What’s the best London film?

A film camera outside the Round House, Camden, 1970. Image: Getty.

Last year my wife and I moved house. Once we had moved in, I quickly turned to the obvious top priority – a man cave. I identified the room I wanted – even now my wife mistakenly refers to it as “the end room” – and decided to put some framed film posters on the walls. As a Brit abroad, I felt that some of them needed to be from the motherland.

I quickly realized that several of my favourite British films have strong associations with cities and metro areas. Get Carter (Tyneside), 24-Hour Party People (Greater Manchester) and The Full Monty (Sheffield). The first of these was especially important to me, as I’d lived in Newcastle for four years. But what about other places I had lived such as Liverpool and London – what were their city films?

Clearly films can be important for people to remember places they grew up or have spent time studying or working – it’s fun to recognize streets, buildings and spaces, especially if positive memories are attached to them. As an urbanist, I’m also just interested in how all cities look and what their issues and stories might be.

I couldn’t find a good list of city films online so began compiling my own in the hope of finding some gems that I, and hopefully you, might enjoy.

Finding the films

For each UK region, I looked for films claimed for each city in articles, and at Internet Movie Database (IMDb) lists for films from these same cities. I also restricted the list to films released in the last 60 years, which have an IMDb ranking of 6.5 or more and at least 100 votes to reach that (average) score. This maybe missed a few gems – but it also excluded some that, judging from the trailers, were so bad that even I could have been the male lead.

From these I opted to retain only films for which at least half of locations were in or around a city. To identify locations there were several key resources: IMDb, Reel Streets and Movie Locations being by far the best. ‘Period pieces’ were included if set within the timeframe being considered, and futuristic ones where locations weren’t greatly altered.

Scoring the films

I did try a crude scoring system to make sure I was judging films with clear and consistent criteria. I awarded a point and an additional point for every 5 shooting locations. I would also ‘round up’ – e.g. if a film had, say 18 or 19 locations, I would call it 20. Where the exact number of locations was not clear, I awarded a point if there was supporting evidence to suggest that a good number of local scenes featured.

Then there’s plot. Does it refer to part of a city’s culture or history? I excluded films that were about a specific city’s story but filmed elsewhere. I gave 1 point for a story that showed off something about a key aspect of a city and 2 for a true story.

There’s talent too. Do the director, screenwriter(s) and one or more of the film’s stars have strong connections to the area in question? I gave a point per person and, in the case of writer-directors and writer-stars, for each role.

I also included a category of other that included local investment; dialect; film crew; film premiere; extras and ‘non-star’ local talent; and composition/performance of the film music. Each of these attracted a point.

I should stress that this whole exercise really is just a bit of fun, using imperfect data and a method that owes much more to art than science. I won’t present all of the film scores, as it gets away from the aim of sharing ‘city films’, but I will sign off with the three highest scoring ones at the end of each blog and you can find a link to the complete list at the end.

So, without further ado, here are the London films, focusing most on those with a local story.

North London

Life Is Sweet (1990), about a working-class North London family, was shot in Enfield and used locals as extras including an Enfield-based dance school. I would have happily exchanged more Enfield shots for the two characters ‘proving’ their North London-ness by twice drunkenly recounting all players in Spurs’ 1961 Double-Winning team. Director Mike Leigh and his then wife Alison Steadman, one of the film’s stars, had just a short daily trip from their Wood Green (Haringey) home.

Riff-Raff (1991) looks at a team converting the old Prince of Wales Hospital in Tottenham (Haringey) into up-market flats. The film is kinda London-ey in that so many of the workers have come from far and wide (Belfast, Liverpool, Glasgow and the West Indies). The construction credentials of its writer and actors, notably the legendary Ricky Tomlinson, are impeccable too.

About a Boy (2002), specifically a boy who helps a wealthy man to mature and take responsibility. It has no great local links but does see lots of shots of Clerkenwell (Islington) and Kentish Town (Camden). Hugh Grant is shorn of that ridiculous fop hair and Nicholas Hoult was still a somewhat unusual looking child – i.e. before he annoyingly then became taller and better looking than me and started going out and, ahem, staying in, with Jennifer Lawrence.

