside schools and hospitals. It is interesting to note that Welsh councils had lagged behind those in the rest of the UK in choosing to implement such zones.
A handful of inner city local authorities such as Westminster City Council have adopted general 20mph limits – which have not been without controversy – but these exclude major arterial routes. They apply to roads where there are significant numbers of pedestrians or other hazards, and where it is normally difficult to exceed 20mph in any case. They are also indicated by 20mph repeater signs. In Wales, this is not now the case – drivers from across the UK and elsewhere are expected to be aware of and adhere to the lower speed limit in the absence of repeater signs.
We all live on a small island, and more than 200 roads straddle the England and Wales border. In the case of many smaller roads, the border has not been marked by any signage at all. In some cases, the border cuts across housing estate roads or even runs lengthwise along streets and splits them in half. The reality of different default national speed limits in England and Wales is neither justifiable nor desirable, especially given the large volume of east-west cross-border traffic. For the first time ever, this separatist speed limit policy, requiring new signage at the “national border”, means that the Highway Code ceases to apply to the whole of Great Britain equally.
The Welsh Government’s own figures suggest an implementation cost of their 20mph policy of £32.5m, to cover publicity, new and replacement signage, and road marking alterations. This is a shocking figure in view of the their frequent claim that they are “underfunded”. Worse still, it is very likely to be an under-estimate.
Road traffic accidents at 20mph are less dangerous than those at 30mph. However, there will be an almost certain widespread lack of compliance with any default 20mph limit, along with the unintended consequences of that.
We have seen various unsubstantiated claims about the improved road safety that a Wales-only default 20mph limit might bring, but there are no comparable case studies elsewhere. I suggest it will be a recipe for confusion and that routine non-adherence will lead to road rage, with all the dangers this will pose. It will also risk harming the public’s future observance of sensible road safety campaigns.
There is no evidence to suggest that the chaos that is already resulting will be a sensible or cost-effective way to improve road safety or save lives.
· Might frustration and confusion on the part of drivers, coupled with a false sense of safety by pedestrians and other vulnerable road users result in the number of road traffic collisions in fact increasing?
· The previous signposting of 20mph zones not only reduced the average speed of vehicles in those zones but also alerted drivers to the fact they were approaching a higher risk area. A blanket 20mph speed limit has involved the removal of this signage! Might this increase the number of accidents at those locations?
· Will more drivers avoid key routes through urban centres and instead choose inappropriate "rat runs" along unclassified country roads?
· How likely is it that the true problem drivers - those who already significantly exceed the 30mph speed limit - will observe a lower limit?
· Based on the arguments given, what makes 20mph appropriate as a limit - as opposed to 15mph or even slower speeds?
The Welsh Government’s policy has only reduced the speed limit on roads that are currently 30mph; all other speed limits have remained unchanged. There are now many instances in which the speed limit changes straight from 60mph to 20mph or vice versa, presenting new dangers.
Another consequence of the proposed change will be longer journey times for all road users and increased congestion in more areas - with impacts on bus service timetabling, emergency services and postal and delivery companies.
Previous 20mph zones were located in areas and on roads that naturally lend themselves to such a restriction. For many and probably most of our roads in North Wales, a 30mph limit is entirely reasonable. To require drivers, including those of buses and HGVs, to remain in lower gears on long clear roads (e.g. the coast road), or to make it up roads with a rise, and brake on roads with a fall (e.g. the “Meliden dip”) is a nonsense. It will surely increase vehicle emissions and noise.
This new "sub-national" speed limit will also slow down the economy. The policy, on the Welsh Government’s own estimate, will cost the economy in Wales £4.5bn over the next 30 years through reduced productivity. Along with economically damaging approaches to road building and tourism, interfering policies on “meal deals” and underperforming devolved health and education services, this will affect all and, ultimately, disproportionately affect the lives of the poorest in society.
The 20mph limit implies that police forces in Wales should vary their former practice over the enforcement of speed limits on all roads in built-up areas. Even if there were resources available to expand their enforcement capabilities, there can be little argument that that money would be better spent elsewhere. We will now either see:
(a) no change to enforcement (which will likely reinforce very poor levels of adherence); or
(b) a shift in the focus away from high incidence spots, thus increasing the risk and extent of harm from road traffic collisions in areas where this might be a greater issue; or
(c) a shift in resources from more serious crimes.
