January 21, 2020

Something remarkable happened last year on the roads of Norway. Not one child under the age of 16 was killed. This was the first time in more than a century that the Nordic nation went 12 months without a child perishing on its highways, byways and urban streets. The last time this happened was in 1910 — which was one year before the first motor vehicle was produced without a crank start and Ford started making cars in Europe.

The country has halved road deaths in a decade — a bigger fall than anywhere else in the world. In Oslo they went even better. There were no pedestrian or cyclist fatalities on the streets of the Norwegian capital, a city with a population bigger than Glasgow. There was, unfortunately, one traffic death after a driver smashed his car into a fence in June. But this was still a big improvement on the previous year when five motorists died — let alone going back to 1975, when traffic there took 41 lives.

Compare this with Britain, which has the world’s fourth safest roads despite slipping from first place in the global league table at start of this century. Glasgow saw nine fatalities in the most recent year for which data is available. Leeds, significantly smaller than Oslo, had 26 road deaths, including 15 pedestrians and one cyclist. In our own capital, preliminary figures indicate 73 pedestrians and six cyclists were killed, with the youngest confirmed casualty just three years old.

The reason for Norway’s success story is simple: good government. Politicians decided it was possible to eliminate road deaths — and thus a moral imperative to do everything possible to achieve this bold aim to make the nation safer for its citizens. There was nothing dramatic in reaching their goal. There was just the hard slog of slow improvement through systemic changes with lower speed limits, fewer parking spaces, safer cars, improved roads, smarter technology, better-funded traffic police and more cycling infrastructure. One key aspect was intense focus on safe ‘heart zones’ around primary schools.

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They did not even rely on their own model. Instead they took the ‘Vision Zero’ concept pioneered 23 years ago in neighbouring Sweden, which decided that safety should not be traded for mobility. A law enshrined the idea that “it can never be ethically acceptable that people are killed or seriously injured when moving within the road transport system.” This was an amazing concept when you consider how numbed the modern world became to the primacy of cars on roads and over-riding need for speed in everyday lives. “It’s all about humans taking back the streets from cars,” said Raymond Johansen, Oslo’s mayor. “It is a win-win situation for our safety, our health, our quality of life and the environment.”

Vision Zero is being copied in other countries, including several British cities. But there are wider lessons in this triumph beyond the reduction of road carnage. For it serves as a timely reminder that politicians can make a huge difference — in this case, saving scores of lives. This is important to remember at a time when there is deep scepticism over Westminster, especially in light of the Brexit debacle, and when profound dissatisfaction with politics corrodes so many Western democracies. Talking to voters amid elections and protests in several countries including Britain, I have heard time and again the sense of despair over political leadership with the belief that politicians are distant, out of touch and uncaring. Often, people are right to be frustrated by political failure, although wrong to believe demagogic populists offer solutions to complex societal problems.

Norway’s achievement reminds us that leaders can be bold. But it also shows that improvements to collective well-being are often the result of slow, incremental change rather than the sort of headline-grabbing initiatives beloved by politicians. Just look at education, where standards have slowly improved highlighted by England’s steady rise in the international Pisa ranking for reading over the past decade. One strand of the success comes down to Labour starting to push phonics from 1997 under Tony Blair, then the Tories strengthening the policies, tweaking the curriculum and introducing new tests after returning to government in 2010.

The Norwegian effort shows a need for clear goals that stretch across departments.

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This is something understood by Dominic Cummings, the combative driving force behind Boris Johnson’s government, in his determination to shake up Whitehall. He may be driven by despair over bureaucratic inertia and struggle to hide contempt for many politicians, yet he seems fuelled by recognition that government can be a force for good. This is a welcome contrast to the intuitive scepticism over the state that scars many conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic. It underlines why it makes sense to replace cabinet committees with focused decision-making bodies, another attempt to shatter the silos that disfigure too much of the public sector.

There are plenty more examples of such governmental success. The Institute for Government highlighted Ireland’s launch in 1997 of a ten-year plan to half numbers of ‘consistently poor’ citizens. Politicians and officials agreed the definition, analysed the causes, set targets, co-ordinated clear policy across departments, built consensus and learned from flaws that emerged. They achieved their aim five years ahead of schedule despite seeing four rival parties involved in government over this period. Another approach was taken by Singapore to empty its sprawling slums within a decade by setting up a specialist body with statutory powers to deliver a clear goal. Closer to home, it took New Labour’s ‘Rough Sleepers Unit’ only two years to slash the number of people sleeping on the streets by two-thirds with relentless focus on the issue and cutting across departments.

In his biography Tony Blair talks about setting up his delivery unit to “focus like a laser on an issue”, driven by “first-class data” to ensure he could “performance-manage it to solution”, which might all sound familiar to Cummings. Yet the past three Tory teams have all told me they were determined not to be enslaved by demands of ‘the grid’, the schedule of  announcements and events used to control the daily agenda, so it will be interesting to see if this one ends up feeding the voracious media with pathetic ‘initiatives’ and stunts to divert attention. The omens are not good. And will this government also end up frustrated by slow pace of change while buffeted by disruptive events? As Blair also said, political capital tends to have been whittled away by the time a prime minister has learned how to grapple with government and pull the levers of power.

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It will take boldness to resolve some of Britain’s most intractable issues such as poor productivity, regional imbalances and a corrosive social care crisis. These get endlessly discussed but never resolved. And here lies another crucial lesson from those Norwegian roads. Politicians can act bravely, must focus on evidence and should brush aside the bleatings of lobby groups protecting patches. One business body in Oslo, after all, resisted the reforms designed to save lives with warnings that politicians were turning their city into a ghost town.

But to embed change, it is worth reaching across political divides to find consensus. Eight years ago I visited Texas to write about pioneering prison reform. Jerry Madden, a veteran Republican appointed to oversee criminal justice, told me he was asked not to build any more prisons as costs were rising in a state that locked up more people than any other place in the world. Yet he faced a conundrum: they expected 17,700 more inmates over the next six years. So he reached out to his Democrat rival. The two men accepted their differences on sentencing and drug issues, but agreed they both wanted to reduce the prison population. The result was innovative reform that invested in rehabilitation rather than incarceration, sparking a movement that has swept the nation, changed the debate and reduced prison populations.

Just imagine if such an approach was applied to social care in this country, a crisis that causes such pain to thousands of families while snarling up the health service. This catastrophe has many causes, from big cuts to local authority budgets through to staffing shortages intensified by Brexit. Johnson clearly does not have a plan, despite his claim when entering Downing Street, so why not do as he promised by seeking urgent cross-party consensus to deliver a service that is humane, effective and free at the point of use? Not with another independent inquiry, but with clear determination to sort out the mess.

After all, if Norway can stop children dying on its streets, surely Britain can save elderly and disabled citizens from living hell?

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