In a largely consensual but sometimes passionate debate, 100 MPs today voted in favour of the motion welcoming the Get Britain Cycling report, issued after a parliamentary inquiry run by the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group, the secretariat of which is part-funded by the bicycle industry.
Tonight, MPs from all sides of the political spectrum lined up to heap praise on cycling (there were a rather startling number of MPs who said they had been on family cycling holidays to the Netherlands) and, whenever the divisive and distracting issue of cycle helmet compulsion was raised, the issue was quickly quashed with evidence-based opposition.
Much of the debate – available on Hansard – was full of warm words for cycling, and personal anecdotes from MPs, but there was precious little criticism of the Government until Maria Eagle, the shadow transport secretary, rose to roast her opposite number. She lambasted the Coalition Government’s lacklustre support for cycling, including abolishing Cycling England soon after it came to power.
"It is time to end the stop-start approach that is getting in the way of progress and agree a cross-party, long-term commitment to cycling," she said.
In response, transport minister Norman Baker said the current Government was "the most pro cycling Government ever."
Labour’s Ben Bradshaw questioned this: "The Minister said…this is the most pro-cycling Government ever. What is his response to the disgraceful comments of the Communities Secretary that cycling was an obsession of the elite and that he wanted to make a free-for-all for motorists to park on double yellow lines?"
Baker, no doubt irked by the work of Pickles (who Bradshaw had earlier said would be the most to benefit from "cycling’s girth-narrowing magic"), replied: "I think the Communities Secretary is capable of answering for himself."
Opening the debate, Julian Huppert, the LibDem MP for Cambridge, and co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group, said:
"If more people were to cycle and walk, we would all benefit. We would be healthier, saving huge amounts of money – billions of pounds – for the NHS. There would be less congestion on the roads, making travel times faster and more reliable for those who are in cars. There would be less pressure on city centre parking, helping people to get to the shops and keep the economy going. The economy would grow. Cycling already contributes
about £3 billion to the UK economy. We all win by promoting cycling and walking."
He added that funding on cycling should rise to at least £10 per person per year, rising to £20 per person per year.
"That is the sort of level the Dutch have sustained," he said. "And that is what we need to make the difference. It will not happen overnight, but the benefits will substantially outweigh the costs according to almost every single study."
Investing in cycling doesn’t just benefit cyclists, said Dr Huppert, a scientist before he became an MP:
"Many of the improvements that would benefit cyclists, such as improvements to road quality, segregated cycle tracks and junction changes, would also benefit pedestrians and other road users. No conflict is necessary in improving the infrastructure."
He echoed the ‘cities safe for cycling’ campaign by The Times when he said: "We need to make our roads and cities fit for cyclists. Planners need to give consideration to cyclists and pedestrians right at the start of all developments."
He added: "Infrastructure is key, but we can do other things, too. For example, 20 mph zones, which this Government support, are clearly beneficial, not only for the safety of pedestrians and cyclists, but for the perceptions of safety for people who want to cycle or take their children cycling. Some rural lanes could be appropriate for a 40 mph speed limit."
He also highlighted the often shockingly low sentences handed down to operators of heavy, fast machines who kill and injure cyclists:
"Road traffic laws are broken too often and they should be enforced for all road users. When a serious driving offence takes place, especially if it results in death or injury, it must be treated seriously by police, prosecutors and judges. Far too often the sentences proposed are, frankly, trivial."
In a plea reiterated by many in the chamber over the course of the four hour debate, Huppert said:
"Governments for decades have not sufficiently supported cycling. There has been massive investment in road infrastructure, but little for cycling; cyclists have often had small-scale provision, if any. Individual Ministers have tried, but they have not always received the support they need."
Car culture always wins out, complained Huppert:
"Many Ministers face a culture that points the other way, that focuses on car drivers only, to the detriment of others and without realising that fewer cyclists will result in more cars on the roads."
Ian Austin, the Labour MP for Dudley North, and the other co-chair of the APPCG, said Norman Baker was a "good man" and "fights hard for cycling" but that the Government’s response to the Get Britain Cycling inquiry was "disappointing to say the least."
Austin prodded Baker: "I want him to tell us how [his] promises can be taken seriously when the Netherlands spends £25 per head on cycling while the UK spends just £2 per head, and when the highways budget in the UK is £15 billion, but the funds announced for cycling are just £159 million, with no dedicated funding stream that allows local authorities to plan for more than two years."
He added: "I am a cyclist and a motorist. Most of us are both. In fact, cyclists are more likely to own a car than the general population, so let us have no more of the cheap, populist nonsense that tries to set drivers against cyclists. We should all be working together to improve safety on the roads.
"Let us make cycling an election issue, with local cyclists getting candidates to sign pledges and with the parties competing to produce the best manifesto for cycling. Let us continue the campaign to get Britain cycling."
Responding to the debate, Chris Boardman, British Cycling’s policy adviser, (who was outside parliament on a Boris bike, joining in an evening ride of 3000+ cyclists organised by London Cycling Campaign) said:
"I’ve been encouraged with the Prime Minister’s support for cycling and the Government’s statement that it wants to put cycling at the heart of its policies. However, when we have a Highways Agency budget of billions for five years contrasted with £159 million for cycling spread over two years with no commitment to continuous funding, it’s clear that’s there’s still more work to do so that actions match words.
"I am pleased though that we’ve had this debate in the House of Commons and that cycling is being talked about where it matters."
British Cycling’s policy and legal affairs Director, Martin Gibbs, added:
"It was impressive to see such a good turnout of MPs, especially on the evening of the first day back. The level of consensus is also really encouraging. It’s clear that we all understand what needs to be done to transform cycling in this country – we need to consistently and properly fund cycling and embed it into the heart of our transport policies.
