Lee Waters on Streets Ahead Podcast
Wales’s Deputy Minister for Climate Change appeared on the Streets Ahead podcast earlier this year, and chatted with hosts Adam Tranter, Laura Laker and Ned Boulting about roads and active travel.
The episode aired in the week that Mr Sunak attempted to start a culture war over driving and active travel – a particularly grubby, desperate and depressing tactic.
In that context, it was refreshing to hear someone in power talking sense. Waters is clear about the problem of transport emissions, has a strategy for reducing them, and is honest about the challenges and difficulties.
Here are some of the things he said.
1) Acting in the Interests of Future Generations
The Deputy Minister said he is on the side of the people, including those who are yet to be born.
Wales has a Future Generations Act, which requires the Welsh Government to take into account the interests of those who are not yet here.
‘The science is absolutely bang on crystal clear what we’re heading into, and we need to make policy that bears that in mind, rather than kicks the can down the road yet again’.
2) Climate Change Ministry
After the last election in Wales, First Minister Mark Drakeford created a Climate Change Ministry:
‘…to bring together the main climate change emitters domestically, to try to break down the silos, because we’ve got 5-year targets to get to our 2050 trajectory, and they’re hard and going to get harder.
So we brought together transport, which I lead on, energy, planning, housing, regeneration…it’s a lot… and Julie James and I deal with that between us – she’s the Minister and I’m the Deputy Minister, and we looked at where are the road blocks here, where are the areas we know we need to make better progress on.welsh deputy climate change minister lee waters
3) Transport Emissions and Road Building
Lee Waters continued:
‘Transport is the laggard when it comes to carbon emissions. Buildings and energy have been reduced by 40% since 1990, transport has reduced by 6% in that time. Now if we keep that level of progress, we’re not going to hit our targets. So we were determined to take a strategic, systematic approach, and we looked at what is the role of road-building in this.
Because we’ve followed this ‘predict and provide’ approach for so long in this country, which is traffic is projected to grow, we’ll build more roads to cope with it, which then fill up, and we build even more roads.
So it was an attempt to disrupt that and try and find what was a sensible way of both meeting our carbon targets but also bringing about a shift in behaviour’.lee waters
Welsh policy since the February 2023 Roads Review is not to build new roads unless they contribute to modal shift.
4) Active Travel Act
Waters campaigned for the Welsh Active Travel Act when he worked for Sustrans in Wales. Part of it involved local authorities planning cycle routes which would ultimately form a national network.
He was a journalist, and saw that the way we treat roads and the way we treat facilities for non-car users is very different. There was a legal duty on council to maintain a network of roads, but no equivalent duty for cycle paths and pavements.
The Act created a legal duty for local authorities to map and plan a network of future routes – to look where the gaps are and to fill the gaps.
It has been in place for 14 years, and has had mixed success.
Over time it will start to build up a coherent network. The weakness is there are no tools to force local authorities that are not interested to act. There is a big gap between national strategy and local delivery.
5) Default 20mph Speed Limit in Built-Up Areas
There was a discussion about the change in the default speed limit in built-up areas from 30mph to 20mph, from September 2023.
‘That is creating a fair bit of noise. Spain has done this as the national default and we’re the second. Definitely politically people are trying to weaponise this as being anti-car, anti-motorist, anti-growth, the usual stuff’.
Conservative-controlled Cornwall Council are also trying to do this, and they think it is popular and residents want it.
‘Conservatives in Wales are trying to weaponise this as some kind of broader culture war, and I just don’t think it’ll stand the test of time. It’s noise, and noise passes’.lee waters on streets ahead podcast
6) Support Curve
People want slower speeds on their streets, but they don’t want slower speeds on their journeys to work.
Also, you tend to find it starts off popular in principle, then you get a dip in support as you come to implementation, then as it comes in it goes back up to being popular again.
Change is hard.
7) Making Doing the Right Thing Easy
Wales is doing well on recycling rates, and they have made doing the right thing easy.
Waters hopes that Wales can achieve similar behaviour change when it comes to transport.
‘We need to make the right thing to do the easiest thing to do, because people will do what is easiest. For 70 years we’ve made jumping in the car the easiest thing to do, and we’ve made public transport and cycling cumbersome, and if we turn it on its head people will change.
If we expect people to be heroes, some people will be, most people won’t be.
The job of government is to rewire the system to make the choices we need to encourage more of the easiest thing for citizens to do’.lee waters
8) Culture Wars
Ned asked the others what they thought of Mr Sunak’s decision to try to create a culture war over transport.
Laura Laker said it is a massive mistake, because reducing pollution is popular across the country.
Lee Waters said that this agenda does not need to be partisan, and he has tried to make active travel a cross-party issue in Wales. Trying to weaponise speed limits etc is classic Lynton Crosby strategy – they always try to look for something to make people angry, wedge issues. It’s a standard tactic.
‘It works to a degree…and it energises the base. 20-30% of people feel very strongly about this and therefore get very angry about it, who don’t want to change, and therefore this goes down very well with them.
So there’s a political logic to that. It’s bad policy. It’s defensible short-term politics, but that’s all it is, and it doesn’t last’.lee waters
9) Alternatives to the Car
There is a lag in improving alternatives to the car. There will be big changes in 20 or 30 years’ time, but you won’t see them in the short term.
Wales is reforming bus services next year, moving away from the fragmented privatised system.
The strategy in the meantime is to communicate, explain, and hold your nerve.
10) Listen to the Episode
Listen to this great episode of Streets Ahead.