17 January 2015

Easy win or moral panic?

We should be feeling elated about Edinburgh's new proposed 20mph rollout.  I had expected a huge fight over it last summer and autumn, but none materialised.  All parties except the Tories supported it, and even they were careful not to oppose the idea wholesale, and tried to convince the council that they were 'improving' the scheme.  

But in the last few days, hysteria seemed to envelope the local paper commentators (and some leader and headline writers).   

Since the vote went through, it really has felt like a classic moral panic -- drivers convinced that the city will be a ghost town, or, alternatively,  full of traffic ground to a halt.  

Apparently they're planning a protest march now, and asking for a consultation. A consultation! 

I complain about Edinburgh a lot, but it has never once occurred to me to demand 'more consultation'. At times  - worn down by one more roadshow or invitation to a 'stakeholders meeting' - I've wanted to beg for mercy. 

But, supposedly 'no-one' knew about the 20mph consultation, despite the roadshows, drop-ins, exhibitions and public meetings.  All of these were also discussed in the media and on social media.  Community councils ought to have been crucial here - but this really flags up how ineffectual they can be in transmitting information down to neighbourhoods, or stimulating debate at the local level.  

Expanding the 20mph zone has been council policy since at least 2010, as part of both the  Active Travel Action Plan,  and the Local Transport Strategy.  When the council started planning in earnest for it last year,  in light of the Edinburgh People's Survey in 2012, and the pilot, it looked like an 'easy win'.  When surveyed, very 60%+ percentages of people supported further extension of 20mph, and only single digit numbers opposed it.  How many council policies get that sort of ratings?   

So, what can we make of that? The surveys were representative and reliable (the more recent consultation was open to everyone, but not necessarily representative).  The numbers surveyed may seem small, but they were more than adequate samples.  Did the people surveyed not really understand what they were asked? Did the 'undecideds' all realise they were opposed after reading the local paper?  Or is the mob braying for blood on Facebook really just a minority? 

More broadly, it does bring home to me how amazingly divided Edinburgh can be, and how, despite innovative community groups, and a council that to my eyes, does everything it can to reach people, huge numbers of people are simply not aware, or don't have time, interest, or confidence to engage with what's going on.

So having missed the consultations, and the chance to write to their councillors, they now feel appallingly hard-done by, and righteously indignant about the lack of democracy.  The councillors on the transport committee are getting the worst of it, with some very nasty personal attacks.   I'm struck by on-line comments like those accusing them of being a 'clique' that pushed this through, when it went through on a vote of 11-3 and was approved by party caucuses.

Are these comments just gratuitous, a sign of disenchantment with all parties, or evidence of a failure to understand how council decisions are made (not something most people want to spend time worrying about)?  

The obstacles to better local government and more participatory decision-making seem very high.  

(I could write another blogpost or three on why they're wrong, but it's the tone of the debate that worries me right now, more than the content).


Kate Carpenter said...

Hi there, do you know if what's planned is 20mph limits (just signs, typically reduce speeds very little, maybe 1-2mph) or 20mph zones - which are self-enforcing, often with humps which are effective but create noise, vibration etc. I think relatively few of the wider public are aware of the difference, and this can create excessive expectations or disappointment at what is installed.

Sara Dorman said...

As I understand it, the idea is that it will mainly be signs, but that since it will be large areas, there will not need to be signs everywhere. Bumps and other sorts of traffic calming only where speeds don't fall - e.g. problem spots, as now, and unlikely to be on main roads (e.g. bus routes).

Enforcement is definitely a big issue, but despite what some reports have said, Police were supportive when council was planning it, and have sourced extra speed guns, displays etc. But hopefully after people get used to it, enforcement can be light touch.

Stephan Matthiesen said...

Coming back to the issue of engagement with the public: I can understand if many ordinary people are not aware of the plans in detail.

What I don't understand is that the local papers distort the decision processes. They are professional journalists who get paid to know and report about what is going on. Getting this repeatedly wrong means they are not doing their job. It is perhaps not surprising that the papers are struggling financially: Why should I buy a paper when you regularly get the impression that they don't provide reliable information, and when I get better infos from blogs and online papers run by volunteers?

I also don't understand that people behind these campaigns claim to have not been aware of the plans. Of course most people have busy lifes, but if the matter is important enough to start a petition, then I would expect they would have noticed it long ago. Claiming not to have heard about it is just disingenious, and very hard to believe.

Of course many people will genuinely not have been aware of the plans. But most of them probably don't have strong feelings about it and are just basically happy to let the council get on with their work, just like I don't know details of the recycling scheme and am just happy to use whatever boxes they give me.

Of course we don't hear from the silent majority, as the vocal minorities with strong feelings will dominate the discourse.

So, I don't think the council can really do much more to engage with the public than they are already doing, as all these matters will always just really interest certain sections of the population.

In general, there are of course groups disengaged from politics, and this has to be addressed. I doubt, however, if these disengaged groups care much about 20mph specifically, or if other issues are more relevant.

The Ranty Highwayman said...

A well-worn cry of foul from those who didn't get their way or who take so little interest in their neighbourhoods that they only complain when the perception is that something will adversely affect them.

I would caution some enthusiasm, average drivers seem not that inclined to stick to 20mph and from what I have found in the City of London and Islington, traffic is still horrific.

Look at the speed limit as a new foundation on how we operate our local streets though.

Sara Dorman said...

Agree. The 20mph limit is no panacea or 'magic bullet', but it is a start, and a signal that safety should matter more than speed on most streets.

Anonymous said...

Here in Berlin we recently got a leaflet through the door about repairs to footways and some footway build-outs that the council have scheduled. (The schemes don't go far enough in my opinion, but I digress.)

Anyway, my Berliner-since-birth flatmate was outraged – "they never asked me!" So I went online and found that the council had done tons of stuff like public meetings and consultations. They'd even set up stands in the street, spending days talking to residents, explaining the plans.

And yet because one person somehow missed it, "it's not fair".

I don't think that councils should have to ask every single resident on decisions like this. As long as they've asked a good number of them, and got a feeling for the range and weight of opinions, that's surely enough.

But then, he's also annoyed that we have parking wardens around here, which means he can't park on the footway, so perhaps he's not the best person to go by!