EXCLUSIVE: York Transport Boss 20mph E-Mails Revealed
11:06pm 15th April 2014
(Updated 9:51am 16th April 2014)
York Council's transport boss has called opposition politicians "Luddites" and claimed the York Press is "very undermining" in it's coverage on 20mph zones in the city, in private e-mails obtained by Minster FM under the Freedom of Information Act.
The city council is spending £500,000 on the controversial plans to roll out 20mph zones across York in residential areas. It argues that the lower speed limits help promote considerate driving, make walking and cycling more attractive and raise confidence in the safety of local neighbourhoods. But opponents say it is a waste of money, claim it is unenforceable and accuse the Labour-run council of bringing in a "vanity project".
Last week, the city's transport boss Dave Merrett approved plans to roll out 20mph zones to the north of York. People living in neighbourhoods like Haxby and Huntington will shortly be sent leaflets about the changes.
Minster FM put in a Freedom of Information request to York Council asking for e-mail exchanges between Dave Merrett and Anna Semlyen, a Labour councillor who also has a leading role in the road safety group "20s Plenty".
CALLS FOR SUPPORTERS TO "EVEN THINGS UP" ON YORK PRESS
Dave Merrett said in an e-mail to Anna Semlyen on 21st July 2013 that the York Press' coverage of the consultation on 20mph zones in July last year, which only saw 7 people out of 13,000 respond in favour, was "very undermining". He also criticised the "constant stream of letters saying it's not a good use of taxpayers money."
In the same e-mail, Dave Merrett goes on to call for Anna Semlyen to mobilise "letter writing and web site comments to The Press and also to opposition councillors to provide a counter." It was the second time the city's transport boss called for such a campaign. Five days earlier, on 16th July 2013, Dave Merrett sent Anna Semlyen the following e-mail:
"If you're around and have seen the last few days papers with all the anti-20mph, can you get some of the supporters to write in in favour / go on The Press website ditto to even things up."
"Thanks - Dave."
In the e-mail on 21st July 2013, Dave Merrett goes on to accuse The Press of not fully reporting his comments saying:
"Press have consistently cut out my references in a number of my releases and comments to the national opinion poll data showing strong majority support for 20mph limits in residential areas and also to Norman Baker and the Government's stance advice,"
Anna Semlyen's response that afternoon was even more scathing of the newspaper's coverage on 20mph zones. The campaigner says:
"Press reporting has always been utterly biased. But what can be done about that? That's what The Press do here. Twist it and stir up controversy rather than print the raw facts, which is that 20mph limits [are] a great use of public money."
Editor of the York Press, Steve Hughes, has said on Twitter, "The York Press coverage has been entirely balanced but we have questioned the merit of a blanket ban and the £500,000 cost. And the York Press welcomes letters of all opinions. That's democracy surely."
A further statement from The Press to Minster FM said: “These emails are of interest but are unfounded. The Press’s coverage has been balanced and fair throughout. In fact, it is Coun Semlyen who declined offers by The Press to participate in a head-to-head debate in print on the council’s 20mph policy. We have written leader columns saying we, as a newspaper, are unconvinced by the need for a blanket city-wide approach but have reported both sides of the debate fairly and have published letters from supporters and opponents.”
MERRETT: OPPOSITION "LUDDITES" ON 20MPH ZONES
As part of the attempt to mobilise supporters of 20mph zones to contact the York Press, Dave Merrett called on those supporters to attack local Conservatives and Liberal Democrats who were campaigning against the city-wide roll out of 20mph zones in residential areas.
In his e-mail on 21st July Dave Merrett finishes off by saying:
"A couple of letters attacking the local LDs and Tories for being Luddities on this, quoting Norman (Lib Dem Transport Minister, Norman Baker) etc. would not go amiss."
COUNCIL OFFICIAL "WOULDN'T WANT TO IMPOSE" 20MPH ZONES
A York Council official responsible for the consultation on 20mph zones said he found "significant opposition" in some of the villages surrounding York and said that he "wouldn't want to impose 20s on communities isolated from the main urban area."
In an e-mail sent to Dave Merrett, which the transport boss then forwarded on to Anna Semlyen "In confidence - as requested", the council official asked "What's your take on the level of opposition required to not put 20s in the larger villages?" The official adds that he is due at a meeting with Copmanthorpe Parish Council but that Poppleton and Bishopthorpe "have already indicated opposition".
In response to the e-mail, Anna Semlyen asks that she and Rod King, the founder of "20s Plenty" are allowed to re-write the official council document "in plain English" stating "This isn't selling the benefits of 20mph. It's full of overly long and complicated legalees [sic].."
Dave Merrett then responds in agreement stating "Virtually exactly my words back to [the official] - though I understand we have little choice on the legal notice part!!".
MERRETT: 20MPH STUDIES "NOT GOOD NEWS"
Dave Merrett and Anna Semlyen also discussed two studies into 20mph.
In York, a pilot was carried out on a main road in the city, lowering it's speed to 20mph. In an e-mail on 6th July 2013, Dave Merrett told Anna Semlyen "the results from the pilot main road 20mph are not looking very encouraging" and encouraged her to "look to a 20mph zone proposal for Dalton Terrace."
The year before, a study into a city wide roll out of 20mph zones in Portsmouth saw a big increase in accident statistics returning them to the level they were before the lower speed limits were brought in, with a council official warning of "potential implications for 20's in York (and nationally?)". Dave Merrett forwarded the e-mail on to Anna Semlyen saying "FYI. Not good news."
MARKETING PEOPLE SAY 20MPH SHOULD BE "APOLITICAL"
In an e-mail to Anna Semlyen marked "Private" and copying in York Council leader James Alexander, Dave Merrett shared a draft of the cabinet paper with the campaigner saying "The main paper does not have a proper marketing section finally as we both wanted, though overall it obviously doesn't meet all your previous comments."
Dave Merrett then goes on to suggest the roll out of 20mph zones is distanced from Anna Semlyen's "20s Plenty" campaign saying:
"I should add that one of the bits of feedback from the marketing people is their concern that unlike most other places that have done 20mph so far, it doesn’t have cross party support here, and their strong recommendation is that we need to try and play it as apolitically as possible and try not to allow it to become a controversial subject."
"In that context they also think it should avoid getting linked to any pressure groups (i.e. 20s Plenty) to maintain that approach. Clearly wearing your 20s plenty organiser’s hat, that may not be something you want to hear, but I can see the logic and I’d hope you think about it carefully, and we can discuss further if you’re still not happy with that."
MERRETT HOPES FOR ANPR CAMERAS IN CITY CENTRE
The possibility of ANPR cameras to police York's footstreets was raised by Dave Merrett as a longer term hope in an e-mail from November 2012 he told Anna Semlyen:
"In the longer term, I'm hoping we can move to some form of ANPR enforced access system which we administer to crack the bigger problem (of policing York's footstreets)."
YORK LABOUR: "WE'RE CARRYING OUT ELECTION PLEDGE"
The York Labour Party has responded to our exclusive with a party spokesperson stating:
YORK PRESS RESPONSE: "THE PRESS'S COVERAGE HAS BEEN BALANCED AND FAIR THROUGHOUT"
“These emails are of interest but are unfounded. The Press’s coverage has been balanced and fair throughout. In fact, it is Coun Semlyen who declined offers by The Press to participate in a head-to-head debate in print on the council’s 20mph policy. We have written leader columns saying we, as a newspaper, are unconvinced by the need for a blanket city-wide approach but have reported both sides of the debate fairly and have published letters from supporters and opponents.”
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