Air pollution in the city
Air pollution in the city

Roads, horses, pollution...and cycling

The Government’s contradictory plans for tacking air pollution and investing in roads have both hit the news this week. They were debated in Parliament too, as was equestrian safety. Cycling UK made sure cycling got mentioned in three debates on successive days.

The Government evidently didn't want to publish its third attempt at a draft Air Quality Strategy just before the general election.  Although a previous court ruling had set a publication deadline of 24th April, Ministers went back to court as soon as the election was called, seeking permission to delay it till June. They claimed that publishing it would breach the rules of pre-election “purdah”, which require Ministers to avoid making announcements that could sway voters’ minds.
 
The court rejected this argument: air pollution is a national emergency and the Government is already under a court order to bring emissions down to legal limits “as soon as possible”. Delaying the publication of the draft Strategy would frustrate this aim.
 
The draft Strategy therefore came out on 5th May, and was roundly condemned as woefully inadequate by environmental groups and local authorities alike – including Cycling UK.
 
Environmental law firm Client Earth went further. They sought to bring a third legal challenge. They had already persuaded the courts to rule that the previous versions (published in April 2015 and in November 2016 respectively) were illegally inadequate. This time though, Client Earth did not even wait for a final draft to be issued after consultation: they challenged the consultation draft itself.
 
They argued firstly that it merely set out plans to develop plans (rather than any actual plans) for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland; and secondly that it was irrational for the Government effectively to require Councils to tackle air quality as soon as possible – only without using road user charging – when the Government’s own technical assessment had shown that this was the most effective way to lower emissions to legal limits “as soon as possible”.
 
On Wednesday this week (5th July), the Court decided it was premature for Client Earth to try challenging a consultation draft. Yet the Judge also made it clear that the final Strategy could still be open to challenge if its policies are not strong enough to meet emissions targets “as soon as possible.” Client Earth regards this ruling as a successful “shot across the bows of Government.”
 
Misbehaving cyclists “causing” pollution… again!
 
The House of Lords had debated air quality only two days earlier. The debate was called by Conservative Peer Lord Borwick. In an otherwise sensible speech, he claimed that “cycle lanes are causing pollution that is now being breathed in by the cyclists themselves”.
 
Over the next two hours, he was joined in his criticisms of cycle lanes by Lords Blencathra, Higgins and Caithness (all of them Conservative), and backbench peer Baroness Valentine. For good measure, Lord Blencathra also took a predictable swipe at cyclists’ behaviour: “There is nothing more repulsive than the sight of the Lycra-clad louts in London with their bum in the air and their head between the handlebars”. He contrasted the UK’s “thugs on bikes” with his portrayal of cycling in Paris and Strasbourg: “Men and women of all ages, in normal clothes, riding elegantly with their heads held high”. Lord Caithness had similar praise for the Hague’s cycling culture. Both wondered why Transport for London had felt it necessary to “destroy [London] completely” with physically separate cycle tracks – claiming that Strasbourg and the Hague have no need for such nonsense (n.b. see Google Streetview and judge for yourself!)
 
Other Peers sprang to the defence of cyclists and cycle lanes. Baroness Randerson (LibDem), Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb (aka Jenny Jones, Green), Baroness Blackstone (Lab), Lord Berkeley (Lab) and Lord Hunt of Chesterton (Lab), and Labour’s environment spokesperson Baroness Jones of Whitchurch all felt the UK needs more cycle lanes.  Jenny Jones and several of the Labour Peers also called for a new Clean Air Act, to ensure enforceable air quality standards are enshrined in UK law post-Brexit.
 
Encouragingly, the LibDem, Labour and Green spokespeople (Baroness Randerson and the two Baroness Jones’s) both argued for a wider aim of traffic reduction. Wow, the phrase has hardly been heard in Parliament since the Traffic Reduction (National Targets) Act 1998 was passed (and then roundly ignored) almost 20 years ago!

It is important that we encourage cycling and walking as an investment. It is not only healthy but important to well-being.

Lord Gardiner of Kimble, Environment Minister

Responding for the Government, environment Minister Lord Gardiner of Kimble also viewed cycling investment in a positive light. “It is important that we encourage cycling and walking as an investment. It is not only healthy but important to well-being”. If only more of his party colleagues shared his and former London Mayor Boris Johnson’s sentiments!
 
