Julian Huppert MP writes: 20mph – A local say on local safety

Liberal Democrats are passionate about localism. We want decisions on local issues to stay where they belong. Giving towns and villages the ability to establish 20mph speed zones empowers local communities and allows them to set speeds that are best for local people.

Unfortunately, the system in place until recently focused much less on local government than on micromanagement from Westminster. The story of the parish council of Whiteshill & Ruscombe illustrates this well. The council representing these two Gloucestershire villages paid £1000 out of its own budget to have several “20 is plenty” signs set up. But Whitehall, working from policies and guidelines set out under Labour, called the signs illegal and demanded that they be taken down.

Happily, this situation is changing. Norman Baker’s recent comment on 20mph speed zones signals a shift in Department of Transport policy on the importance of local decision-making:

If councils and local communities want to put in place 20 mph schemes on residential roads or use common-sense measures such as variable speed limits outside schools, then they should be able to do so without spending time and money satisfying unnecessary Whitehall diktats.

His words were music to my ears. As a former county councillor, I know that most of the planning for local low-speed zones has been going on at local levels for years. Parish, town, and city councils already do the work of researching how and where to implement low speed zones, and are already expected to pay for the changes themselves. Why should local government have to go through an elaborate ceremony simply to stroke Whitehall egos?

Under the new guidelines, it will be easier for local communities to apply for permission to put up speed signs: receiving county-wide permission rather than requiring authorisation for each individual sign. These guidelines will also allow local communities to install road signage more cheaply, allowing for the use of road paint and other measures instead of putting up costly upright signs.

This is important because the 20 mile-per-hour speed limit has a track record of saving lives. When the first 20mph speed limits were introduced, accident rates fell by 60%, and the number of children in accidents was reduced by two thirds. There is also the added benefit that speed bumps are no longer required, saving considerable sums of public money. So there is an overwhelming argument for such limits to be implemented in almost all residential areas.

That is why it is so important for local communities to have these powers. I look forward to far better road safety in Cambridge, and across the country, as a result. We can be rightly proud, as Liberal Democrats, of this achievement. It is a victory for localism and public safety.

Julian Huppert is the MP for Cambridge and co-chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party Committee on Transport.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • coldcomfort 5th Jul '11 - 3:06pm

    I don’t know where Julian got his statistic from but if dropping from presumably 30mph to 20mph reduced accidents by two thirds why stop there? Bring back someone walking in front with a red flag & get no accidents at all. The reality is that arbitrary speed limits are gesture politics. No speed limit will stop the idiot who goes stupidly fast & loses control. Getting caught is a total lottery which usually catches a generally careful driver who drifts up to 36mph on a road which would be perfectly safe at 40mph and does nothing about the tear arse. There are roads, the Stocksbridge bypass comes to mind, where rigorously enforced 50mph has been a huge success. But there are many more – like one near me which is easily four lanes wide, perfectly straight with superb visibility, houses set back at the end of long drives, wide pavement, where 40mph is perfectly safe (and incidentally environmentally sound since few cars will pull 5th gear at 30mph) but, of course it’s 30 & a favourite spot for the mobile speed van which itself increases the danger by taking up road space. By all means reduce and enforce low speeds near schools at key times. In Australia 40kph (25mph) is rigorously enforced either side of school in & school out with lights telling drivers when that restriction is in place. Also parking near schools. In Britain parents are so concerned about their children (are they heck) that they park dangerously to drop them off rather than have them do a healthy walk of a few dozen yards. If speed limits made sense the vast majority of drivers would obey them because the vast majority already drive at safe speeds even if that is not what the sign says. That’s why considering the billions of road miles driven every year our accident rate is so low. Yes I know everyone is a tragedy but we might do better by praising & helping drivers than by escalating efforts to criminalise & demonise them

  • Colin Green 5th Jul '11 - 3:22pm


    your suggestion that 40 MPH is more environmentally sound than 30 MPH because of the gear you drive in is sadly not true. Modern car’s gearboxes are equally efficient in each gear. Older gearboxes are most efficient in 4th, rather than 5th.

