BOSSES at one of Scotland’s largest councils have been branded “ridiculous” after claiming the roll out of 20mph speed limits helps combat loneliness.

Slower speeds will be ushered in across the vast majority of Edinburgh’s road network from early March – with only a few 30mph and 40mph streets exempt.

But the council’s claim this will “boost local communities and combat loneliness” has come under fire from critics.

Nick Cook, Edinburgh’s Conservative transport spokesman, said the comments “risk trivialising” genuine efforts to tackle mental health problems.

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He said: “We all must play our part in combating social isolation. However for Edinburgh Council to claim that it’s controversial 20mph scheme is now apparently a mechanism to combat loneliness is as disappointing as it is ridiculous.

“Edinburgh Council have failed to convince the public of the claimed safety and environmental merits of its multi-million pound scheme.

"Tenuous new claims such as this risk trivialising genuine efforts by the Scottish and UK governments to tackle mental health issues and social isolation.”

Neil Greig, director of policy and research at IAM RoadSmart – formerly the Institute of Advanced Motorists – insisted the evidence of the overall benefits of 20mph zones “remains weak in many cases”.

He added: “A major study has been commissioned to assess the effects in Edinburgh and Belfast and councillors should wait for the results before making claims about speed limits solving problems such as loneliness.

“We remain to be convinced that roads that look exactly the same with a new limit have major impacts on driver and resident behaviour.”

The fourth and final phase of Edinburgh’s 20mph roll-out will come into force on March 5 – leaving 80 per cent of the city’s roads covered by the new rules.

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Campaigners have hailed the ambitious plans, insisting they will make the city’s streets safer and more pleasant for pedestrians and cyclists.

But others have criticised the "blanket" approach to the scheme and raised concerns over a lack of enforcement.

Lesley Macinnes, Edinburgh Council’s transport leader, said its own research had demonstrated the benefits of lower speed limits for improving “social connections”.

She said: “Social inclusion, amongst many other benefits, is frequently referenced by public health professionals as a reason for lowering speed limits, and is well-evidenced, particularly in a study by Appleyard, who found that people living on streets with heavy traffic had fewer social connections than those living on light-traffic streets.

“We know from our own research too, particularly into the 20mph pilot in south central Edinburgh, that lower speed limits encourage more walking and cycling, creating a more ‘liveable’ streets, in turn getting people out of their houses and interacting with other people.”

Charity Age Scotland backed the claims, arguing elderly people can be reluctant to leave their homes due to road safety issues.

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Director Keith Robson said: “I’d welcome this move which could help make our streets safer and more pleasant for people of all ages.

“Evidence shows that older people, especially those with mobility issues, can be reluctant to leave their homes because of fears about road safety.

“They may choose to avoid streets with fast traffic, which can contribute to social isolation and prevent them playing a full part in their communities.

“The new speed limits send a clear message about the importance of pedestrian safety. We hope it will encourage older people to stay active and get out more.”