The threat of Hexit: could the London Borough of Havering really be about to secede from the capital?

Here we go again. Image: Getty.

It’s easy, when talking about politics, to belittle your opponents: to treat those who disagree with you, not as smart, decent, honourable people who simply happen to hold different views, but as misguided, stupid or, worst of all, evil.

This problem, I suspect, has always been there. But now, in the age of social media and filter bubbles, we can see it happening in real time. Indeed, we can get pulled into it, finding ourselves moved to mock or abuse the other side by nothing more than the desire for the likes or retweets that signal the approval of the in group.

This is a terrible trend that is gradually rotting the body politic from the inside, and I wish I knew how to stop it. Sadly, I don’t. So:

Bloody hell, look at this bunch of fucking muppets. From the Evening Standard:

Havering Council is set to vote on a plan dubbed ‘Hexit’, under which it would seek to renegotiate its relationship with the London Mayor and City Hall.

But the proposal - tabled by Ukip councillor Lawrence Webb - has split opinion in the borough.

Mr Webb said the plan was about “taking control” of the area’s future, but critics argued it could lead to major changes in policing and other emergency services.

Havering, if you’ve never been there, is London’s easternmost borough: a chevron-shaped chunk of suburbia pointing out into Essex, the county from which it was carved and to which it still feels an emotional pull. Its largest town is Romford; it also contains Hornchurch, Upminster and not a great deal else.

It is also, it’s worth noting, London’s whitest borough. In 2013, the population of London was 42 per cent black or minority ethnic. In Havering, it was just 14, which actually makes it slightly whiter than England as a whole (15 per cent). This may go some way to explain the borough’s identity crisis, and the fact that, even after 52 years as part of the capital, many there don’t feel like Londoners.

Much of the city prides itself on its diversity and its openness to people of all races and identities. Havering, though, looks politically much more like the Essex commuter towns to its east. Nearly 70 per cent of its voters opted for Leave in last year’s referendum on Brexit. Of the borough’s 54 councillors, just two are from the Labour party. It’s dwarfed not only by the Tories (22) and UKIP (6), but by three different residents’ associations. The borders of Havering are just eight miles from Hackney. Culturally, though, they’re on different planets.

So. Leaving Greater London would be a sensible idea then, right?

Wrong. It would be a very, very silly one.

Lawrence Webb has form for this kind of embarrassing grandstanding. In January 2016, the UKIP councillor orchestrated another vote, in which Havering voted to leave the European Union. What the point of this was I’m not exactly clear, since London Boroughs are not really allowed to set their own foreign policy, but it clearly made the local UKIP lot feel big, which I guess was the important thing.


(When I wrote about this, incidentally, I was accused on Twitter of being a typical metro lib showing contempt for the natives. I pointed out that I grew up in Havering, that most of my family still live there, and that I in fact I am one of the natives. I also asked my accusers when they’d last visited a place they were so concerned to speak for. Eighteen months on, I am still awaiting their response.)

In fact, there are genuine parallels between Brexit and Hexit: both votes represent a clash between identity and practicality. Yes, in terms of how people perceive of themselves, there are many in the borough who think of it as Essex more than London. But when you’re thinking about boring practical things like transport, policing or emergency services – or, in the case of Brexit, like trade regulations or what to do with nuclear fuels – identity is not always a great guide to what you should do.

After all, the residents of Havering need to be able to commute to the City or Canary wharf. The local buses need to cross borough boundaries, into Barking or Redbridge. The borough is part of London’s housing market, too, so the idea of running an entirely independent planning policy strikes me as a nonsense: in physical terms, it’s part of the broader conurbation, and it makes sense to manage it as such.

What’s more, were the council to quit London and become a unitary authority, it would find itself responsible for a whole bunch of support services that are currently pooled across Greater London. This, one suspects, might be expensive. To be fair to the council leader, the Tory Roger Ramsey, he seems acutely aware of this:

...Ramsey slammed the idea, saying the potential move would be a “complex adjustment” for Havering residents that would affect major services.

He said: “We’re part of the Metropolitan Police, the London Fire Brigade, Transport for London, and that would be lost.”

In other words, feeling like you’re from Essex is all very well. But you still can’t eat sovereignty.

The vote on whether to renegotiate Havering’s relationship to the capital takes place on Wednesday 26 July. But the results won’t matter, I suspect. As a council vote, not a referendum, it will carry less force than the Brexit vote. More importantly, the council has no power to unilaterally quit Greater London. To quote a spokesman for the communities department:

“The boundaries in London are set by parliament – any changes would require further legislation.”

Somehow, I don’t imagine this being a priority. So my instinct is that Hexit is never going to happen.

Then again, I thought that about Brexit, too.

Bloody hell, though. Look at these muppets.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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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?