Discover more from Odds and Ends of History
Rishi's stupid "Plan for Drivers" actually contains some good ideas
It's time to get (genuinely) excited about parking.
One day historians will look back at our current era, and reflect on its most defining moments. The fall of the Berlin Wall. September 11th. The 2008 financial crisis. And, of course, the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election.
Who knew that the Conservative Party holding on to what had previously been a safe seat by 495 votes would be such an epoch-defining event? But since that fateful day in July, the result has changed our very way of life.
For example, you might remember that in the immediate aftermath, Labour had a wobble on its environmental commitments and (unwisely in my view) slightly watered down its “Green Growth” spending commitments, as commentators debated whether Labour should go even further in ditching its Net Zero plans.
And now a couple of months on, we’re witnessing a desperate Rishi Sunak betting his Premiership on pandering to the imagined prejudices of Red Wall Clarksonites.
First there was the Net Zero rollback, then HS2’s northern leg was thrown into doubt. And finally last Thursday, the Prime Minister rolled out what he called a “long-term government plan to back drivers”.
As you might imagine, it wasn’t exactly O’Malleyist in its nature. The press release was almost entirely laser-focused on measures designed to raise the hackles of out-of-touch, metropolitan elites like me1.
Similarly, on Urbanist Twitter, it went down like a cup of cold sick, as the proposals came across as a rejection of almost every principle they hold dear. Which from the government’s perspective was probably the signal for "mission accomplished”.
But there is some reason for optimism. I think a close reading of the proposals actually reveals that they are mostly meaningless. And even better, there are two actually real measures announced in the plan, and they are… really rather good.
So let’s look more closely at what the government is actually proposing.
Programming Note: Sorry for writing about transport yet again, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to wade in and get this blazing hot take out there early, just in case Tory conference renders this old news by tomorrow or next week.
I’ve also decided to make this a free post - but don’t worry premium subscribers, I’ll make it up to you with more exclusive premium content to come. (I’m still cooking a couple of extremely spicy culture war takes, in addition to my usual ‘building things is good’ schtick. And you better believe I’m working on something postcode-related too, that hopefully I’ll be able to tell you about at some point.)
In any case, your subscriptions (both free and paid) really do help me spend time working on this Substack. So if you value my writing, please do consider subscribing! Go on, become an O’Malleyist today!
Let’s start with the following measures announced in the press release:
There’s going to be a “review” on guidance on 20mph speed limits in England (it’s a devolved matter in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland).
The government is going to amend the guidance given to councils on Low Traffic Neighbourhoods “to focus on local consent”.
There will be a “call for evidence” on “options to restrict the ability of local authorities to generate revenue surpluses from traffic offences and over-zealous traffic enforcement, such as yellow-box junctions”.
The government will “strengthen” guidance given to local authorities on when bus lanes should be open to other traffic.
And there will be a “consultation” on letting motorcycles use bus lanes.
In other words, basically the sum total of fuck all is actually happening. It’s all just meaningless vapour in the air.
A “review”, “consultation” or a “call for evidence” isn’t a commitment to do anything beyond hold a few meetings or invite interest groups to send in some emails. And in any case, when the time comes to review what the consultations say, there’s a significant chance it will be ministers appointed by Keir Starmer leafing through the documents and making decisions about what to actually change2.
Even the promise to “strengthen” guidance seems toothless to me, as ultimately how bus lanes and Low Traffic Neighbourhoods are organised are matters for local councils, so any changes will be determined not by Westminster, but by the individual politics of each local authority3.
So I’d bet that the end result will be that most of the big city councils will conclude that, actually, full-time bus lanes are pretty useful and that LTNs are still a pretty good idea. Oh, and when the motorbike consultation is in? It’ll turn out they’re still pretty dangerous.
The really grim conspiracy dogwhistle
There is one part of the above nonsense that I do think is particularly worth flagging though. And that’s not because I expect it to actually change things, but because of what it says about where Conservative Party politics is going.
