Councillors at Cambridge’s West/Central Area Committee on the 23rd of August 2012 voted to drop enforcing the city centre’s 20mph speed limits as a police priority.
A vote was held, and only two councillors, Whitebread and Nesthinga, supported retaining 20mph enforcement as a local police priority.
The decision followed a recommendation from Cambridgeshire Police in relation to “Speed enforcement in support of the 20mph limit” which stated:
Discharge as a police priority until the Citywide consultation regarding extension of the 20mph limits has been concluded.
Council leader and executive councillor for policing Tim Bick (Liberal Democrat, Market) was keen to see it minuted that the police committed during the discussion to attend a meeting to decide on how to improve the signage of the 20mph limits on Newmarket Road and Maids Causeway. It appeared possible that Cllr Bick may have done a deal with the police, agreeing to drop the priority as they recommended, in return for their attendance at the meeting.
The committee was told the meeting to decide the nature and location of the improved signage is to be held in secret during the second week of September 2012. It will consider plans which city council officer Andrew Preston told the committee he has already prepared, but did not share, for the location of new signage.
A number of councillors and members of the public noted that while the meeting is only to discuss improved signage on Maids Causeway and Newmarket Road the impact of dropping the priority for enforcing the 20 mph limits has a much wider area of effect: across the city centre. This leaves the apparent rationale behind the decision made by Cllr Bick and his followers on shaky ground.
The police recommended dropping the 20mph enforcement priority as they said their attempt to carry out enforcement was not changing the culture; ie. it wasn’t changing people’s behaviour and reducing speeds. Member of the public Martin Lucas-Smith spoke to say that he hoped it was obvious to councillors that sixteen hours of enforcement wasn’t going to be enough to effect a culture change.
Martin Lucas-Smith urged councillors to consider the risk of harm which would potentially arise from the various matters which had been suggested for special attention as police priorities. He suggested councillors consider the potential harm a cyclist, labelled by the police and council as anti-social, cycling slowly the wrong way down one of the city centre’s one way streets compared with the harm a dangerously speeding driver could do to a cyclist. He said that while both the cyclist going the wrong way and the speeding driver needed to be tackled, police effort and priorities ought reflect the relative risks, and danger to others, resulting from by the actions and the potential danger to others was greater in the case of the speeding driver.
Police Chief Inspector Sloan, a more senior officer than the police usually send to area committee meetings, said that the police were committed to road safety, and pointed to the fact they had carried out enforcement, including issuing a ticket to someone driving at 24mph in the city. The Chief Inspector said: “while signage of the limits may well be legal there is a need to look at if it is impactful enough”.
Cllr Reiner said councillors had recognised the signage on Maids Causeway is not adequate and so had put money towards improvements.
Member of the public James Woodburn contrasted the attitudes of the police in Cambridge towards 20mph enforcement with those in “the other place” (Oxford). He read out a quote from a police superintendent in Oxford and requested police enforcement in Cambridge along the lines of that seen in Oxford and Portsmouth.
Cllr Nesthinga explained her vote in favour of the 20mph limit priority remaining saying she thought having her mobile phone stolen would be an inconvenience, but a much lesser inconvenience than being involved in a collision with a speeding motor vehicle.
Cllr Rosensteil spoke on a slightly tangential subject, justifying the 20 mph limit on Maid’s Causeway. He said the road was effectively an access road to the 20 mph limited streets in the city centre. This isn’t how I usually use it when driving, I use it to connect Mitcham’s Corner with the Elizabeth Way / Newmarket Road roundabout, I use it as a route for getting around the city; and it appears to me much traffic is doing the same, going between Maids Causeway and Victoria Avenue.
Cllr Hipkin spoke against the whole idea of democratically set police priorities; he said he saw them as impinging on the operational independence of the police. I disagree strongly with this, as setting priorities is a strategic matter, and is a world away from meddling with operational decisions. Cllr Hipkin also noted that unenforced laws are bad laws, I agree strongly with this, as particularly where law breaking is widespread this gives the police huge power, with the potential for abuse, as they can select some people to take action against even though their behaviour is in-line with the majority.
The police were asked what contact they had with bus and taxi companies in relation to speeding. Chief Inspector Sloan replied the police had identified a “specific training issue” with bus drivers.