Shaun of the Dead (2004), a romantic comedy about zombies (yep, a rom-zom-com) was conceived by writer-director Edgar Wright and writer-star Simon Pegg when both were living in north London. Pegg lived in Crouch End (Haringey), where much of the film was shot and whose residents, some with a little make-up, provided many of the Zombie extras. Despite being offered cheaper shooting locations, Wright and Pegg wanted their ‘Mike Leigh-type setting’ or nothing. Fans of the film apparently still go to Weston Park Grocery Store in Crouch End to buy Cornetto ice creams (as done by Pegg’s character).

Somers Town (2008) follows two teenage boys – one of whom is the son of a Polish immigrant working at the new Eurostar terminal at St Pancras (Camden). The film was funded by Eurostar to show off the regenerated area. The director refused corporate interference but the kids’ trip to Paris, using free tickets from the Polish father, that actual workers don’t get, sounds a tad dodgy.

London River (2009) is, despite the name, almost all filmed in Finsbury Park and Harringay (both in Haringey). It covers arguably the most important event in recent London history: the 7/7 (2005) suicide bombings on London public transport. Specifically, it is about a (Christian) British mother and a (Muslim) Malian father searching for their missing adult children in the period after the bombings. I haven’t seen it but love some of the (French) director, Rachid Bouchareb‘s other work.

East London

I’d seen To Sir, With Love (1967) years ago but never knew that it is based on the true experiences of E. R. Braithwaite – a bright and all-round interesting British Guyanese guy, who took up a teaching job in a post-war East End school. In the film he’s played by the legendary Sidney (now Sir Sidney) Poitier.

Bronco Bullfrog (1970), filmed around Stratford (Newham), was largely improvised by teenagers who had been recruited off the local streets by Joan Littlewood's famous Theatre Workshop. The actors came up with the plot – about their lives and a guy they knew who had broken out of Borstal. The film also profiled the emerging Suedehead subculture. Apparently, none of the kids ever acted again and the actor who played Bronco was last heard of in 2016 as a porter at Spitalfields Market.

Villain (1971) is modelled on Bethnal Green (Tower Hamlets) gangster Ronnie Kray, although it was shot at numerous locations around London. He and twin, Reggie, were also portrayed in The Krays (1990) and Legend (2015), and, again, film shooting often strayed from the East End.

The Long Good Friday (1980) is about a gangster seeking to redevelop London Docklands. Writer Barrie Keeffe, born and educated in East Ham, met gangsters whilst working as a local reporter in the 1960s (some of whom had parts in the film) and in the 70s heard rumors about Docklands redevelopment from local councillors. Two scenes even come directly from Keeffe’s life – one being his hospital interview of a man who had been nailed to a warehouse floor (but stoically described it as “DIY gone wrong”). To research his lead gangster role, Bob Hoskins met real London villains and, for his performance, received praise from Ronnie Kray – you can’t ask for more than that. The female lead, Helen Mirren, had an uncle who had been a pre-Kray era east end gangster.

Meantime (1983), about a working-class family and their unemployed sons, has no great local story but offers lot of shots in and around council estates in Haggerston (Hackney) where much of it was filmed. It’s also good to see the Regent's Canal on screen. The eastern ‘burbs figure too – the Redbridge-Essex border where the family has “successful” relatives.

Bullet Boy (2004), about gun culture, takes its title from a Hackney Gazette headline and is filmed in that borough, including shots of the Marshes. Residents were employed as extras and local homes were used as locations. The director and co-writer, Saul Dibb (a former Hackney resident), interviewed Dalston teenagers as part of his research. Writer Catherine Johnson, who worked with Dibb on the script, has also lived in and around Hackney for most of her life. Ironically, the star, Ashley Walters, first read the script in a Young Offenders' Institute – following his arrest and conviction for possessing a firearm.

