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).