Birmingham is considering a 20mph speed limit in the southern half of the city. Will it work?

Those were the days: a traffic policeman in Birmingham in 1926. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

Birmingham City Council, the largest local authority in Europe, has announced proposals to implement 20 miles per hour speed limits on roads across much of the southern half of the city. It has already enforced reductions from the 30mph limit on roads near schools; but now there’s growing support for a wider rollout.

Emergency vehicles like ambulances will be exempt – but the hope this that wider 20mph limits will persuade drivers of other vehicles to better share the road with each other, pedestrians, and cyclists. The rationale behind this in Birmingham applies to any other city in the country: the authorities want to reduce the severity and number of accidents. They aim to lower air and noise pollution, too.

Previous consultations showed stronger support from those who walk, cycle, and use public transport – so convincing those who primarily drive will be the key challenge. There is also widespread support amongst other key stakeholders: businesses, schools, the police, environmental groups, and transport and delivery groups.

Evidence from several towns and cities across England shows that the implementation of 20mph limits reduces the number and severity of road traffic collisions. A pedestrian, if struck by a vehicle driving at 20mph, is likely to suffer slight injuries. At 30mph they will probably be severely hurt; at 40mph or above, they are likely to be killed.

There are, of course, still concerns about the potential negative impacts of a 20mph speed limit – the most frequent being that it would increase congestion.


But that might not actually be true. While travelling at 20mph would obviously take longer than travelling at 30mph on a clear stretch of road, research shows that vehicles flow more smoothly through junctions at slower speeds. This would have a much greater impact in an urban environment, particularly in cities with older road networks.

Some may doubt that 20mph limits can reduce noise and air pollution. A study conducted in Graz, Austria, found that an introduction of 18mph limits back in 1992 led to a noise reduction up to 2.5 dB. Compared to 30mph, 20mph would mean three decibels less traffic noise. There is no conclusive study yet regarding the impact on the environment, but, as a result of reduced acceleration and braking, a 20mph limit may help to reduce fuel consumption and associated emissions.

 Ultimately, the driving issue – forgive the pun – is what impact all this will have on journey times. Plans in Birmingham, much like those elsewhere, still retain some roads at the 30mph or 40mph limit. This should mean most journeys wouldn’t be significantly affected; and, in the case of those urban roads littered with junctions, the improved traffic flow could actually reduce overall journey times.

Still, reducing speed limits will inevitably prompt some motorists to feel penalised. Many will assume it will be a hindrance, even if the evidence says journeys will take the same time at most, be much safer and pleasant for themselves and others, and consume less fuel. The only way to convince critics is by testing 20mph out first and then judging the results.

Luckily, we already have a few case studies to go on.

In the Sherwood area of Nottingham, which has had a full year of 20mph on residential roads, average speeds have gone down by 5.2 per cent. At the same time, casualties in road traffic collisions have decreased from an average of 9.4 per year before implementation, to 8.0 in the year following implementation; most of these were deemed “slight”, rather than severe. In Portsmouth, 20mph limits lowered casualties in road traffic collisions by a further 8 per cent than may have otherwise occurred. In Warrington, collisions in the 20mph speed limit areas fell by a whole 25 per cent; Bristol, Edinburgh, and Dublin have all seen similar results.

Across Europe and the United States, a number of cities have proposed or adopted 20mph or 30 km per hour (about 19mph) limits. New York City has led the way, implementing numerous neighbourhood-scale 20mph zones. Ten other US states also allow for 15 or 20mph limits, mostly in school zones and business districts. They are ubiquitous in the Netherlands, cover 80 per cent of Munich, and a network of 67 European NGOs have pressed the European Union to make 30kmph the normal limit, with 50kmph the exception.

Birmingham is the former centre of Britain’s motor manufacturing industry, something which explains why so much of the city is so geared (sorry) towards cars. As CityMetric editor Jonn Elledge has written in these pages before:

“Outside [the city centre] you quickly run into a world of six-lane highways and traffic jams that snarl up every rush hour because, in large chunks of the city, the only way to get to work is by road.”

