Lesley Riddoch: Local policy over central logjams

Watching Birgitte Nyborg in Borgen has made us fall for the Danish way of life. Picture: Contributed
Watching Birgitte Nyborg in Borgen has made us fall for the Danish way of life. Picture: Contributed
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National policy gets caught up in too much red tape, so ambitious councils can overtake, writes Lesley Riddoch

So Borgen is over and with it a source of inspiration and comparison for Scotland’s political and chattering classes. Birgitte Nyborg has beaten breast cancer and dirty tricks to become foreign minister in a new centre party coalition, presumably planning to attend international summit meetings by train (with a collapsible bike) or by Skype. The battle for control at TV1 has been won by news editor Torben whose valiant stand against dumbing down prompted a successful revolt by his staff.

Ah, it’s been easy to fall in love with the decent, steadfast, almost old-fashioned values that underpin Borgen and the Danish way of life. And just as easy to despair that Scotland can embed them in our society.

And yet in real life, many pioneering initiatives have been taken by Copenhagen City Council, not Denmark’s national government. Indeed some historians say it was the persistent failure of Danish elites and their badly chosen wars which prompted ordinary folk to take on the heavy lifting and transform society themselves.

So before Birgitte Nyborg cycles over the horizon for good, perhaps she has one last lesson for Scotland’s admiring political class. Enlightened councils can go where national governments fear to tread, offering confidence about the possibility of radical policy change to hesitant national politicians and raising national standards by deeds – not hopeful targets. In short, leadership can work by local and personal example, not central diktat.

That’s the view of former Copenhagen mayor Klaus Bondam – a Danish actor turned politician whose Ecometropolis project will give Copenhagen the best environment of any capital city by 2015. Unlike Scotland’s hopelessly ambitious green targets, it looks set to deliver.

The plan was hatched to coincide with the Copenhagen summit in 2009 which failed to produce binding climate change targets but did start a revolutionary “citizen dialogue”. Councillors effectively negotiated directly with Copenhagen residents to achieve behavioural change. For example: “If we want 50 per cent of citizens to cycle to work by 2015, what must the council provide?” Responses were gathered through formal surveys and informal social media, arts projects and conversations with homeless people (“the most observant about the fabric of any city”). Then detailed targets were published (with online annual progress checks) to focus on services the public care about – not abstractions that animate politicians. The big discovery – according to Klaus Bondam – was that people rate a city by how they feel.

“A good metropolis is somewhere people can sleep peacefully, breathe clean air, have fun, see interesting things around them, sit down when and where they want to, find high-quality food in supermarkets, rely on high-quality services for the elderly and childcare, and feel safe getting around by bike, public transport and on foot.”

So policy changed immediately to create that kind of “liveable city” with senior staff leading by example. Copenhagen city architect Tina Saaby, for example, has managed without a car or a driving licence since 1980. So she can ask council staff to walk or cycle to meetings within a radius of 3km – and that’s partly why 36 per cent of commuting journeys to school or work are currently made by bike (target 50 per cent by 2015).

As a cyclist, she understands the popularity of “Copenhagen lanes” – the raised, dedicated cycle lanes between pavement and road which have designed safety into roads for cyclists. Snow is cleared from them first and that means 80 per cent of Copenhageners cycle throughout the winter. The policy of strict liability (where motorists are presumed to be responsible for collisions) means few Copenhageners wear helmets – 70 per cent say they would stop cycling if helmet wearing was made compulsory.

Compare and contrast dear old Scotland. Launching a long overdue bike rack for visitors outside St Andrews House this week, a senior civil servant said he didn’t cycle because he was “too scared”. This personal truth matters more in shaping public policy than rational lawmakers might believe.

There’s a fear of public aversion to change and of powerful vested interests which causes hesitation and half measures by Scottish central government.

Take the case for strict liability, rejected earlier this year by the Scottish Government. The UK is one of only five European countries which does not presume motorists to be responsible for accidents involving pedestrians and cyclists – unless they can demonstrate otherwise. Scottish campaigners have been told to find proof that remarkable fatality reductions in countries like France – not renowned for considerate driving – have been down to the introduction of strict liability alone. Since most countries simultaneously introduced separate bike lanes and bike priority on traffic lights at junctions (where most fatalities occur), it’s hard to single out the unique effect of the law change. Unless you experience it first-hand.

In Copenhagen and Oslo, cars grind to a halt if a pedestrian even walks near a crossing. Everyone is roughly equal in the pecking order of the road, and that cuts both ways. Cyclists using pavements or skipping lights are frowned on and fined. Pedestrians jaywalking are also rare. The persistence of both in Scotland speaks volumes about the underlying reality of our public environment. Cars rule. And even politicians like Keith Brown, whose cycle-friendly public transport initiatives in Alloa helped him to the Scottish Government transport job, now calls for evidence where drive and common sense once sufficed.

Why is that? The Office for National Statistics says transport costs are now higher for the average Scottish family than housing, fuel and power combined. We also know overweight Scots need the regular exercise cycling provides. And yet the right to drive in Scotland is still like the right to bear arms in the USA. Socially destructive but politically untouchable.

Do we really need better evidence or adventurous local councils leading the way? Edinburgh – led by cyclist Andrew Burns – plans Copenhagen Lanes down most of Leith Walk, electric bikes to cope with city hills, more 20mph residential zones and cycle training for council drivers. National policy logjams are best cleared by the evidence of ambitious local examples. It worked in Copenhagen where green targets habitually exceed national guidelines and it can work here if the Scottish Government creates a Smart Transport Fund like the Climate Challenge Fund to back change at local level, where it happens first and best.

After all, seeing is believing – in any language.