After finally admitting they were wrong to try to withhold this information, the DfT have now published their analysis of the responses to their earlier consultation on the proposed phasing out of imperial-only height and width restriction traffic signs.
What this shows is that the responses gave little or no support for the irrational decision by the then Secretary of State, Philip Hammond, to cancel the proposal – thus allowing imperial-only signs to remain in place indefinitely (and even permitting new ones to be erected).
Hammond said, in a press release:
“It’s bad enough that Labour were hellbent on replacing feet and inches with metres. It is completely unacceptable that they were going to spend over £2m of taxpayers money to do so when we have one of the biggest budget deficits in Europe.
“It’s almost as if Gordon Brown’s Government sat around thinking of new ways to waste taxpayers’ money.
“I am clear that from now on we will ensure that every pound of money the Department for Transport spends will be well spent.“
This statement did not in fact come to light until December 2011 (as a result of a Freedom of Information (FoI) request). In the meantime UKMA had written to Philip Hammond and then to his successor, Justine Greening, asking them to review or give a proper explanation of the decision. Neither replied personally, but a brush-off letter was received from a Department official giving no further relevant information.
UKMA therefore made a further FoI request asking the DfT to publish the responses to the 2009 consultation (which, in breach of an earlier promise, they had previously failed to do). The result, which was previously reviewed by MetricViews on 2 January can be read at this link. As this document was over 600 pages long, UKMA then inquired whether the DfT had carried out a summary analysis of it. In reply, the DfT confirmed that such an analysis existed, but said that they would not release it on the grounds that it ‘relates to the formulation or development of government policy’.
As this is not a valid ground for withholding information once the policy decision has been taken (which obviously it had), UKMA then wrote formally requesting the release of this document and also asking for “any other background papers of a factual or statistical nature that are relevant to the decision.” At the same time UKMA made a formal complaint that the original request had not been properly dealt with.
The DfT have now admitted (8 March) that they were wrong to try to withhold this information, and have now published it together with an apology. The analysis of the responses to the consultation can be read at this link. [To assist in decoding it, the first column relates to the number of the question in the original consultation paper: the relevant questions are numbers 4, 11 and 12. The third column (headed “No.”) is the number of the consultee – so responses from each consultee have been split and re-arranged under the question number. The comments on the responses are by the civil servant who carried out the analysis].
What emerges from the comments is a complete indifference bordering on hostility to metrication. See comments such as
“This response from [deleted] is nothing more than a metrication argument and should be dealt with in the usual way”.
“It is not appropriate at this stage to change to metric-only signs”
“metric-only signs are a non-starter at this stage”.
It is noteworthy that the author seized on the minority of responses that complained about the short term cost of replacing imperial-only signs, while ignoring the majority who accepted the original cost estimates or did not respond to the consultation.
The author’s comments probably reflect a deep cultural problem within the DfT.
On a lighter note, the exchange on the fatuous proposal to give cycling distances in units of time is quite amusing. See footnote 1.
In the 8 March letter, in response to UKMA’s second question, the DfT replied that “we do not hold any factual or statistical background papers on this subject” and added that “the only information we hold is a briefing paper dated 22nd July 2010 [after the decision had been taken – Editor] which was prepared for the Special Advisors to the (then) Secretary of State”. This document is actually Annex B to the 8 March letter. The “Special Advisers” (or “spads” as they are known2) are in fact political and/or media advisers, and it is clear from the briefing that its purpose was to enable the spads to advise on the political presentation of what might appear to the media as an irrational or perverse decision and which would be opposed by the rail industry.
So what conclusions can be drawn from all this (assuming it is all true)?
1. The DfT claim to hold no factual or statistical information “on this subject” (presumably meaning the cost or incidence of bridge strikes and the costs of signage).
2. Therefore the Secretary for Transport could not have received any briefing from his Department that might have provided a reasoned justification for his decision.
3. The decision was therefore purely political, based on anti-metric prejudice, and the desire both to appeal to the Eurosceptics in his (and other) parties and to score points off the previous Government.
4. There is an underlying assumption at a civil servant level within the DfT that metrication is off the agenda, and any proposals to advance metrication will be opposed and blocked.
5. There was considerable disquiet within the DfT about the “daft idea” of measuring cycling distances in minutes. Nevertheless, the daft idea prevailed.
6. Some DfT civil servants have not received adequate training in their obligations under the Freedom of Information Act.
1 The exchange went as follows:
“Cycling issues para 12: the new diagram 2602.1 expresses better than any words could convey the sheer fatuousness of replacing distances with journey times. Presumably the times are based on an assumption that a cyclist travels at 8mph, or something in that region. So here I am; on my way to Wells (perhaps intending to collect the Holy Grail as I pass Glastonbury). 1hr 15 mins (should that be “min”, by the way?). Er … so how long will that take me? I know I can do about 6mph, but I don’t know what the clever clogs at DfT assumed when they calculated the journey time. If only they’d said something useful, like “12 miles”, I’d be able to work it out for myself. Ruddy bureaucrats, sitting at their desks drinking tea all day. Where was I? Oh yes, how long will it take me to get to Wells? Have I time for a cream tea before I continue? No way of knowing… The problem is even worse for pedestrians, where the time differences (and the effort) might be even greater. This is the daftest idea ever to appear in TSRGD, but I suppose there’s no way of stopping it now.”
Response from document author:
“Journey times on cycle signs – quote “This is the daftest idea ever to appear in TSRGD, but I suppose there’s no way of stopping it now.” Oh yes, there is – we have had sufficient objections (including mine) to this proposal to abandon it for now. Explanation as to why it is a “daft idea” couldn’t be better.”
Sadly and incredibly, however, the “daft idea” has now been implemented. Sometimes mad proposals gather a momentum of their own and do indeed become unstoppable.
2 The two “spads” were in fact:
Siân Jones is [was] transport secretary Philip Hammond’s policy adviser, a role that she also performed in opposition when he was shadow chief secretary to the Treasury. She worked in the CRD [Conservative Research Department] from 2005-07 as an adviser on work and pensions before moving to Hammond’s office shortly after his move to the Treasury portfolio. She studied modern languages at Cambridge and has also worked in management consultancy and journalism.
Paul Stephenson acts [acted] as Hammond’s media spad [Special Adviser]. He was formerly head of research at Open Europe, a think-tank which argues that the EU requires radical reform based on economic liberalisation and a more flexible structure. Stephenson is a specialist in EU regulation and the co-author of publications including A Guide to the Constitutional Treaty and Less Regulation: 4 Ways to Cut the Burden of EU Red Tape.