On Sunday a default speed limit of 20 miles an hour in urban areas came into force in Wales. A public health study estimates that this will result in 40% fewer collisions every year, saving 6 to 10 lives and avoiding 1,200 to 2,000 injuries.
The measure will also encourage people to walk and cycle, ease congestion, and reduce noise and air pollution. It will increase the cohesiveness of communities by encouraging neighbours to talk to each other more and people to shop locally again. The average car journey will be only one or two minutes longer.
Scotland had a chance to introduce 20mph speed limits four years ago with a member’s Bill from Green MSP Mark Ruskell. The politics of the day stopped this from going through but since then many authorities have introduced 20mph zones, at greater cost and with more bureaucracy then if the policy had been adopted across Scotland.
As part of the agreement between the Greens and the SNP in government a 20mph default speed limit is likely to apply across most of Scotland’s urban areas from 2025.
The introduction of the 20mph limit isn’t the first pioneering action on the environment and climate change in Wales.
On waste, Welsh recycling rates are over 65%, well ahead of those in Scotland which currently languish in the low forties. Wales has a target to generate no waste at all by 2050. The new Circular Economy Bill for Scotland makes no equivalent proposal.
Despite the industry’s deeply embedded cultural history, Wales was the first part of the UK to almost completely ban coal mining, through changes in planning policy in 2018. Scotland did something even stronger last year and, recently, it looked like the UK Government was going to follow suit but this plan has been abandoned.
Wales has also signed up to the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance of states and regions aiming to phase out fossil fuel production, something that Scotland has repeatedly failed to do.
More fundamentally, Wales passed a Well-being of Future Generations Act in 2015 which requires the Welsh Government to take account of the impact of their decisions today on those who are to come. It created a Future Generations Commissioner to advise the government and public bodies on how to deliver on the Act. Recent reports from the Commissioner’s office have looked at the cost of living crisis, the future of communities and proposals for a universal basic income.
The biggest result so far of the new duties is the ban on almost all new roadbuilding in Wales, following the scrapping of the long-planned extension of the M4 motorway.
At the last election the SNP promised a Wellbeing and Sustainable Development Act, similar to the Welsh Future Generations Act. Many are calling for the creation of the same kind of Future Generations Commissioner that has been making a big difference in Wales.
In this year’s Programme for Government, the Scottish Government outlined plans for 14 bills, but the Wellbeing Act does not get a mention so will not be with us until at least 2025 and could even fail to become law before the next Scottish election.
A version of this article appeared in the Scotsman newspaper on 20th September 2023.