It’s good to know some context about Brick Lane (2007). Probably the most location-controversial film on the list, this is a tale about a woman, born in East Pakistan (soon to become Bangladesh), who had come to London in the 1980s following an arranged marriage. Monica Ali, who wrote the book and co-wrote the screenplay, was also born in East Pakistan and came to Britain aged three. The film nicely illustrates why films matter to those who live there – questions were raised by some locals about how they were portrayed which meant that, in the end, no filming took place in the Lane (Tower Hamlets).

Made in Dagenham (2010), is about the true story of female workers at the Ford car plant striking in 1968 to protest sexual discrimination. It is perhaps unsurprising that the producer, Elizabeth Karlsen, has been amongst the most vocal critics of Harvey Weinstein and other leading male figures in the film industry, following recent allegations of criminal and inappropriate behaviour.

iLL Manors (2012), a crime drama, is set in Forest Gate (Newham) and was written, directed and co-scored by Ben Drew (aka rapper Plan B) who was born and raised locally. Local footage is good – for example, the Olympic Stadium and Park can be seen rising in the background. The script was partly based on actual events and stories Drew had heard growing up. The Film London Microwave scheme provided finance. Amongst the actors hired were young unknown locals, such as Ryan De La Cruz who was discovered when the crew visited Rokeby School in Canning Town. First-time actor Lee Allen is terrific in this – part of his wider success in turning his life around.

My Brother the Devil (2012), is about two teenage brothers, one of whom is gay, in Hackney. The brothers are British-born but of Egyptian parents. Writer-Director, Sally El Hosaini, is of Welsh and Egyptian parentage and has lived on a Hackney estate for ten years. The film was mainly shot around the New Gascoigne estate and would have been even more local had some violent scenes not had to be moved indoors due to a filming ban following the 2011 London riots. Many locals became extras and one served as the fixer.

Lilting (2014) is also a gay film (London dominates this genre) although is also the only London example of a quality British-Chinese film. It is about a young man meeting the Mandarin-speaking mother of his recently deceased British Chinese boyfriend. The film is mainly shot in Hackney where the Cambodian-British Writer-Director Hong Khaou and the star, Ben Wishaw, both have homes. Like Meantime, it too makes use of Regent's Canal for shooting. Khaou’s early filmmaking benefited from the Tower Hamlets and Hackney Film Fund and, like iLL Manors, this was financed from Film London Microwave.

South London

Up the Junction (1968) depicted contemporary life in the poor and industrial parts of Battersea and Clapham Junction (both Wandsworth). The film is based on the semi-autobiographical stories of Nell Dunn, a woman from an upper-class background, who in 1959 had moved to Battersea and made friends in the neighbourhood and worked for a time in a sweet factory – essentially this is the plot for the film too. The film also inspired a classic 1979 tune by south east London band Squeeze.

A couple of Anthony Simmons-directed films show off the industrial riverside - Four in the Morning (1965), about couples in a crisis, and The Optimists of Nine Elms (1973), about an ageing street busker befriended by two children. The girl was recruited by the location scouts while she was walking home from school – a practice I suspect would be extremely unlikely nowadays.

Simmons also directed Black Joy (1977), about a young guy from rural Guyana, newly arrived in Brixton (Lambeth). It was co-written by Guyanese-born Jamal Ali who had moved to London in 1960 and gone on to lead the Black Theatre of Brixton. One of the theatre’s other leaders, Norman Beaton (the Desmond's guy!), was one of the film’s stars – almost all of whom were first-, or second-generation immigrants from the Caribbean, including (now Baroness) Floella Benjamin.

Babylon (1980), filmed in pre-New Cross Fire Lewisham and pre-uprising Brixton, depicts the struggles of a black British, working-class, sound system DJ. The writer-director and co-writer got their film idea supervising local kids playing their sound systems at Deptford’s Albany Theatre. The film features London-based reggae musicians and has local kids as extras in the ‘sound clash’ scenes – one of which is based upon a real-life police raid of a sound clash at which the guy who scored the film had played. It’s a good film and the soundtrack is terrific.