"I was pleased with the policy proposals put forward by Maria Eagle, especially where she said we need to see a step change in the commitment to cycling from the government and it must be a long term commitment supported by all parties."
Gordon Seabright, chief executive of CTC, said:
"The Prime Minister says he wants a ‘cycling revolution’. CTC members want to see these words backed up with action, which means sustained cycle funding and giving priority to cycling whenever facilities are being built or maintained."
COULD CYCLING BE AN ELECTION ISSUE?
"The ayes have it! The ayes have it!" That was the conclusion to last night’s four hour parliamentary debate on cycling, with none of the 100 or so MPs who attended daring to vote against the motion that called for more support to ‘Get Britain Cycling.’
It’s important to stress that the yes vote carries no weight, there’s to be no new dawn for cycling and the promises made could be pie-crust ones ("easily made, easily broken," as Mary Poppins would say).
However, the clear cross-party support for cycling is highly encouraging and now needs to be carried forward into the party manifestos.
On the eve of the parliamentary debate, a Labour group launched a new campaign in support of cycling. It’s called ‘Labour for Cycling’ and is co-ordinated by SERA, a Labour environment campaign. (SERA stands for Socialist Environment and Resources Association and was founded in 1973, the era of ‘Small is Beautiful’ and the oil crisis).
Maria Eagle, the shadow transport secretary, had an eight part plan to boost cycling in the UK and, if this was translated into manifesto promises before the next election, could be a game-changer, with other political parties rushing to follow suit.
MARIA EAGLE’S SPEECH
"Supporting cycling is a hugely cost-effective way of improving our personal and national quality of life. When nearly a quarter of all car journeys are for less than a mile, making cycling a more attractive option has great potential to cut congestion and boost the economy. Making more journeys by bike is a good way to reduce the impact of rising fuel costs on the household budget, and as a cost and time-effective way of staying fit. Of course, it also benefits the environment, helping us to cut emissions and reduce transport’s contribution to climate change, which remains significant.
"The message is being heard, with 20% more people cycling than a decade ago, yet if one goes to the Netherlands — as I also have as part of our policy review — it is apparent how much further we still have to go.
"Immediately on taking office, Transport Ministers abolished Cycling England and, more importantly, its £60 million annual budget and the cycling city and towns programme that we established. Since then, policy after policy has set back the progress that we were making.
"This summer we heard the long-awaited promise that axed funding for cycling would be restored, but headlines about the figure of £148 million turned out to be spin. The reality is an average of just £38 million a year until 2016, with the rest to be found by local authorities, which is a third less than the previous Government’s investment. With only one tenth of the population benefiting, that is simply too little, too late, after three wasted years.
"It is clear that we need a step change in the Government’s commitment to cycling. There should be a long-term commitment that is supported by all parties and that will last across Parliaments.
"First, we must end the stop-start approach to supporting cycling, which means that we need long-term funding of the infrastructure needed for dedicated separate safe cycling routes. It is time for a serious rethink of priorities within the roads budget with a proportion reallocated to deliver a long-term funding settlement for cycling infrastructure.
"The priority for investment to support cycling must be dedicated separated infrastructure to create safe routes. It is also important that a commitment to new infrastructure does not become an excuse not to improve the safety of cyclists on roads where there is no separation. The priority should be redesigning dangerous junctions where almost two thirds of cyclist deaths and serious injuries due to collisions take place. We need a much greater use of traffic light phasing to give cyclists a head start.
"Secondly, we need to ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past, so I propose a cycle safety assessment before new transport schemes are given the green light. In the same way in which Departments have to carry out regulatory impact assessments and equality impact assessments, there should be an obligation to cycle-proof new policies and projects. We need new enforceable design standards and measures to ensure compliance.
"Thirdly, we need national targets to cut deaths and serious injuries to be restored, but they should sit alongside a new target to increase levels of cycling.
"Fourthly, we should learn from Wales and extend to England its active travel legislation, which sets out clear duties on local authorities to support cycling. Local authorities are central to devising, prioritising and delivering measures to support cycling, so it is important that additional support from central Government is matched by clear obligations. To assist councils, we should provide them with a best-practice toolkit to boost cycling numbers that is based on what we learned from the cycling city and towns programme and evidence from abroad. Councils should be supported to deliver 20 mph zones, which should increasingly become an effective default in most residential areas.
"Fifthly, we must ensure that children and young people have every opportunity to cycle and to do so safely. The Government should not have ended long-term funding certainty for the Bikeability scheme, nor axed the requirement for school travel plans. Those decisions can and should be reversed. Sixthly, we need to make it easier for cycling to become part of the journey to work, even when the commute is too far to do by bike alone.
"Seventhly, we need to ensure that justice is done and seen to be done in cases where collisions lead to the death of cyclists and serious injuries. I welcome the recent commitment from Ministers to initiate a review of sentencing guidelines. It is vital that this is a comprehensive review of the justice system and how it protects vulnerable road users, and it should be concluded without delay in this Parliament. We are certainly willing to work with Government to implement sensible changes that may be proposed.
"Finally, we need tough new rules and requirements on heavy goods vehicles that are involved in about a fifth of all cycling fatalities, despite the fact that HGVs make up just 6% of road traffic—there is clearly an issue there. We should look at the case for taking HGVs out of our cities at the busiest times, as has happened elsewhere in Europe, including in Paris and Dublin.
"Cycling has the potential to be a huge British success story, but it needs a new approach and a shared commitment across Government, councils, schools, employers and public transport providers. Most of all, it needs Ministers to cut the spin and instead give cycling infrastructure greater priority within the existing transport investment plans that they have set out. It is time to end the stop-start approach that is getting in the way of progress and agree a cross-party, long-term commitment to cycling."