President sets out stall for leaner, stronger BAGB

Phillip Darnton, president of the Bicycle Association and head of Cycling England, is no conservative. He is willing to suggest changes for the Bicycle Association that lesser presidents would shy away from. In a long and avidly listened to speech at Wednesday's AGM of the Coventry-based organisation, Darnton put forward a number of ideas that would boost the Association's coffers and bring it into a much closer working partnership with the Association of Cycle Traders. Here's the transcript of the speech...
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Let me begin with a quote from Hansard – for the 6th April this year:

"It is right to point out that at a time when the Government with the whole nation are worried about keeping children active and making sure that they remain active beyond their school years, reducing obesity and improving fitness, cycling has a key role to play. Furthermore, if we could get more people to cycle rather than to drive cars, many of our transport problems would be solved....I accept the centrality of cycling – old activity though it may be – to much of the modern political, social, economic and health agendas."

[Note: the full Hansard text can be accessed from this BikeBiz.com story: http://www.bikebiz.co.uk/.../article.php?id=5442 ]

That was the Minister for Arts.

It's a good time for cycling, and a good time to be part of the Bicycle Association; our commitment to "the future of cycling" is at last coming up the national agenda. I appreciate that for many of you this must sound like a fine example of the all-too-familiar 'spin' which besets us at election time. Bike prices seem even lower, margins are even tighter, and competition is fierce. But on a slightly wider view, I am sure that change – and for the better future of cycling – is in the air. When, for example, did you last see 3 x 60 second commercials for cycling on ITV, Channel 4 and 5 for 2 weeks running? They're on now – in London. I know that London is not representative of the UK as a whole, but with their budget for this new financial year of £19 million exclusively for cycling, and with 23% increases in cyclists' journeys for each of the last 2 years, the eyes of Government and many Local Authorities are on what can be achieved with more investment in cycling across the country.

This annual President's address is my chance to give a personal perspective on the progress and the opportunities ahead for the Bicycle Association, and this year some important issues face us, bringing with them a need for change. (And while as professional managers we all claim to espouse change, in truth it is a matter about which we usually feel deeply uncomfortable when it affects us personally).

The first step in our process has already been taken, and if the next steps go as smoothly and graciously as the first, we will not have too much problem in adapting ourselves. We have just reduced our Council membership from its historic level of 15, down to six – rather more in keeping with the scale of our Association. The election of these six members had neither the drama of the white smoke; the obscurity of the process inside the Sistine Chapel; nor the interminable hustings of our General Election. Indeed its outstanding feature has been the generous spirit and personal modesty of two candidates – Mark Bickerton and Eddie Eccleston – who, in their tied positions, conceded their places to allow others with less experience of the BA to join the new Council today. I very much appreciate their gesture, and you can be sure that we will not lose their wise advice; Eddie has agreed to continue to represent the BA in its European issues and agenda, and Mark – as a member with a lifetime involvement in cycling – will be particularly concerned to ensure the long-term health and strength of the BA (especially financially) in the period of change ahead.

So what are the challenges which I see facing us and the new Council in 2005/6?

As in any organisation, they do come down to finances. You will have seen from the accounts of the Association for 2004 that, for the first time, we have recorded a small loss in our operation. And this can be traced to two principal factors. First of all, the fundamental change in the structure of the cycle industry in the UK over the past 3 years; with the closure of Raleigh's assembly plant in Nottingham at the end of 2002, there are now very few bicycles made in the UK at all. That, in turn, has led to a number of closures of business. In the past they were long-standing members of the BA, and are no more. Our membership declined – though is now stable – and with it our income from subscriptions.

There has been another major impact on our finances, too, from changes in the industry with regard to Trade Shows. For many years – and in the glory days of the 1990's – trade shows sponsored and organised by the BA provided a principal source of income for the Association, allowing it financial security and freedom to invest in the promotion of itself and cycling. In 2000, John Moore led a determined effort to revitalise the Harrogate show, but since then interest – by the members and the trade has waned to a point where we will not be involved in a Trade Show at all. In consequence we have forfeited income, which even a couple of years ago, contributed £25,000 p.a. to our funds. The loss of these two income streams presents us with a challenge.

In part, of course, this might be addressed by a drive for new members to join the BA; there are certainly some attractive candidates – and one or two of you are in the room today! Naturally for any potential new member one of the first questions is always about the benefits of joining: "What's in it for me?" I hope that today's meeting will go a long way to answer that question, for we do have many of the major players in the industry here together. The BA is a valuable forum, a useful meeting-place where your issues can be broached with one another in an informal setting.

We will hear too of the invaluable work being done on our behalf by the Technical Advisory Group, led by Alan Cater. This small group are unsung heroes, grappling currently with the development of European Standards for cycle safety specifications and all the tedious but essential detail that goes into them – and to their implementation in the UK. Those of you who attended our seminar last year will know that it is a complex area, but one that any industry member neglects at their peril. The CEN Standards will happen and we all need to be prepared – the legal consequences of your company not being in compliance could be very costly indeed.

