It’s great to see Westminster tackling one of the defining issues of our time – let’s face it, this is (literally) the big one for this generation and beyond. It’s far bigger than banker bonuses and larger even than the credit crunch – but it is hard to deny the cold-hearted cynicism that naturally greets this kind of announcement.
What am I talking about? The fact that Parliament has launched the All-Party Commission on Physical Activity to address the urgent issue of the ‘physical inactivity epidemic’ (their words, not mine). Clearly this is no bad thing.
Obesity might not be as ‘sexy’ (or clickable) a word to put in headlines as those aforementioned bankers bonuses, but it’s a topic that will affect the taxes we pay, the survival of the NHS, the physical and mental health of our loved ones…and the size of seats on aeroplanes (so maybe it’s not all bad, eh?).
But fear not, Westminster is on it.
The Commission says it will be making policy recommendations in a report to be published in spring 2014. I realise they can’t say ‘our recommendations will become law’ as there needs to be a debate in a democracy, but is it really likely that if the commission finds in favour of, say cycling, and it recommends measures like blanket 20mph zones around schools so children to cycle in greater safety, can we really expect MPs to back and make law a motion that means all local councils have to enforce 20mph zones around schools (for example)?
The thing is, if Westminster genuinely wants to tackle the ‘inactivity epidemic’ it’s going to be faced with some actual tough decisions. Basically the kind of decisions that are going to make them unpopular with large sections of the population – or voters as we’re known in Parliament.
The commission has unwittingly hit on this point right from its launch. It says: "As economies have developed, technology and other modern conveniences have enabled us to move less, making physical activity optional."
They mean cars. Of course they do.
Now I like cars. They mean I can travel longish distances at speed, like seeing my family who are an hours drive away with ease (there’s no sensible public transport alternative), get to work without having to worry about endless train delays, move heavy stuff around…frankly, I’d be lost without it. It’d be hard to ferry aging relatives around too, come to think of it. But anyway, yes, cars are not evil and most cyclists are drivers too, not much of a newsflash, but let’s call a spade a car (so to speak) – they are one of the roots of the inactivity problem.
You can blame video games, the internet, or whatever you want for kids not choosing to cycle to fill their time, but if you’re going to pop into the car for a half a mile drive to pick up a pint of milk then you’re perhaps avoiding the uncomfortable truth. Need proof? Check out gym membership levels before we had cars.
Let’s go back to the words of the Commission: "The cost and consequences of physical inactivity have been underestimated and we believe that the financial implications alone have the potential to bankrupt economies."
These are strong words, but if the Commission finds that equally strong actions are needed, probably making life harder for motorists and easier for cyclists, it’ll take a strong minded Government – one that doesn’t mind doing the right thing for the future and upsetting voters in the process. For that reason, I fear many of us will not be expecting great results from the new Commission.
I hope I’m proven wrong, but when many of the fine words and recommendations of the recent Get Britain Cycling report have fallen on deaf ears I fear what will actually happen is that the government will not want to upset us motorists and will swerve tough decisions that might actually have an impact on the ticking time bomb that is obesity. In the meantime, I’m off to the Burger King drive-thru.