An insight into recent thinking at the DfT

We look at some internal correspondence at the UK Department for Transport (DfT) on the subject of the avoiding the obligation to fix a date for the conversion of road traffic signs to metric measurements.

In January 2016, Ronnie Cohen asked the DfT about what was said internally within the Department about the indefinite postponement of the metric conversion of road traffic signs. In a freedom of information request, he asked the DfT:

“In 1989, the UK Government secured a derogation from the European Commission. This required us to fix a date for the metric conversion of road signs. In 2007, the Government asked that this obligation be dropped. In 2009, the European Commission amended the relevant Directive to comply with the UK’s request. I would like to ask the DfT for internal correspondence and records of discussions, papers and written records about this.”

The DfT supplied several items of correspondence about the removal of this obligation with the names of civil servants redacted. The correspondence showed that the DfT welcomed the removal of the legal obligation to fix a date to metricate road signs. When they had a legal obligation to do so, the DfT did little to prepare for this change and no date was ever fixed for the metrication of road signs. Instead of meeting its legal obligation, it offered unconvincing excuses for inaction. Here are the details of some internal correspondence about the removal of this obligation.

On 8 December 2012, an email from the National Weights and Measures Laboratory (NWML), then a division of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) informed the DfT about the proposed removal of their requirement to fix a date for metrication of road signs, saying:

“Just to let you know that the text of the proposal to update Directive 80/181/EC on units of measurement which will remove the requirement for the UK to set a date to end the use of miles as the primary unit of measurement for road traffic, was adopted by the Council on 18th November and that that text has now been agreed by IMCO Committee (the lead European Parliament Committee) with a recommendation to accept without amendment. This should then go to plenary either later this month or early next year.

This all looks very positive – and barring any unexpected hostility from MEPs when it goes to plenary – it should be formally agreed early next year under the Czech Presidency.”

On the following day, this email was then forwarded to the Director of Road and Vehicle Safety and Standards at the DfT and two other civil servants, saying:

“A modicum of Xmas cheer – this has been a long time coming and required a fair amount of effort to get there. We should update Ministers at some point in this process.”

On 9 December 2012, the Director of Road and Vehicle Safety and Standards at the DfT then forwarded to another civil servant, whose name was redacted, saying “Great – finally!”.

Other items of correspondence include the proposed European Commission’s derogations that the UK government has sought for the continued use of non-metric units for specific purposes, such as their use on British road signs.

A letter dated 16 March 2007 from the Head of Traffic Management Engineering of the Traffic Management Division at the DfT made the following remarks about the case for the continued use of non-metric units on British road signs:

“On 23 February 2006 the Department published an estimate of the costs of converting road signs for speed and distance measurement to metric units, as being in the region of £700m. Also, metrication of road traffic signs was considered unlikely to command  widespread public support, and therefore would pose other issues to resolve for the UK Government in addition to meeting the considerable cost. Bearing these points in mind, the line agreed with OGDs at that time was that DfT had other priorities for expenditure, and had no plans to change signs.

[Author: The £700 million figure has been shown to be grossly inflated. I covered that in a previous Metric Views article entitled “DfT cost claims busted”. As far as public support is concerned, the British government has never made the case for metrication or tried to convince the general public of the benefits of a single, simple and rational system of measures.]

“Taking account of our views and those of other UK stakeholders the Government response to the recent consultation said: ‘Road traffic signs are inherently local in their scope and speed limits are applicable to specific roads or part of a road or to specific areas. The significant costs involved for the UK in changing the measurements used on signs, replacing signs, providing safety and publicity material and the consequential costs for businesses and other organisations would far exceed any benefits in terms of meeting the EU’s objectives. The principle of proportionality requires that action at Community level does not exceed what is required to achieve the EU’s objectives and clearly consideration must be given to ensuring that costs are not disproportionate to overall benefits.’

[Author: The British Government accepted the DfT estimates without question, failed to compare them to actual costs borne by local authorities. Therefore, it could not see that the DfT figures were grossly exaggerated. The Government also did not explain why the Republic of Ireland and other major Commonwealth countries found the metrication of road signs a worthwhile project.]

“The DfT response to the recent consultation quoted above was agreed by officials and DfT Legal, and the final Government response was cleared by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.”

A letter from the Head of Traffic Signs Policy Branch described the outcome as “a very positive outcome for the UK”, and repeated some of the points made in other correspondence described in this article.

The thinking at the DfT was clearly in line with that of its political masters, as shown by an extract from an article posted on Metric Views on 16 March 2012. We said:

“…. 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 for Transport, 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, now Foreign Secretary, said at the time,

“It’s bad enough that our predecessors were hellbent on replacing feet and inches with metres. It is completely unacceptable that they were going to spend over £2 million of taxpayers’ money to do so when we have one of the biggest budget deficits in Europe. It’s almost as if the previous Government sat around thinking of new ways to waste taxpayers’ money.”

We shall be returning to the issue of imperial-only height and width restrictions in our next article, to be posted on 22 April, and we will see how the thinking of politicians and the DfT is now slowly moving towards a more foresighted approach.