The BA offers benefits too in the wider world, not just of influencing technical issues, but of the political climate. Speeches like that from which I quoted a moment ago do not just happen – they are the result of continuous contact, promoting and lobbying the cause of cycling at Westminster. We have for many years been the principal supporter of the Parliamentary Affairs Group (CPAG), and while for much of the time you don't see anything for your money – rather like an insurance policy – when the need arises, you can get access and support. And unless you plug away at MPs the interests of cycling get ignored or overlooked.

So whether it's as a forum; or for its technical leadership and advice; or for its wider industry lobbying, the BA has an important part to play and important benefits for its members.

And we could do more. I commented last year on our shocking inability to collaborate to generate some basic data about the UK cycle market. Frankly it's a source of embarrassment to admit to anyone – Government, Minister, the media, other organisations – that we do not know anything reliable about the size and evolution of the UK cycle market. Such is our measure of anxiety about "competitive advantage" that we would rather share nothing to ensure that we know next to nothing. It's high time that we stopped being so precious. The fact that BikeBiz – great media organ that it may be for cycling – can tell you more about sales in our industry than the BA itself can is a disgrace. A challenge for our new Council.

And it needn't stop there. As an industry we could so easily collaborate to tackle issues that often stand in the way of more people cycling, whether that be cycle theft or how to choose a helmet and fit it properly. In my view the BA has to find a better balance between healthy competition and sensible collaboration for the benefit of us all.

This is a good list of the benefits, real and potential, which the BA has on offer. The only problem is our costs. They are simply too high for today's budget – and our real requirements. We can make some savings. We have had invaluable help from Mel Payne and his role is now being reduced through the year. On the positive side we have been given generous support by the London Cycle Show, who see the BA's endorsement as part of their pedigree as they establish this annual event as the public show in the UK.

But sensible economies and generous support are no substitute for a proper plan. We need to re-establish our financial security and safeguard the health and strength of the BA for the long term.

So what is on the agenda for this new BA? I believe that the tasks which we now must get on with fall into 3 groups – inside the BA itself; within the whole Cycle Industry; and in the wider community.

First, inside the BA. Clearly the major exercise will be to explore the matter of this property; its value; its potential for a developer; our best route to collaborate with the Motor Cycle Association – then the all important negotiation of the sale and our re-investment plan.

We have two other issues to pursue as well. At this point I would particularly like to acknowledge John Moore who has generously agreed to help us, acting as Deputy President. John has massive experience and is a great campaigner for the BA. To say that he will act as my "enforcer" is probably to over-do a topical phrase. But he will certainly help us get things done which realistically few members can dedicate much time to. He will be working to ensure that the benefits of our Technical Team are maximised, and appreciated across our Industry; he will also be exploring some of those other areas of benefit for members which we have not yet fully realised.

I really value his willingness to give us time and advice – although there are those who think that there may be some healthy debate between us at times! Provided that debate gives us the best result, I will be delighted … and it will.

Secondly – our opportunity within the cycle industry. Many of you will know that my especial interest in the world of cycling is to find ways of harnessing the immense enthusiasm, commitment and passion that is to be found in every corner – among NGO's, like British Cycling, CTC and Sustrans: among the campaign groups: among many local authorities and some politicians: in parts of Whitehall, and of course both here in the BA and in the retail trade, represented both by Halfords and the ACT. We have much more in common than you might sometimes believe!

It is an appropriate moment for us to take forward our occasional conversations with the ACT. (It is particularly back luck in timing that neither David Wilsher nor Mark Brown are able to be with us today – but it was unavoidable). The ACT faces many of the same issues, I believe, as we do: funding, overhead costs, administration, and management – particularly the availability of members' time to run the association. As we move forward into a very different market environment, it is only responsible to reconsider whether and how our two organisations can work together more effectively and more efficiently for the overall benefit of cycling and its healthy future. "Collaboration" is just that – it is not takeover; nor is it merger – so don't rush away with any tabloid drama headlines. It's about what we can do together – and what things are best done individually.

Which brings me to my third heading – "the wider community". This is my final point.

Over the past couple of years, the focus of the BA has been not just inside our world, but outside as well. We have started to make ourselves known, and respected, in the important worlds of Whitehall and Westminster. And this is vital to us. A real political will to see a resurgence in cycling – in all its forms, young and adult, elite and fun, for health or for speed, for leisure or for work – would transform our industry. We have a real say in, and responsibility for "the future of cycling". And we are discharging that responsibility notably. The creation of the Bike Hub to support the future of cycling is beginning to bring real results. In its first full year, Bike Hub participants raised over £260,000. That is a significant achievement – especially for a hard-pressed industry as ours. It has not gone unnoticed or unappreciated. We invited the Head of the Cycling Policy Unit at the DfT to join us today – another man with an overfull diary. He has sent us this note:

"I am sorry that other commitments will prevent me from being at the Bicycle Association's AGM. However, I thought I ought to write to express the Department's appreciation of your Members' efforts over the last year.