So in some ways it seems strange that moves to improve travelling by road have taken so much longer to be proposed here than in other cities where public transport makes them less dependent on roads for daily commutes.

Safer roads, cleaner air, savings on fuel, and less traffic noise would all be welcome changes – and not just in Birmingham. It is one of 16 UK cities the European Commission has issued warnings to our government over due to lethal levels of pollution.

But for the new speed limits are really to affect change, they’ll be dependent on two things. One is motorists obeying the new law; the other is the authorities enforcing it. Time will tell.

 
 
 
 

Britain’s housing policy must “ditch its relentless numbers game”

Some houses. Image: Getty.

Britain must build more homes – that much is certain. But a relentless focus on how many means we have lost all focus on the types of homes we must be building. This means we risk repeating the mistakes of previous decades, building homes entirely unfit for future generations.

This is the stark conclusion of a new report from Demos, Future Homes. Analysing the trends we expect to be shaping Britain in the future, we find our current approach to housebuilding has not kept pace with these changes. Indeed, we found that one third of the public don’t think new homes will be fit for purpose in thirty years’ time. Putting this right demands a revolution in our approach to housebuilding.

First, new homes must be fit for multigenerational living. This living arrangement is already on the rise: after decades of decline, average household size is rising, in part due to an increase in the number of multigenerational households. But housing design has not kept pace with these changes: our research found that two thirds of the public do not think new homes are not fit for multigenerational living.

We do not bemoan the rise in multigenerational households – quite the opposite. In a time of social isolation, multigenerational living may help to reduce loneliness amongst the elderly, helping them to stay integrated in society and play an active role in family life. More social contact between the young and old could also reduce the scope for intergenerational conflict, fostering mutual understanding between different generations.

Multigenerational housing may also help ease care burdens at both ends of life, making it simpler to look after the elderly, while allowing relatives to more easily help with childcare. It could also reduce the under-occupation of housing by the elderly, freeing homes at the top of the housing ladder. It is no exaggeration to say that in a time of increasing social and political division, building more multigenerational housing could help bring Britain back together – a first step on the path to a more connected society.

That’s why we call on the government to enshrine a commitment to multigenerational housing in its new Future Homes standard. Multigenerational households should also be entitled to council tax discounts and permitted development rights introduced for “granny annexes”, ensuring current housing stock can be made fit for multigenerational living.


We also need to build much more environmentally friendly homes whilst improving the state of our dilapidated housing stock. With the government aiming for net zero carbon emissions by 2050, this will require a radical change to housebuilding – especially when home energy efficiency has not improved since 2015.

To address this we call on the government to reintroduce the zero carbon homes standard and to launch a Green Homes Fund backed by a new, state-backed Green Development Bank. This would allow the government to make ultra-low interest rate loans to fund energy efficiency home improvements, as is widely and successfully done in Germany.

We must also begin to prioritise the creation of green space and gardens when building homes. This isn’t just what the public wants – we found gardens are the most important feature when choosing a home after location – but is good for our health too. Studies show that those living close to green space are more likely to exercise regularly – vital if we are to tackle today’s obesity crisis. That’s why our report calls for the government to introduce a new “green space standard” for all new homes, eventually giving all residents the right to a garden.

We recognise our proposals could increase the cost of housebuilding, potentially raising property prices – a great concern given the state of Britain’s overheated housing market. However, we believe our proposals can be justified for two reasons.

First, much of the recent explosion in property prices derives from land price increases, not construction costs. Therefore, if our changes were introduced alongside sensible policies to bring down land prices, such as a land value tax, their impact on cost would be limited. Second, even if there are additional costs today, the cost of pulling down new homes in just a few decades would be enormous. This has to be avoided.

Homes can be so much more than a roof over our heads, helping us respond to the great challenges of our time – loneliness, climate change, the crisis of care. But this can only happen if Britain ditches its relentless numbers game on housing and begins to care about the types of home we build, not just the number.

Ben Glover is a senior researcher at Demos.