Rishi Sunak’s so-called ‘Plan for Motorists’ – a package of measures expected to be announced at the upcoming Conservative Party conference which will curb the introduction of 20mph speed limits and allow drivers to use bus lanes more frequently – has been criticised by the UK’s leading cycling and walking organisations, who say the proposals will restrict people’s travel choices, “leaving many with one default option: to drive”.
The prime minister’s expected announcement, first reported by the Guardian, marks his latest contentious attempt to win votes by taking an explicit pro-motoring stance, a position first outlined over the summer when Sunak claimed he was “on the side” of drivers and underscored by last week’s highly divisive pledge to water down some of the government’s key net zero commitments, such as the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030.
Sunak’s latest ‘Plan for Motorists’, which is expected to be announced at the Conservative conference on Monday, is reported to include proposals to limit the power of local authorities in England to place new 20mph speed limits on main roads.
Earlier this month, 20mph speed limits were implemented on almost 500km of roads in Wales, with initial analysis suggesting a “dramatic” change in traffic speeds, and a “far more pleasant” and safer environment for cyclists and walkers, while journey times for motorists in Cardiff and Wrexham have increased by 45 and 63 seconds, respectively.
Aside from limiting the power of councils to introduce 20mph limits, the prime minister aims to restrict the number of hours a day that car traffic is banned from bus lanes, while also curbing the ability of local authorities to impose fines from traffic infractions caught by automatic number plate recognition cameras, and on the use of such cameras at box junctions.
Sunak is also expected to raise concerns about 15-minute cities, an urban planning concept devised to enable residents to easily walk or cycle to necessities such as shops, schools, or pharmacies, but which has come under fire in recent months from conspiracy theorists who believe the schemes are part of a plot to restrict movement and infringe upon individual freedoms.
A Department for Transport source, however, has described the policies as “speculation”.
Nevertheless, six of the UK’s leading active travel groups have claimed that the prime minister’s reported ‘Plan for Motorists’ will deny citizens “their choice, health, and freedom”.
According to the CEOs of Cycling UK, British Cycling, Bikeability Trust, Living Streets, Ramblers, and Sustrans, the proposals, instead of giving people real choice over how they live their lives, “ignore possibilities for cheap, reliable, and sustainable travel, leaving many with one default option: to drive”.
The Plan for Motorists, the organisations claim, “strips away opportunities” for families, currently in the midst of a cost of living crisis, to allow their children to walk or cycle to school safely, live healthy lives, and to travel to work or make short journeys cheaply, while also increasing congestion and pollution.
“When the government should be giving people more opportunities to live their lives responsibly, it’s robbing them of options,” a joint statement from the six groups says.
“When Ministers could be promoting public transport, cycling, and walking as cheap sustainable options in a cost of living and climate crisis, they’re entrenching congestion and reliance on driving for short, local journeys.
“When the government could respect people’s freedom to choose how they travel, it’s removing the alternatives. This is a plan that looks no further than one way of travelling and will make the roads worse for those occasions when people do need to drive.
“Having a reliable bus route to work, the freedom to cycle to the park, or to be able to let your children walk to school safely while breathing clean air should not be beyond us.
“This plan restricts people’s travel choices, setting the country on cruise control towards missed net zero targets and a worsening health and inactivity crisis, while denying our children of their independence and freedom to move around their local area safely.”
Last week, Cycling UK argued that Sunak’s “watering down” of the UK’s net zero commitments underlines the need for the public to show their support for green, healthy policies.
The prospect of active travel, as well as environmental, initiatives being dragged onto the campaign trail ahead of the next general election became increasingly likely over the summer, in the wake of the Conservatives’ win at the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election, a narrow victory credited to the Tory opposition to Labour mayor Sadiq Khan’s plans to extend London’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone.
Following that symbolic by-election, Sunak announced that was “on the side” of motorists and ordered the Department for Transport (DfT) to undertake a review of LTNs and traffic-calming measures, prompting Cycling UK to urge the prime minister to avoid sowing dissension between cyclists, pedestrians, and motorists by using the schemes as a “political football” during the election campaign.
Ryan joined road.cc as a news writer in December 2021. He has written about cycling and some ball-centric sports for various websites, newspapers, magazines and radio. Before returning to writing about cycling full-time, he completed a PhD in History and published a book and numerous academic articles on religion and politics in Victorian Britain and Ireland (though he remained committed to boring his university colleagues and students with endless cycling trivia). He can be found riding his bike very slowly through the Dromara Hills of Co. Down.