My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) is about two young guys, one white British and one a Brit of Pakistani origin, who start a relationship and open a glamorous laundromat in Vauxhall (Lambeth). The film has a strong London-based British Asian film cast and was the break-out film for Daniel Day-Lewis who had a south-London upbringing.

The Firm (1989), about organized soccer violence is arguably the classic of its genre – I remember being shocked when I saw it back then. The nineties and noughties threw up more such films, all filmed across London: I.D. (1995) was based on a true story of undercover police attached to a ‘firm’. The Football Factory (2004) and Green Street (2005) followed later.

Beautiful Thing (1996) is about a romance between two teenage boys on the Thamesmead council estate (Greenwich and Bexley). The film is based on a play of the same name written by a teacher at a school near said estate. The writer, born and raised in Liverpool, claimed that his teaching role gave him “the skills to make the way the characters communicate realistic”.

Nil by Mouth (1997) portrays a working-class South-East London family. Much of the film was shot on the now-demolished Ferrier Estate in Kidbrooke (Greenwich). It was written and directed by Gary Oldman – New Cross-born and raised – and depicts the environment he witnessed whilst growing up. Oldman's sister has a lead role and his mother voices a song.

Johnny Cash should have sung about a boy named Carol. I was unable to find where in London it was filmed but Cass (2008) is about the true story of Carol ‘Cass’ Pennant: a Barnardo’s baby of Jamaican parentage adopted in 1958 by an elderly white couple and brought up in all-white Slade Green (now Bexley). The tale goes on to outline how he: was bullied; participated in football hooliganism; was imprisoned; and then, now living in Penge (Bromley), atoned through starting a security firm and writing a book about his escapades.

Harry Brown (2009), about an elderly vigilante, offers good coverage of the (now-demolished) Heygate Estate in Walworth (Southwark) and its surrounding area. The estate was very near to where its star, Michael Caine, grew up. It was watchable but seemed to offer little hope that redemption might be possible for young thugs.

Attack the Block (2011) is about aliens attacking a housing estate (billed as “Inner City vs. Outer Space”). Most of the filming was done on the afore-mentioned Heygate Estate. Writer-Director Joe Cornish was a long-time resident of nearby Stockwell and his mugging by a local teen gang gave him an idea for what would become the film’s opening scene. He also interviewed hundreds of kids in local youth groups about the film concept. One of the lead actors, John Boyega, had come to the film through Theatre Peckham and was on his way to Star Wars stardom. I really like the idea of an estate-based film that isn’t ‘gritty’ – a sentiment some estate residents seem to share.

Common People (2013) sounds like another gem. Filmed entirely on Tooting Common (Wandsworth), it came about when its two co-directors, who have lived next to the common for over a decade, saw a sign about a missing parrot - followed by one a few weeks later thanking lots of people who helped to find it. They wrote a screenplay based on this true story and ran through lines with actors above a Balham pub.

West London

10 Rillington Place (1971) is a true story, about serial killer John Christie. Maybe not a family film then.

Pressure (1976) is the first British feature directed by a black Briton, Horace Ové. The film, co-written by Ové and Samuel Selvon, looks at tensions between first- and second-generation West Indian migrants in the Ladbroke Grove part of Notting Hill (Kensington and Chelsea) and at police brutality. It was shot on the streets so any ‘extras’ were genuine passers-by. Ové and Selvon were both immigrants who had come to London, as adults, from Trinidad.

Notting Hill (1999), portrays a slightly different area to Pressure. Although the area was home to its screenplay writer, Richard Curtis, what I didn’t know is that, to secure filming permission, the location manager wrote to thousands of residents, promising to donate to each person's favourite charity. Some 200 charities received money. Local charity, Notting Hill Housing Trust, also shared receipts from the premiere, £90k, with Comic Relief and staff were invited to a showing at a local cinema.

Moonlighting (1982) is about a Polish contractor who leads a group of workmen to London so that they can provide cheap labor for a government official based there. Most of the movie was made at the Kensington home of the Director, Jerzy Skolimowski, himself a Pole living in London. Skolimowski’s house was being renovated at the time and three of the Polish builders seen in the film worked on it. Now that is innovative film-making on a budget (or being a bit tight).