    A car’s most efficient speed is determined by its engine characteristics plus the weight and aerodynamics of the vehicle. For most cars, the most efficient CONSTANT speed is in the region of 30 MPH. For some cars it is higher and for others, lower. Cars with small diesel engines are typically efficient at lower speeds, with some as low as 20 or 25 MPH.

  • I think you’re missing the point coldcomfort. The point isn’t that we’re looking to limit speeds across the country, the point is that we’ve empowered local councils to make their own decisions with less Whitehall interference.

    If you want to remove speed limits then you can take it up with yore local council! :p

  • Martin Land 5th Jul '11 - 4:35pm

    Whilst these proposals are laudable, they are not necessarily ‘fair’ – many local councils such as Cambridgeshire County Council upon which Julian served – have made it very clear that communities must pay there own way on these projects. This is not too bad for rural communities, where Parish Councils or Parish Assemblies exist and a decision made and funds found, but in more urban areas it’s none too clear where the funding can come from.

    Secondly, speed limits require enforcement. Now that PCSO’s have become little more than ‘Bobbies on the Cheap’ rather than ‘Bobbies on the Beat’ as originally hoped, it’s difficult to know who would do so. Indeed even when they can be persuaded to act, as I did recently on one road (St Neots Road, Eaton Ford – if you remember it, Julian) then they report back that there is ‘no problem’.

    This confused me until I spoke to a local resident who told me that they had indeed conducted a control, in high-visibility bright yellow jackets. This naturally allowed speed motorists the time to slow down! When I challenged them the PCSO’s told me they had to wear them for ‘Health and Safety reasons’. Shame they aren’t available to all the children crossing the road with cars doing 50-60 in a thirty mile an hour zone.

    So giving powers to communities is not enough – we need to give budgets and increased powers over the police.

  • This is why I can’t join the Lib Dems. What this means is that an almost invariably unelected and generally self-appointed clique of hysterics, get to impose these limits on the rest of us. We get no say and no chance to oppose. “Whitehall diktats” are all that stand between most of us and the megalomaniac, spendthrift, bossy interfering of local councils.

  • Andrew Suffield 5th Jul '11 - 7:09pm

    What this means is that an almost invariably unelected and generally self-appointed clique of hysterics, get to impose these limits on the rest of us. We get no say and no chance to oppose.

    I’m sorry, which county do you live in where the council is unelected and self-appointed? In all the ones I have been to, there are regular local elections to select the councillors.

  • Old Codger Chris 5th Jul '11 - 7:28pm

    We can all think of roads where the speed limit seems unnecessarily low. But there are other roads, especially on housing estates, where a 20 limit or a variable limit (near a school during school hours for instance) would be an aid to road safety. Bear in mind that car occupants are relatively safe in this country, pedestrians and cyclists – especially the young and elderly – much less so.

    I hope the new law will facilitate a lower limit outside my local primary school. And perhaps the speed camera on a main road just round the corner from the school (where there has NEVER been a serious accident and there are many safe crossing points) could be moved to the estate road where the school is sited.

  • The evidence on this is clear – lower speed limits, even if not enforced by cameras, humps etc do save lives because the majority of drivers are law abiding. If a kid steps out from between parked cars even a conscientious driver may not see them. That driver is more more likely to be able to stop if driving at 20 than if driving at 30. And any collision is less likely to be life threatening.

    My only question is why a local council should EVER have to apply for permission to national government to change the speed limit on a non-trunk road. I don’t want the process to be easier, as a LibDem I believe in local autonomy and the right of councils to make decisions like this themselves!

  • Andrew Suffield 5th Jul '11 - 10:31pm

    How does that work in the dark, then?

    This is just a guess, but I’d say that this is for school-hours limits where that isn’t really an issue.

  • Alex Hosking 15th Sep '15 - 5:21pm

    I think people tend to seriously over estimate the effect speed limit have on average speed, they’re normally adhered to because they’re set correctly.

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