Councils in the Driving Seat?

LGiU has published a report in partnership with engineering firm SEA looking at the state of traffic regulation and the key successes and challenges around the issue. The findings were highly interesting and suggest that, rather than needing to be constrained or required to report back to the DCLG, local authorities in fact need to be emboldened and empowered to carry out their statutory requirements around traffic regulation and enforcement.

The role of the council as we know it is evolving rapidly. Responding to profound changes to demographics, economies and resources, local authorities are increasingly moving from commissioning and delivering services to ‘curating‘ places and working with communities to ensure their well being and prosperity.

This proactive, preventative role takes many forms, but it nearly always involves bringing together environmental, social and economic considerations.

Traffic flow may seem like a purely technical issue, but in fact it is a vital condition of modern life and an immediate priority for local government. An effective strategy improves mobility, facilitates thriving local economies, protects and improves community safety – especially for vulnerable groups such as children and the elderly – and keeps air pollution down. An ineffective strategy allows the irresponsible and the reckless to disrupt and endanger the law-abiding majority.

Our research takes place against a backdrop of a DCLG consultation on local authority parking which highlights their concern that some local authorities are being over-zealous in their parking enforcement strategies, and are setting parking charges too high in order to raise income: a position that has been set out clearly by the Secretary of State.

Given the prevalence of this sort of rhetoric from central government, it is perhaps unsurprising that one of our key findings is that public unpopularity of enforcement is the most significant difficulty local authorities face in enforcing traffic regulations, with two thirds (66.7%) of respondents stating this is a problem. Rather than an issue of practicality or resourcing, this is an issue around the politics and perception of local authority traffic enforcement. Respondents expressed frustration with the negative portrayal of local authority traffic enforcement in the media, and particularly underlined their frustration with the Department for Communities and Local Government’s negative characterisation of enforcement.

Another of our key findings is that fewer than one in five (19.7%) respondents reported making surplus income on enforcement while for the majority (80.3%) income from enforcement either solely covers the cost of enforcement (50.7%) or doesn’t cover the cost of enforcement at all (29.6%). This contrasts sharply with previous analysis from the RAC Foundation.

The income generated from traffic enforcement is a controversial and often confused issue, which may be in part accounted for by a difference in what people are measuring: whether they are talking about income in relation to on-street enforcement only, or to the entire cost of managing parking in the area.

Our research reflects how seriously local authorities take their responsibility to deliver appropriate, local strategies to protect citizens and facilitate the kind of environment in which they are able to flourish. It is entirely appropriate that they seek to prevent a minority of irresponsible motorists from disrupting and endangering the law-abiding majority. But many feel the current political climate and discourse around traffic management threatens their ability to do this.

Popular discourse around traffic enforcement therefore needs turning on its head. Local authorities need to get better at making this case, and the DCLG needs to avoid interference from the centre and to avoid turning up the temperature on the issue through its public pronouncements.

Democratically-elected councils, who know their areas and the problems unique to their local environment, are far better placed than central government to devise a traffic management strategy to serve their community. Councils need the freedom to implement solutions driven by local circumstances and local conditions.

It is not appropriate or helpful to try and apply a common approach to different communities across the length and breadth of the United Kingdom.

The coalition government has, since 2010, significantly reduced the burden of statutory guidance and regulation upon local authorities, something which has been broadly welcomed across the sector.

On this issue too, they should trust their instincts and stick to the localist principles they espouse.

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