Scandal (1989), is another true story, about the early 1960s Profumo Affair. More a national/international event really.

Bend It Like Beckham (2002) is about a woman pursuing something she loves in the face of pressure from her Sikh immigrant parents. The film wasdDirected and co-written by Gurinder Chadha and draws on her own experience of being both Indian and English. The film is set in Hounslow and filmed mainly in West London (Hounslow and Southall) where Chadha grew up. She claims the plot is much like her relationship with her father. One of the female stars also spent a lot of time hanging out in West London with girls like her character. I had done household interviews in Hounslow just a few years earlier and it felt authentic.

Provoked (2006) offers a slightly less cheery tale. It is the true story of Kiranjit Ahluwalia, a Punjabi woman, who married a British Asian in an arranged marriage and moved to Southall (Ealing) to be near his family. After he subjects her to years of abuse, she snaps, kills him and is jailed. Her cause then gets taken up by Southall Black Sisters, a local Asian womens’ nonprofit. It was interesting to read about this but it’s largely a Bollywood effort starring Aishwarya Rai and seems to show little of London.

Kidulthood (2006) is a day in the life of several teenagers in Ladbroke Grove and Latimer Road (both Kensington and Chelsea). Writer-star Noel Clarke grew up there and claims that the plot was mostly things that had happened to him and friends or people he had encountered. Two of the stars were recruited at local colleges. The film’s success also helped kick off a West London film distributor that then developed its own production arm. Backing music was almost all by young London artists – listening to the soundtrack of such London ‘Hood’ movies is a great way for middle-aged men to learn about rap, grime and garage, I imagine.

Central London

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), about a Daily Express journalist reporting on atomic testing gone wrong, features the real Daily Express Building in Fleet Street (Westminster), when the street was still the key location for newspapers, and has the then real-life editor playing the editor.

The Small World of Sammy Lee (1963), about a Jewish strip-club compere who owes money to a gangster, shows much of early 1960s Soho (Westminster). The film was not autobiographical but the writer-director, Ken Hughes was “something of a hipster as a young man, with a fondness for jazz and lowlife Soho bars”. Soho was where the main post-war jazz clubs were located so it was fitting that the film’s score was by leading London jazz musician Kenny Graham. The film also shows a slice of Jewish London.

Frenzy (1972), about a serial killer, includes lots of shots of central London – most of the film takes place in Covent Garden. The director, Alfred Hitchcock, was the son of a Covent Garden merchant (nope, I never knew that either), and filmed several key scenes showing the fruit and veg. wholesale market. He knew that the market might soon close or relocate and sought to record it as he remembered it.

84 Charing Cross Road (1987) profiles the area of the capital known for its bookshops, Charing Cross Road (Westminster). The film, based on a true story, is about a longstanding correspondence involving a lady in New York and a now-closed antiquarian bookshop (Marks & Co) whose staff tracked down many of the titles she sought. Trivia lovers may be interested to learn that the owner’s son, Leo Marks, had based some of the characters of his screenplay for Peeping Tom (1960) on customers of the store.

Dirty Pretty Things (2002), focuses on documented and undocumented immigrants who use or work in a London hotel. It is about the (often nocturnal) underbelly of London’s economic success and features a Nigerian night porter, a Turkish chambermaid, a Spanish manager, a prostitute, and assorted cab drivers. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the Nigerian: London born and raised, he mimicked his parents’ Nigerian accent for the role.

Forget Me Not (2010) sounds as though it aspires to be Britain’s answer to Richard Linklater’s great Before trilogy. Specifically, it is about a musician who performs in a pub and saves a barmaid from a drunken customer at closing time. The two then stay up all night and wander through central London as they chat – the Thames seems to figure prominently.

Lost in London (2017), is based on a real late night in the life of American Writer-Director, Woody Harrelson, that saw him arrested by the Metropolitan Police’s finest. It was shot across 14 central London locations – the novelty being that it was all done in one live take and beamed directly to 500 cinemas in the U.S.