Specifically, the press release says that:
The plans also aim to stop councils implementing so called ‘15-minute cities’, by consulting on ways to prevent schemes which aggressively restrict where people can drive.
Did you spot the weird dog-whistle?
I suspect the only reason the specific formulation of words “15-minute cities” was included was because it’s a nod to a popular right-wing conspiracy, that bridges from the fringe-but-broadly-respectable right, like Toby Young, Matthew Goodwin and GB News, to some of the absolute maddest cranks on the internet.
I won’t rehash what I’ve written elsewhere about this, and I realise it is just one phrase – but it is striking that Downing Street chose to use it. And coming in the same week as Suella Braverman’s comments on multiculturalism, it’s another grim sign of just how badly the Tories are going to lose their minds after they lose the next election.
The actually good stuff
Anyway, let’s dig into the two remaining announcements in the press release. These were different to the others, mostly because they sound like things that civil servants in the Department for Transport (DfT) have been working on for a while, and were not just cobbled together during an hour-long meeting with a frantic Minister gesturing the most recent polling numbers.
In other words, it seems likely that they might actually happen. And happily, in my view, they both sound like rather good ideas that a government of any stripe would be wise to do.
First, there is support for local councils to introduce more ‘lane rental’ schemes. The idea is simply that if a utility company needs to dig up the road, then the local authority should charge them up to £2,500 per day for the privilege (with the actual cost set depending on the level of predicted disruption).
It’s an idea that was first tried in parts of London and Kent in 2012, and is now used around the country.
I can’t claim to be enough of an expert on utilities maintenance to have strong opinions on lane rental, but in principle, it sounds broadly sensible to me. By putting a price on time, it should better align incentives to complete maintenance work efficiently. So you can imagine how it could genuinely make an impact on traffic and congestion. (Though unsurprisingly, the lobby group for the companies that dig up roads are not big fans of the idea4.)
The other, actually-real idea is the National Parking Platform (NPP). And tragically, I find it genuinely exciting5.
It’s something that has been worked on by DfT since 2019 and is designed to solve an incredibly annoying coordination problem between car park operators, parking apps, motorists and transport planners.
Here’s a graphic from the NPP website that illustrates what it will do:
Essentially the big conceptual change is that it breaks the link between specific car-parks and specific payment apps. This solves an existing, very annoying problem, where when you park up in a new car park, you may find yourself having to download yet another new app to pay for parking. And then before you can leave your car, you’ve got to go through all of the sign-up rigmarole and enter your card details again. What a nightmare6.
Once the NPP has rolled out though, we’ll be able to use whichever parking apps we like to pay for any car park that has joined the common system (both public and private sector car parks will be able to participate).
However, more importantly from an O’Malleyist perspective is what happens behind the scenes. The NPP is a common platform based on open data principles, and this means that once it is running we’ll have a real time source of parking information for basically every communal car park in the country.
At its most basic level, this means that it will be possible for apps like Google Maps or the GPS in your car to route you to car parks that actually have spaces. And crucially, it will help local authorities better coordinate parking and improve transport planning. With everyone sharing their data in one place, it will essentially make the market for parking spaces work more efficiently7, as there will be greater visibility on how they are being used.
And presumably smarter people than me will imagine new ways in which this data can be used to make cities work better, and new business models may emerge. For example, perhaps car parks could offer surge pricing, or discounts? Maybe as you’re driving, a notification could pop up and offer you a cheaper space at a suburban Park & Ride, instead of sending you to clutter up the centre of town with your car?
So despite the bullshit elsewhere in the plan, the NPP is exciting. It will be a big opportunity to build new tools and services. In essence, it is doing something similar to liberating the Postcode Address File, but for parking data8.
The O’Malleyist plan for drivers
So as you can tell, I think the NPP is a great idea. It’s exactly the sort of tricky coordination problem where the government is best placed to intervene.
