Wales has taken a step towards Sadiq Khan’s London this week as the long-waited and highly controversial 20mph zones finally came into force on Sunday. With some exceptions, all areas which were once 30mph drop by a third to a maximum of 20mph — a policy seen by many as firmly “anti-driver”.
Most people will tell you they don’t object to 20mph zones around schools, and even in certain areas where our rural villages with their wonky roads don’t lend themselves well to cruising in fourth gear. But this is a policy right across Wales in all residential and built-up areas, unless local authorities have opted certain areas out — and, for the most part, they haven’t.
Ministers claim this is to tackle road safety and air pollution. But the evidence shows that our roads are getting safer. According to the Welsh Government, in 2022, 4,442 people were involved in a road accident. This is down almost a quarter from 2019. Equally, fewer people were killed on the road in 2022 than in 2019 — a drop of almost 15 per cent.
Speeding is a blight, but people aren’t complaning about someone driving at 27mph — it’s those doing 50
Speeding is a blight almost everywhere. But as someone whose inbox is full of complaints, I know they aren’t complaining about people driving at 27mph. Instead, it’s about boy racers travelling at 50 in a 30mph limit, and the nuisance of noisy motorbikes howling through the countryside. So I’m left wondering why a targeted approach couldn’t have been taken, with greater resources and powers given to local authorities and police forces? When I approach bodies like the Trunk Road Agency asking for specific action in certain hotspots, I’m told that funding is the problem. But the Welsh Government was able to find £33 million to fund what it calls “a new normal”.
This week’s new speed limit will only affect those who rely on their cars for work or day-to-day life. Ambulance drivers have queried how they are to reach emergencies while staying within the law. Although blue-light services are permitted to break speed limits in emergency situations, the North Wales Fire Service have expressed concerns that this will result in a delay in attending callouts. Many are questioning logic behind forcing drivers into a higher gear, in order to combat air quality. For the most part, drivers are simply confused. Where there are streetlights, the speed limit is now 20. Except for where it is still 30, for which there ought to be signs. If you can’t see streetlights or signs, you simply have to guess.
With the porous border between Wales and England, visitors are likely to be easily caught out by the change. But traffic problems are not new in Wales. Few can have escaped the crawl through the Brynglas Tunnels — locally known as the Dragon’s Nostrils — which greets visitors and commuters as they arrive from England on the M4, our only motorway. The Welsh Government has ruled out an M4 Relief Road on sustainability grounds. However, the impact of the snarling queue of traffic which builds up on a daily basis has a huge knock-on effect for prosperity. The Welsh Government’s decision to permanently scrap plans to build a new motorway was heavily criticised by the CBI for putting off investment. Businesses proactively opt for England, rather than Wales so as to avoid the queue to get into Wales. This is a daily blight for those living in Newport or Bristol but only ever hits the headlines when London’s media attempts to come to Wales for Six Nations games or Ryder Cup golf.
Those living in city centres, or the South Wales valleys, where a strong network of public transport exists, will not notice the change. But for my part of rural mid-Wales, where cyclists will easily overtake crawling traffic, this is another deliberate step towards slowing down Wales.
Fay Jones is the Conservative MP for Brecon and Radnorshire