Rishi Sunak says he'll scrap Wales' 20mph law - but critics say he doesn't have power

20mph speed limit signs are not generally needed in built-up areas as all roads have defaulted to 20mph - apart from exempted sections
-Credit: (Image: WalesOnline/Rob Browne)

The Tories have said they will scrap the default 20mph limit in Wales if they win next month's general election - but the Welsh Government says they don't have the power. Rishi Sunak's Conservative Party made the promise in the party manifesto, which was released at a launch event at Silverstone race track on Tuesday.

The 20mph pledge prompted an academic to brand the policy a "crude attack" on devolution, with road transport policy devolved to the Welsh Government. The 'Wales' section of the manifesto includes a promise to expand a newly-announced Backing Drivers Bill to Wales, reports WalesOnline.

They said the bill would be introduced in their first King's Speech if they are returned to government. It includes promises to stop 'pay per mile' road pricing, reverse the London Ulez expansion and rule out top-down blanket Low Traffic Neighbourhoods and 20mph zones.

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The manifesto said: "We will expand our Backing Drivers' Bill to cover Wales, reversing Labour's blanket 20mph speed limit by requiring local consent for 20mph zones and giving local communities the legal right to challenge existing zones." It was not made clear how the policy would be delivered in Wales, with road transport one of the areas devolved to the Welsh Government.

Politicians in Westminster retain some powers, which mainly relate to driving regulations (mostly to do with traffic offences, licensing and insurance). A Welsh Government spokesperson said: "Speed limits in Wales are a wholly devolved matter over which the UK Government has no jurisdiction."

Richard Wyn Jones, the director of Cardiff University's Wales Governance Centre and a professor of politics, said: "It's absolutely devolved. The manifesto, from what I've seen, is a crude attack on devolution."

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaves number 10
Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaves number 10 -Credit:Getty Images

Plaid Cymru Westminster leader Liz Saville Roberts said: “The UK Government has no power over speed limits in Wales. The wheels are coming off Rishi Sunak’s campaign and he’s hoping that this latest populist tactic will get him back on track. It won’t."

Emyr Lewis, head of law at Aberystwyth, speculated the Conservatives might be planning to water down the devolution settlement through the Backing Drivers' Bill. He said: "Welsh Government has the power as the ‘national authority’ in respect of Wales under an Act of the UK Parliament to make regulations setting speed limits in Wales.

"The Senedd has a corresponding power to make primary legislation in this area (it’s a carve out from some other reservations about transport). So UK Govt ministers have no power to intervene here. To do that they need an act of Parliament."

He said that the wording of the promised suggested they "won’t take the powers to themselves but (somehow) give local people a veto over 20mph zones and enable them to challenge them in court (on what grounds is unclear. They could already be challenged by judicial review if unreasonable - though the bar would be high)".

He added: "So it is an attempt to water down WG powers, reminiscent of the micromanagement which happened under the LCO system. What is unclear is whether they will also similarly dilute the Senedd’s power to legislate on this topic. If they don’t then the Senedd could easily undo the whole thing. If they do limit the Senedd’s powers, well that’s a big deal."

A Conservative source in Wales suggested the plan would not be to water down the devolution settlement. They said the Tories would pass their Backing Drivers' Bill in Westminster and ask the Welsh Government for a legislative consent motion (effectively, permission) to expand it to Wales. This has been used in the past for post-Brexit legislation but in reality it would be very unlikely that a Labour Welsh Government would agree to use this to scrap 20mph.

A Welsh Conservative spokesperson said: "Labour's 20mph speed limit will hit the Welsh economy by billions when we should be taking bold action to kickstart the economy and create jobs. The UK Government will work with the Senedd to pass a motion to show their support for the bill to apply to Wales, reversing Labour's damaging 20mph speed limit and devolving power further down to local people who know their communities best."

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