There are also questions to be asked about how the issuing of speeding tickets and the levying of fines will reasonably apply, given the inaccuracy of car speedometers and the fact that established arrangements could mean enforcement fines applied to a threshold as little as 24mph.
In recent times, the Welsh Government has launched an apparent war on the motorist. Their ‘Roads Review’ - essentially a ban on new roads - is set to be incredibly damaging and out of touch with reality. There has been a strong suggestion that they also plan to introduce new road tolls. The Welsh Government seems not to understand that, for so many parts of Wales, the car is virtually indispensable and that Britain already has one of the most ambitious decarbonisation targets in place for vehicles. They have also been unable to provide fit-for-purpose public transport alternatives via their nationalised “Transport for Wales” rail services, which have the worst cancellation figures and the worst customer satisfaction rate of all rail services in Great Britain. It is no wonder that some Labour politicians have sensibly called for the devolution of decisions over roads from Cardiff to North Wales.
The likely failure of the 20mph policy has been demonstrated by unsuccessful trials in Buckley and elsewhere. The unpopularity of the proposals was also clear in the Welsh Government’s own consultation exercise over the plans (which it disregarded), where a clear majority was in opposition. A petition against the default 20mph limit on the Devolved Administration’s website was shut down early, in June 2023, following the large number of signatories registered.
Given the forced implementation of the policy by the Welsh Government, the best opportunity to minimise its negative impact was for local authorities to have designated “exceptions” – in other words, roads which should remain at 30mph and be signed accordingly. My view is that many exceptions needed to be made, yet my understanding is that Denbighshire County Council (DCC) only agreed to five across the whole county. As I said to the council, this was, in all certainty, going to set up the policy to fail locally.
Denbighshire’s Communities Scrutiny Committee considered the matter on 8th December 2022. It discussed the fact that the Welsh Government has developed exception criteria to the default 20mph limit based on the low likelihood of “significant numbers of pedestrians and cyclists travelling along or across the road”. To help local authorities make this assessment, it has developed the following “place criteria”, which aim for a consistent approach across Wales:
(i) Is the road within 100 metres of a school or other educational establishment?
(ii) Is the road within 100 metres of a community centre?
(iii) Is the road within 100 metres of a hospital?
(iv) Do residential or retail properties front the road and exceed 20 properties per kilometre of the road (i.e. five or more properties every 250 metres of the road)
Committee members were concerned at the implementation of the policy in Denbighshire and requested that the Welsh Government be asked for an Economic Impact Assessment for the county. It was further pointed out that there would be a significant cost implication if exceptions were not carried out in advance; all such exceptions agreed post the new default limit’s introduction would need to be funded by the local authority, whilst work agreed prior to the default speed limit’s introduction was to be funded by the Welsh Government. It is unclear whether DCC sent formal representations to the Welsh Government about the extent of their concerns. I understand no localised Economic Impact Assessment has been produced.
The ultimate responsibility for retaining a 30mph limit lies with the local authority, which can set exceptions where “they have a clear and reasoned case” (WG Guidance para 2.2.11). Labour-led Denbighshire County Council did not consult the local public to assist in the identification of exceptions to be made. A process whereby necessary exceptions should be put forward by local councillors, who may worry about being at risk of blame for future road traffic accidents on the roads concerned, is a recipe for non-objective decision-making where nobody takes the leadership required to ensure a sensible outcome.
This 20mph default speed limit is an expensive, meddling and divisive policy, which comes at a time of cost of living pressures and when public services at the hands of Labour in Wales are under huge strain. It is yet another example of the Welsh Government not looking beyond out-of-touch ideology and the urban areas of South Wales. They are clearly seeking – once again – to be different from the rest of the United Kingdom simply for the sake of it. Increasingly, they seem unfit and tyrannical in the management of the powers at their disposal.
Please sign this petition to reverse the 20mph default limit, share any other ideas about road safety, and tell the Welsh Government to instead focus on real priorities, such as health and education.