London (General)

Most challenging of the films that show various locations across the capital are two ground-breaking collaborations by director Basil Dearden and writer Janet Green.

Sapphire (1959), released just a year after the Notting Hill race riots and eleven years after Empire Windrush docked, is a murder-mystery focused on often racist attitudes to black immigrants. The film, which focuses on a body found on Hampstead Heath (Camden) includes a handful of talented actors who had moved to London from Commonwealth countries. I liked it a lot and it remains, alas, timely.

Victim (1961), is about gay men being blackmailed in the pre-Wolfenden era. The Salisbury, Covent Garden (then a gay-friendly pub) features, and the subject matter was close to some of the cast’s hearts.

A couple of 1960s films also show Swinging London in all its glory. Blowup (1966) is about a photographer, partly based on David Bailey, who discovers what appears to be a body on a photo he took in a park. The photographer also visits a club where London band The Yardbirds just happen to be performing. Then there’s Georgy Girl (1966), about an innocent young woman who is preyed on by her father's older employer and her flat-mate’s young lover.

A decade on and punk rock had emerged – captured, albeit abysmally, in The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle (1980) a mockumentary about the rise and fall of The Sex Pistols, formed in London in 1975. Director Julien Temple redeemed himself with the excellent documentary London: The Modern Babylon (2012).

In conclusion

I did say that I was scoring the films – and I was, all 141 of them for London. So, we can, very tentatively, say that the ‘most London film’ is (drum roll, fumbled opening of golden envelope), with 19 points, Babylon, closely followed by The Long Good Friday (16) and Sapphire (15).

More important than any individual film is that, collectively, all of the films reveal a great deal about post-war London: immigration from the Commonwealth, Europe and elsewhere; shifting race and gender relations; organised crime and gun culture; construction of large council housing estates (several now demolished); industrial districts (some of which have moved); development and regeneration (including the shift east to Docklands and the Olympics site); the ever-important Thames, canals and London Underground (even if it is often the closed Aldwych station that is featured); the importance of great parks and open space; new forms of music and fashion; shifting youth culture; the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty; changing personal and sexual relationships; and, alas, terrorism.

So, well done for getting this far – you’ve kinda done the film equivalent of The Knowledge. You can see the complete list of London films, complete with scores, brief descriptions, director names and IMDb hyperlinks, by clicking here and, if you think I’ve missed something important, please feel free to let me know.

The next blog will look at the best city films from the South, Midlands and East Anglia.

The author, a Brit based in Washington DC, is founder of The New Barn-Raising a project to promote international exchange on ways to sustain parks, libraries, museums and other community and civic assets. You can find him on Twitter at @newbarnraising.


Why is it acceptable to kill someone? On the mysterious history of Britain’s road death toll

A London speed camera, 2004. Image: Getty.

A decade ago I became fascinated by a graph. This one:

I had been tracking the underlining data for years. The figures were easy to remember. Every year it was 3,500, plus or minus a percentage point or two.

Yet when the 2008 data was released, it had fallen to 2,538. This was 1,000 less than the figure in 2003. I plotted the above graph, and as I said, I became fascinated.

Because this is a really important graph. This is a plot of the number of people killed on Britain’s roads each year.

In Great Britain, collectively, we used to kill nearly 3,500 people on our roads every year. Consistently or, dare I say it, boringly: 3,500 deaths a year, 10 a day. It was accepted, in a, “Well yes it’s bad, but what can you do about it” kind of way. There was no clamour for change. Newspapers weren’t running headlines about the deaths mounting up, as they do with knife crime.

Meanwhile a train crash would be front page news for a week. Take the train that derailed at Hatfield on 17 October 2000, a tragedy in which 4 people died. That led to huge media interest, massive upheaval on the railways, and, ultimately, as the re-nationalisation of Railtrack, whose failings had caused the crash. Yet more than twice as many people will have died on the roads that day. Nothing was written about those deaths. Nothing changed.