Cllr Smith recalled the three “Es” she said the police had referred to when they last attended the West/Central Area committee. Environment, Education and Enforcement. Cllr Smith appeared to argue the latter point of enforcement was critical, but did not vote to retain the enforcement priority, she suggested focusing on enforcement when the new signage on Maids Causeway was put up.
Member of the public Mr Cearns said that he was concerned about the message being sent out by the police saying they were not prepared to enforce the 20 mph limits, and the message which would go out if councillors dropped the priority as the police requested.
Cllr Whitebread questioned the value of the priority setting process, and said she found making decisions difficult. Cllr Whitebread said she wanted more information to put the 16 hours spent on enforcement into context, such as the total time spent policing the West/Central area in the three/four month period.
Police Sgt Andrea Gilbert said that only when the police found themselves with spare time or spare officers did they “go for the priorites”.
County Councillor Whitebread said she hoped the new signage on Maids Causeway and Newmarket Road could be in place by the end of the year, but said she wasn’t confident because the County Council are involved.
Member of the public Hugh Kellet noted the strength of debate on social media relating to 20 mph enforcement, on both sides; he argued that the police’s position was not helpful.
The only people initially to be invited to the secret meeting to decide on the details of the new signs for Maids Causeway and Newmarket Road were to be residents of the affected streets, councillors, and the police. A representative of the Cambridge Cycling Campaign spoke to complain about the exclusive nature of the meeting and asked that the Cycling Campaign also be invited. The West Central Area Committee chair, Cllr Reiner stated this request would be “noted” though neither she, nor the committee as a whole, accepted it. Speaking to me after the West Central Area Committee Cllr Whitebread told me that residents Mr Lawton and Mr Kellet would probably attend along with ward councillors, she explained she didn’t want it to be a public meeting because if it was fifty people might attend and make it harder for a decision to be made. It appears the secret meeting will be a final decision making meeting, as the area committee was told no formal Traffic Regulation Order consultation is required for the new signs, and the area committee has already approved the funds, and delegated the details to officers. I think that decisions such as those relating to these signs ought be made by councillors, in public, for example at the area committee meeting. As it is the proposed secret meeting excludes, many people, like me who don’t live on the road but who regularly drive, cycle and walk along and across it.
Councillors decided on priorities of “Anti-social cycling”, “Aggressive street life people on Fair Street”, and “Parking issues impacting fire engine access to streets”.
If I had been a councillor setting the priorities I would have proposed, and voted for, a road safety priority, though not one focused on enforcement of the 20 mph limits.
I have expanded on my views on the subject of 20 mph enforcement in my article on the April 2012 West/Central Area Committee meeting where the police first raised their reluctance to enforce the 20 mph limit in Cambridge.
I want to see the roads of Cambridge made as safe as possible, particularly for cyclists and pedestrians. We need to do more to encourage cycling and walking around as the city expands, and safety is a key part of that. Councillors cannot just stick up 20 mph signs and expect the police, through enforcement, to reduce speeds and make the roads safer. I agree with the police that enforcement cannot be a primary means of reducing speeds, that’s not practically and economically sustainable, long term improvements to safety have to be achieved by changes to the road environment. 20mph limits and the associated signs can be part of, but in my view not the only elements, of such road environment changes.
Given the current quality of signage, and the road environment, at Maids Causeway I don’t think it is appropriate for a 20 mph limit. That the signage is poor is a view I don’t think anyone has publicly opposed.
In the case of Maids Causeway I think giving the road adjacent to the common a “park road” appearance and feel would help slow traffic, particularly in the area of the very busy crossing to Fair Street; and further up towards the Elizabeth Way roundabout features such as cobble strips, raised areas of road, coloured road surfaces etc. could be used to make clear the road is not a main through route and careful driving is required.
In respect of policing I would rather see PCs rather than PCSOs patrolling the city so that those patrolling have the powers required to take action against careless and dangerous drivers; I think the focus ought be more on the risk / danger caused rather than simply the speed alone in isolation.
If the person stopped by the police for doing 24 mph was driving in a safe manner, on a road which is poorly signed as 20 mph, and has been safely a 30mph limit for decades, I would feel sympathy for them; especially as the consequences may be extreme, the loss of freedom to get around, and potentially the loss of a livelihood if the action has led to the loss of a driving licence under the totting up of points system.