I would have like to attend, not least to get a sense of members' feelings about the progress of the Bike Hub scheme. As you know, Bike Hub has developed quite a fan club in DfT. Following John Spellar's scepticism about the industry's lack of involvement in promotional efforts on cycling, both Kim Howells and Charlotte Atkins have been delighted by the industry's commitment to the scheme. Charlotte Atkins in particular was very happy with the story she heard about Bike Hub from industry representatives at Cycle 2004 last September and to meet some of the children benefiting from Bike it.

A large part of the challenge for the year ahead for Cycling England, Government and partner organisations is to exploit the good work done to date. Much of that work has been inspired and assisted through Bike Hub. We have a portal that is, to quote another Cycling England member, "excellent" – functional, versatile and attractive – and which can now form the reference point for the communications programme which we anticipate forming a substantial part of the Cycling England work plan. We have, in Bike It, a scheme which appears capable of bringing a new cycling culture to schools, and we now need to take up the challenge of building its scale to best effect. And we have a new, broader base of support for Bike Week which should allow us to make better use of the vast numbers of local and national events in future. In short, Bike Hub is in danger of making the bicycle industry indispensable.

With other developments at the national level in train, such as the first Cycling England work plan, the revitalising of cycle training, the inception of a senior-level Government Group on cycling and the new cycle-to-work initiative, I am optimistic that the coming year will be even more productive.

Many thanks to you and your members for their contribution".

Chris Watts.

You will hear shortly from Paul Osborne of Sustrans, of the progress we are making with our £1/4 million annual investment in Bike It. It's a terrific story, and even if you have heard it some months ago, it goes on getting better. I will leave it to Paul and one of his team, Dave Clasby, to give you a "from the bikesheds" view of our work.

But we do need to do a couple of things beyond keeping the Bike Hub funds coming in. We need to get the message out regularly to all the contributors of just what is happening to their money, and how successful we are in training children in school.

I try to do this myself in various meetings; Carlton Reid generously gives us a full-page free in every issue of Bike Biz magazine: we are just about to circulate a 4 page update to everyone. But it's not nearly enough. Frankly even if you are enthused and committed by what you hear, how often do you have the time or priority to pass that enthusiasm and news on?

I think the time has come to find a champion in each company who can be briefed and have a hot-line to the Bike It team. They need not be senior – they must be keen, and have your support. We have got to find ways of ensuring that your financial efforts are well-known in your company and in the Industry. I plan to talk to Paul and to you individually about the need for action and more publicity for Bike Hub.

Publicity has other benefits too – it reassures current contributors that they are right to give support; and it encourages those who do not currently pay to reconsider their position. It was a great disappointment to us that, last year, Tandem decided to leave the Association and not to contribute to Bike Hub. Halfords, too, who have been for many years staunch supporters of the Bicycle Association, have as yet not been able to find an appropriate way to be involved in the industry scheme. I am particularly pleased that Paul Joyner has been able to join us today, and I remain hopeful that there will be an opportunity soon to present our achievements with Bike Hub to their new Chief Executive.

Industry-wide commitment is essential to getting and keeping the commitment of many other groups. From our experiences in Derby – which you will hear – we are working closely with British Cycling who have secured about £1 million from Sport England for more in-school cycle coaching. From Cycling England we hope to secure another £250,000 p.a. to extend 'Bike It' to more schools; from Transport for London we will see investment in some beacon Bike It Schools in London boroughs. Across the country there are now in post 250 School Travel Advisers – we need them to be champions of 'Bike It', and we will get some Government funds to do that.

It was the Bicycle Association who started all this. The Bike Hub fund has created "Bike It", and "Bike It" has caught the imagination of the wider community in the industry, and now beyond it to those Government spending departments where "serious money" can be unlocked.

That's why I believe that we should now be exploring just how far our whole industry can work together with a demonstration of our corporate social responsibility. Could the BA, with the ACT, be instrumental in forming a Confederation of Cycle Industries (CCI) with contribution to Bike Hub as its 'subscription'?

Ladies and Gentlemen, we have some very exciting possibilities ahead. As I said at the beginning it is a good time for cycling and a good time to be part of the Bicycle Association. We have every reason to be confident that we can grow and develop – that we can find new ways of working together for the benefit of the industry and for the future of cycling.

So finally I would just like to say a few thank yous.

To: you all for being here today. Your participation is vital. Please come again, and again. To: the Technical Team – who do that tiresome but essential work for us; for the benefit of us all. To: the new Council for volunteering for the next couple of years. You may be surprised! – I hope you will be delighted too. To: Mel Payne – who is always there, with good sense and good humour. To: Phillip Taylor – for agreeing to be our new Vice President

And of course to Pat.

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