But as enthusiastic as I am about it, I’m not really sure it is going to carry the “Plan for Drivers” on its own – and nor will it singlehandedly solve either of the problems that Sunak is ostensibly trying to tackle in releasing the plan.
In terms of Sunak’s political problem (the one where no one wants to vote for his party), I’m doubtful that a “pro-motorist” message is going to make much of an impact when people can’t get a doctor’s appointment and their weekly shop costs £200. (Though I’d love to believe that people on the door-step really are crying out for an open-data parking platform.)
But more substantively, in terms of the actual desired policy outcomes, I’m not sure this is going to be enough either.
Why? Because sure, the NPP will reduce an annoying friction for motorists, but you know what’s even more annoying when driving? Other cars.
The awkward truth is that if we really want to make driving better, then the way to do it is to reduce the number of cars on the road. Fewer cars means less congestion, smoother traffic – and, of course, more available parking spaces.
And how can we do it? Well, for example, if we were to build more high-speed railway lines, we could remove millions of car and lorry journeys from Britain’s roads, reducing traffic for those people who either have to drive, or wish to continue doing so.
And on a local level, the more people who ditch their cars, and choose to cycle or scoot instead, the more road space is left for the cars that remain.
If we can persuade more people to live in walkable neighbourhoods (those ghastly “15 minute cities”), that’s fewer people who need to get behind the wheel and take up space on the road, just to get to the shops or access public services.
Similarly, if we want to take seriously the specific problems that motorists face, the government would be worrying about how the hell we’re going to install ten times as many public electric vehicle charging points as we have now, so that we can meet the expected demand by 2030.
So simply put, on the strength of what has been announced, the plan isn’t really “long term”, it doesn’t really do much to seriously “back drivers”, and to be honest, it isn’t really much of “plan” either. But hey, at least soon it’ll be easier to find a parking space.
If you enjoyed reading this, then please be sure to subscribe (for free!) to get more takes like this direct to your inbox. (And if you value my writing, please consider a premium subscription for a new take every single week!)
And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter while you still can!
The claim that the plan is being called “long term” is particularly infuriating given that all of the strategic intent behind it isn’t looking any further than the next election.
I think that by far the strangest commitment above is the “call for evidence” on making it harder for people who drive badly to be caught out. The government is proposing basically an “arsehole’s charter”, if you will. Yes, speed cameras are unpopular but I guess I’d have thought that the actual government of the United Kingdom might be interested in enforcing the law.
Though that said, I guess given the imminent HS2 announcement, this is just another example of committing to do something but then making sure it is done in the most half-arsed way possible. So it’s at least very on-brand for the government.
If you ever want to counter the most unexpectedly vicious social media war, I recommend wading into the debate over Low Traffic Neighbourhoods. I wrote about them a few years ago when I was young and naive, and quickly came to realise that for my own sanity, it would have been safer to write about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I also wonder if it could have negative downstream consequences. For example, perhaps utility maintenance will be performed less regularly, or only when problems become more severe, in order to save money. Maybe it’ll be like how some phone networks complain that because the market operates so efficiently, margins are squeezed and means they don’t have enough cash left to fund the next phase of the 5G rollout?
This is just another reminder that, once again, I have a partner who is a real, human woman.
I guess you could walk over to the machine and pay with coins, but who the hell wants to do that?
Maybe it could even lead to a reduction in the number of urban parking spaces, if the existing pool of spaces can be optimised?
If you’re even remotely technically minded, I defy to look at these sample API calls and not find them mouth-watering.
The way to think about it is that even if you don’t want to switch out your car for some other means of transport, wouldn’t it be better for you if other people could choose to do so?
I understand vehicle and fuel taxes do not pay exclusively for road maintenance and just go into the general tax pot. But the problem still remains: Unless we replace them with something, the government loses a major source of revenue.