In 2000, four people died in train crashes, while 3,409 died on the roads.

Here are those figures again.

1997 – 3,599 people killed on our roads

1998 – 3,422

1999 – 3,423

2000 – 3,409

2001 – 3,450

2002 – 3,431

2003 – 3508

But, in 2004 the figure dropped below 3,400 for the first time, to 3,221. Then in 2005 to 3,201.

2006 – 3,172

2007 – 2,946

Below 3,000! This was change. Significant change: 500 lives a year were not being lost. If you use Britain’s roads, your life may have been one of them.

2008 – 2,538

2009 – 2,222

When the 2010 figures came out I was amazed by the headline figure: 1,857.

That’s still far too high, of course, but it was 1,701 lower than seven years earlier.

This was a major story that deserved a ton of coverage, which it failed to get. Having shown no concern for when we were killing 3,500 people, it wasn’t overly surprising that the fact we were now killing 1,700 fewer wasn’t celebrated.

At any rate, the graph had flat-lined for years, then, in half a dozen years, it halved. Why?

The lack of media coverage resulted in an absence of answers. One commentator, Christian Woolmar, observed that there was no clear answer to why this had happened. But he went on to point out that there had been a fall in the average road speed over this period.

My anticipation of the 2011 figures troubled me, because I expected them to go up. Obviously I didn’t want them to: I desperately want zero deaths on our roads. But something happened in 2010 that I was sure would lead to more fatalities and bring a halt to the falling trend.

I was right. In 2011 we killed 1,901.

Sometimes, being right is shit.

The news was better in 2012. The fatality rate was 1,754. So was the 2011 figure just a blip, due to some significant snowfalls that year? No: the trend was over.

The number of people killed on our roads has remained stuck in the 17 hundreds. 

2013 – 1,713

2014 – 1,775

2015 – 1,732

2016 – 1,792

2017 – 1,793

2018 – 1,782

We have returned to a flatline on the graph – and if anything, I’m more fascinated now than I was before. Road deaths flatlined at 3,500 for years, then fell sharply, then flatlined again at half the rate.

This can’t have happened by accident. I wished I could explain it. I wish we could repeat it. No: I wish the second flatline hadn’t happened, and the fall had continued. If the rate of fall had continued, we’d have reached zero deaths on the road by now. You’d be right to question whether this is possible – but if you can half the number in a few years, why can’t we eradicate them altogether? The railways are an example of what is possible. The last time a passenger died in a train crash on Britain’s railways was in 2007.

It was time to figure out the answers to two questions. Why did the death toll fall? And why did it stop falling?

The obvious reason for a reduction in deaths on the road is the improvement in car safety features. This could create a gradual fall in the death toll as new, safer cars replaced older ones. But I’m not sure it can explain a 40 per cent fall over a 4 year period.

There’s a way to check whether cars on the road became almost twice as safe between 2003 and 2010: you can compare the figures with the rest of the EU. Car safety features are international, and any new feature would have appeared around the same time across the continent.

So I found the EU figures for 2000 to 2017, indexed for 2000 and plotted the graph for multiple countries. It was a busy graph. For clarity the following graph only includes Britain, Germany, France, Spain and Italy along with a straight line drop for comparison.

The good news is that things are improving across Europe – but no country had quite the same trajectory as Britain. They all have a fall much closer to a straight line of the sort you’d expect a general improvement in car safety would produce.

One thing I did notice is that, from 2013, these five countries stop falling. The technology based solutions of recent years, such as automatic emergency braking, don’t appear to be saving lives as of yet.

So, yes, cars are safer – but that doesn’t seem to explain why British roads suddenly became 40 per cent safer between 2006 and 2010.

In 1999, the New Labour government announced that it was going to reduce deaths on our roads. The target was a 50 per cent reduction by 2010. As you now know, it succeeded. This was a major achievement for a government. The kind of thing you would bang on about all the time. “Deaths on our roads halved by Labour!” But the party wasn’t in government when the 2010 figures were released – and it’s hard to take credit for your achievements from the opposition benches.

