A few years ago, one of those ubiquitous (and rather pointless) surveys asked the public to name the ten most hated jobs in the country. Surprisingly, politicians only came ninth. Topping the list, instead, was a much more maligned profession: the traffic warden. Some of us have the privilege of almost combining multiple roles in the top ten. As the Councillor who looks after transport and parking policy for Westminster Council, I am one of those lucky people.
The job of a Council is to keep streets clean, safe and, vitally, moving. For Westminster, that challenge is huge. Packed into just eight square miles are 250,000 residents, almost 40,000 businesses and a daytime population of 1.1m people. Although many use public transport, you can imagine the almost unique pressure on our road network, much of which was built before the arrival of the motor car.
And that job is predicted to only get harder. The number of cars on the UK’s streets has risen by seven million in the last fifteen years and is expected to increase by another four million by 2035. Delays are expected to double. Only this week a survey estimated over 100 million man hours were lost each year due to traffic jams.
The way in which we use our streets is also changing. London’s West End is as busy on a Sunday as it is in the week. Some central London streets have 10pm rush hours.
Amidst all of this change, the challenge for our party is what to do about road congestion. We are rightly pro-motorist and pro-business. But we only have sit in a traffic jam to recognize there is an issue on parts of the road network.
If you have a congestion problem, the choice is pretty simple – increase supply or manage usage. As someone sceptical about regulation, I naturally prefer option one. That clearly works for some roads, like the M1, where there is space to add a fourth lane. Unfortunately, we can’t apply the same logic in central London; widening Regent Street would put a length of tarmac right through Hamleys, Liberty and Zara.
We are left, then, with the unappetising job of deciding when demand is sufficiently high to change the rules. Recently in Westminster we grasped that nettle. After a year of research and consultation, we are changing parking restrictions for the busiest quarter of the city to better match when people are actually using the streets, including in the evening and on Sundays. We hope it will improve traffic flow and, in time, make the city a more pleasant place to live, work and visit.
Making any kind of change to parking rules will certainly not win any popularity contests. We are not making this change because we want to but, rather, because it is necessary to keep our city moving. Whilst other Councils made changes years ago, we hoped congestion might resolve itself. Unfortunately, it hasn’t. It is a responsible Council that accepts, when other approaches haven’t worked, some change may be required to safeguard the city for the future.
Quite a number of residents in this small area have welcomed the changes in the hope they will improve their quality of life. We’ve protected free evening and Sunday parking for the vast majority of the borough as today, where there isn’t a problem. We are exempting disabled people from the changes because we know we mustn’t exclude them from the heart of the capital. We’ve negotiated cheap deals with local car parks for night workers. We’ve kept Sunday mornings unregulated to allow people to still go to church. And, we will closely monitor the results of this change and, if necessary, make amendments where problems are caused.
This kind of issue throws up a real question for Conservatives. It is easy, of course, to fall back on the usual criticisms about over-regulation and money making. Objectively, however, demand is rising and some parts of the road network simply won’t be able to cope in the future. So, what is our party’s answer? To do nothing and slowly watch the death of our transportation system under the sheer weight of traffic? Or to be willing to take difficult decisions and realize that traffic controls are a necessary evil to prevent congestion? One thing that is often forgotten in this highly-charged debate: there is nothing – absolutely nothing – pro-motorist or pro-business about gridlock.