Equestrian safety and “close passing”
 
Cycling featured again in the Commons the next day.  This time the topic of the debate was equestrian safety on rural roads. Yet the strength of our recent dialogue with the British Horse Society was reflected in the way that several MPs equated the safety of equestrians and that of cyclists and other vulnerable road users (VRUs).
 
Initiating the debate, Derek Thomas MP (Con, St Ives) called on the Government to mount a “Think” public awareness campaign, urging drivers to slow down and leave plenty of space when overtaking equestrians – echoing our #TooCloseForComfort campaign. He also reflected on some of the key messages of our Road Justice campaign: too many dangerous or inconsiderate drivers "get away with it", the police don’t act even when given helmet-camera footage of bad driving, and so on.
 
James Cartlidge (Con, South Suffolk), who also described himself as a “keen cyclist”, made similar points, as did Bob Seely (Con, Isle of Wight). Bob Seely also joined Laurence Robertson (Con, Tewkesbury) in calling for equestrians and cyclists to have greater opportunities to use suitable footpaths - echoing Cycling UK’s Rides of Way campaign.
 
The debate was concluded for the Government by Jesse Norman MP (Hereford), making his first parliamentary appearance in his new role as minister for local transport, roads and road safety.  Another “very keen cyclist”, he was happy to pass on his fellow MPs’ concerns about roads policing to the Chief Constable of his local police force (West Mercia), who is also the national lead on roads policing for the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC).
 
Mr Bangham will doubtless seize the opportunity to urge increased funding for roads policing. It has faced disproportionate cuts in recent years compared with other areas of policing.
 
The Government’s new “Transport Strategy”: more roads investment, more fine words for cycling
 
One area of public spending that isn’t cash-starved is our major road network. However local authorities are understandably aggrieved at the amounts being spent on England’s motorways and trunk roads (£15.2bn between 2015/6 and 2020/1), compared with more local A-roads – let alone the minor streets and lanes where people walk, cycle, work and shop. The motorway and trunk road network will receive £4.4bn simply in maintenance work over that period, despite forming just 2% of the length of England’s roads network.  The other 98% - the roads, streets and lanes managed by local councils – will receive just £6bn between them. No wonder drivers, like cyclists, are increasingly concerned about potholes.
 
On Wednesday, Jesse Norman was back at the dispatch box, responding to a debate on local roads investment, called by Huw Merriman, another cycling MP. Earlier that day, by amazing coincidence (really?), the Government had issued a ‘Transport Strategy’, the first time a UK Government has ever done this. It does not deserve the name though – it hardly mentions walking, cycling or public transport. It is little more than an announcement that the Government will make £1bn of funding available to English local authorities to invest in the A-roads for which they are responsible, e.g. to build local bypasses.
 
Unsurprisingly, the debate featured plenty of bids from MPs seeking funding for their pet local road schemes. Yet once again, cycling kept cropping up in a debate that was not really about cycling!

Merriman’s opening speech ended by echoing Cycling UK’s calls for Government action to ensure councils look for opportunities to improve cycling conditions on all highway and traffic schemes. His call was echoed by Lillian Greenwood (Lab, Nottingham South) and Fiona Bruce (Con, Congleton).
 
Fabian Hamilton (Lab, Leeds NE) went further, citing Cycling UK’s calculation that, by 2020/21 national roads spending is set to increase to £84 per person annually outside London, while cycle and walking investment will fall to 72p. Oxfordshire MPs Layla Moran (LD, Oxford W and Abingdon) and Robert Courts (Con, Witney) specifically called for a cycle route between Eynsham and Botley, to the west of Oxford.
 
A recommendation from the Minister’s former think-tank
 
We can but hope that Jesse Norman will have picked up the cross-party enthusiasm for cycling investment, having heard it expressed on both of his first two debates as roads minister.  We look forward to meeting him and make the case that he needs to “Increase the proportion of the overall transport budget spent on cycling and walking, and adopt the ‘London Cycling Design Standards’ as a national standard.” Those are not our words – this recommendation comes from a recent report called "Driving Down Emissions: how to clean up road transport" from the centre right think-tank Policy Exchange.  And one of Policy Exchange’s Senior Fellows used to be… Jesse Norman!

Roger Geffen