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.