That it was government policy is not a full explanation, and how this happened is a little opaque. From what I can gather there was a wide ranging approach. The fire and rescue service changed their practices: because they recognised that survival rates were directly dependent on how quickly people got to hospital, this became the priority. Disturbing a police crime scene was allowed if it saved a life. Accident black spots were located, highlighted and safety measures implemented. Throughout that period road safety campaigns focused on speed, with “Speed Kills” being the dominate message for that decade. The government also changed the laws on speed cameras.

RoSPA, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, has a lot to say about speeding and speed cameras. Its “Speed Camera Factsheet” states that, “Cameras are a very effective way of persuading drivers not to speed, and thereby reducing the number of people killed and seriously injured.” It reports that an independent review published by the Department for Transport (DfT) in 2005 said that “cameras significantly reduce speeding and collisions, and cut deaths and serious injuries at camera sites”, adding that cameras sites were delivering 100 fewer deaths per year.

Cameras first appeared in 1991, and revenue from court fines and fixed penalties went to the Exchequer. However in 2000 a trial scheme saw local councils keep the fines to pay for the cost of speed and red-light cameras. The pilot was so successful that, in 2001, legislation enabled this to happen across the country. The cost of providing and operating cameras moved from the local authority to the law breaking motorist.

The golden age of the speed camera had begun.

There was a tweak to this legislation in 2007. Fines reverted back to the Exchequer’s piggy bank. The DfT switched to funding cameras through a road safety grant. The intention was to create a greater mix of road safety measures agreed between local authorities and the police.

The number of people killed on British roads in 2007: 2,946

The number of people killed on British roads in 2010: 1,857

So perhaps the creation of the Road Safety Grant had a significant impact.

The second question: why did the death toll stop falling?

In 2010 I was unaware of Labour’s target to halve deaths on the roads. But, the change in government was enough for me to predict that the fall was over.

When the Tory/Lib Dem government negotiated its way into power in May 2010, the press declared that it was the end of the horrible nanny state – a return to personal freedom, liberty and the rule of common sense.

The way that this was to play out in real practical terms was on our roads. The evil speed camera was in the firing line. The narrative was that these cameras were just there so councils could extract cash from the poor public. Completely ignored were the facts that the fines were only handed down to dangerous, law-breaking drivers, and that councils no longer got the cash from fines.

Soon after the election the coalition government said that “Labour's 13-year war on the motorist is over” and pledged to scrap public funding for speed cameras. The Road Safety Grant to local authorities was cut from £95m to £57m. This meant that the government was now receiving an estimated £40m more raised in fines than it was spending on road safety. The cut to the grant reduced the camera maintenance budget by 27 per cent. It removed all the funding for new cameras, speed humps and other safety measures.

And the golden age ended.

Councils across the country announced their change of policy. Oxfordshire County Council switched off its speed cameras on 1 August 2010. Money was saved; lives were lost.

Eight months later, on 1 April, Oxfordshire’s cameras snapped back into life when the council reversed its decision because deaths on the county’s roads had immediately increased.

Turning off speed cameras sent out the message that we were no longer taking speeding seriously. The road safety campaigns changed their focus. The message that Speed Kills fell away and was replaced by drink- and drug-driving messages. It’s easy to miss that these campaigns move from encompassing virtually every driver to targeting a minority. A switch from confronting a socially acceptable behaviour to re-enforcing something already unacceptable. The state is no longer challenging everyone to be safe – only the small minority of bad people.

Yet speed still kills. The World Health Organisation states that an increase in average speed of 1 km[h typically results in a 3 per cent higher risk of a crash involving injury, with a 4–5 per cent increase for crashes that result in fatalities.
The majority of safety measures installed before 2010 remain in place and are saving lives. But with the funding gone councils are no longer installing new measures and the death toll is no longer falling.

So you can make a strong case that the pattern of road deaths was the result of government policy.

Which begs the question of our government: why has it accepted that it’s OK to kill, or be killed, on our roads?