10 thoughts on “An insight into recent thinking at the DfT”

  1. One thing that might change the thinking at the DfT is if voters decide to leave the EU in the upcoming referendum.

    If that happens, some sources say David Cameron would have to step down as PM. Who might replace him? How might that PM reshuffle their cabinet (including the person who heads up the DfT)?

    Moreover, Scots are much more likely to vote to stay in the EU. What if the SNP decides to hold another referendum on leaving the UK and that gets approved as part of a backlash against the English vote to leave? Would Scotland likely end up converting their road signs to metric as the Irish did?

    Such a move would leave what is left of the UK with two land borders with countries where the road signs are all metric. Moreover, the one with Scotland would be crossed over by many English folks on a regular basis (unlike the land border with the Irish Republic). Would that put more pressure on the DfT to convert road signs, especially if Scotland does it at a reasonable cost (thus nullifying the inflated estimates that the DfT has been using for road sign conversion to metric)?

    The knock-on effect of a Brexit could have some interesting implications for metrication of the UK in addition to the direct effects of the UK leaving the EU.

    It won’t be long now until we find out!


  2. Ezra Steinberg says: 2016-04-25 at 22:21

    The very fact that it has even been mentioned in public is a very big step forward.

    Let us see if there is any significant response, for or against, from the other side of the border.


  3. @ Ezra

    As far as I am aware, the units displayed on road signs in Northern Ireland are not a ‘devolved’ matter, meaning that any decision to change them would have to come from the central government at Westminster.


  4. @ Ezra

    I don’t believe the units on signs (as opposed to the physical shape or size of signs) are devolved anywhere in Scotland, N Ireland or Wales. Correct me please, someone, if I am wrong.


  5. The quoted correspondence tells us a lot about the UK permanent civil service’s dislike of being told what to do by those not entirely under their own thumb or easily manipulated by themselves. I would be willing to bet that this includes the UK electorate and excludes UK politicians. It doesn’t really reveal any particularly strong views against metric road signs, which I suspect is also true of most UK road users. All the `command the support’ stuff is just attempted displacement and a smokescreen. The public don’t overwhelmingly support rail re-franchisement cock-ups or paying gold-plated wages to a thoroughly incompetent and pointless bureaucratic class, etc.—but that has never stopped DFT from eagerly pursuing those…

    It wouldn’t surprise me to discover that DFT wastes something like GBP 2M per day on staff costs alone, despite its paucity of output and risible rate of work. If Philip Hammond really cared about saving this amount of money, he could have just given all the dead wood a day off without pay and hardly anyone would have even noticed they weren’t there. Shamefully, this wasn’t the most stupid statement he made during his short time at DFT!

    For DFT’s claim about a one-off replacement of [some] road signs to have any credibility whatsoever, then they must surely also be implying that all of the highway authorities in aggregate are already spending proportionately eye-watering amounts of money on the much larger number of signs that they replace anyway. If so; this ineluctably tends to suggest that road sign replacement is ripe for privatisation under a Thatcherite government. If UKMA doesn’t do so first, I might well bid for the contract myself and throw in metrication of road signs `for free’ and trouser the excess in subsequent years. Did the correspondence mention any objections in principle to doing the requisite 10 minute search-and-replace on TSRGD/ TSM?


  6. So what are we to make of this part of the “Transport in Scotland” briefing paper of November, 2015 from the House of Commons library?

    “The most recent proposals for further devolution are a consequence of a
    commitment made by the three main unionist party leaders prior to the
    Scottish independence referendum in September 2014, in the event of a
    No vote. After the referendum, which did deliver a No, Prime Minister
    David Cameron set up a Commission under Lord Smith of Kelvin (the
    Smith Commission), to reach an agreement among all the parties in the
    Scottish Parliament. The Smith Commission published its final report in
    November 2014. In terms of transport, it recommended that a public
    sector operator be permitted to bid for the Scotrail franchise; giving the
    Scottish Government the power to set speed limits in Scotland and to
    make its own road signs; devolving the functions of the British Transport
    Police; and giving the Scottish Government a formal consultative role on
    the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the Northern Lighthouse
    Board, with respect to their activities in Scotland.”

    My reading of this is that Scotland can replace Imperial road signs (speed limits and distance signs) with metric signs if they choose to do so even now. Moreover, a vote for Brexit where most of the “Yes” votes come from England and Scotland votes overwhelmingly “No” will ignite a furour amongst the Scots (and the SNP) that could very well lead to a successful referendum to leave the UK and become an independent member state of the EU. At that point road signs are likely to be converted to metric in a manner similar to what the Irish Republic did not that long ago (and whose success is likely to spur the Scots on) in order to both heighten both the appearance and the reality of a Scotland that has left England behind and fully joined forces with the EU.


  7. @Ezra, @Jake – My reading of the Northern Ireland Act tells me that in Northern Ireland units of measurement are a reserved matter. This means that Stormont is at liberty to pass legislation regarding units of measure, but the the Northern Ireland Minister (NOT the Department for Transport) has the power to override Stormont on such matters.


  8. Now that I’ve re-read the posts, I see that the briefing paper I quote from only says that the Smith Commission recommended certain powers devolve to Scotland. Has Westminster approved any of these recommendations (in particular, the one that would let Scotland make its own road signs)?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: