John Humphrys chairing The Big Cycling Debate
John Humphrys chairing The Big Cycling Debate

Political parties quizzed on their cycling commitments

The Big Cycling Debate yesterday [2 March] proved a useful opportunity to press the three main parties on what they would do to Get Britain Cycling - and crucially, how much they are prepared to spend on it.

The debate was organised by Cycling UK on behalf of the UK Cycling Alliance with support from News UK, as part of the Times newspaper's Cities Fit for Cycling Campaign. It took place on the impressive 17th floor of News UK's new London Bridge office. It was chaired by John Humphrys, presenter of BBC's Today Programme and Mastermind, who opened the event by saying that the advantage of Mastermind was that at least the interviewees actually wanted to answer the questions!

To start with, the three panellists briefly outlined what their parties would do to promote cycling. Encouragingly, all three are genuine regular day-to-day cyclists - a great sign of cycling's growing political profile. 

Opening speeches

Robert Goodwill (Con, Minister for local transport) urged people to judge his party on its record. He said that the coalition Government had increased spending on cycling from £2 per person annually to £6. Spending had reached £10 per person in the eight cities receiving Cycle City Ambition Grant (CCAG) money. The Government had just confirmed how much each city would get from the £117m of extra CCAG money announced last autumn: Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds were all getting at least £22m and the other five cities were all getting what they had asked for. There was also more money for maintaining walking and cycling facilities: £500m of the £6bn of local maintenance funding had been earmarked for walking and cycling provision. However, he said he would not be content till spending had reached at least £10 per head everywhere, and it was the Government's aspiration to reach this figure by 2020.

Lilian Greenwood (Lab, shadow minister for transport) had stepped into the debate at short notice, as her Labour colleague Richard Burden (shadow minister for local transport) was unfortunately delayed by serious disruption on the west coast mainline. She said her party wants to give everyone the opportunity to cycle, to maximise its health, environmental, economic and quality-of-life benefits. She said Labour would support local community action to promote cycling, tackle the threats posed by HGVs, make cycle training available for all, and reform the way the justice system responds to road collisions. Anticipating questions about whether Labour would commit to spending of at least £10 per person (as recommended by the parliamentary Get Britain Cycling report), she said Labour could not make unfunded promises, but would set out clear long-term funding proposals to give councils the certainty they need to plan for cycling.

Julian Huppert (vice-chair of the LD federal policy committee and co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group) said that our cities have been designed around motor vehicles, yet still suffer from congestion. It was not "anti-car" to suggest that cycling could relieve this. He said it was good not only for people's physical and mental health, but also for the economy, hence the support for cycling from groups like the CBI. He recalled the funding for cycling secured by former transport minister Norman Baker, and the funding for the cycling cities announced by Nick Clegg. He was proud of his role in getting a legal commitment to a Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy written into the recently passed Infrastructure Act, noting that Cycling UK had described this as a "massive step forward". His party was committed to the spending proposals of the parliamentary Get Britain Cycling report, namely for annual funding of at least £10 per person, rising to £20 as cycle use increases. He said the Telegraph had included this in its list of the seven daftest LibDem policies of all time, yet he was proud of it. In answer to a question from John Humphrys, he confirmed that the funding would be secured by reducing spending on major road schemes.

Funding

The first question from the audience came from Chris Boardman, former Olympic gold-medalist and advisor to British Cycling. He said he had become accustomed to hearing politicians talking about the enormous benefits of cycling, and wondered if they would commit a proportion of the overall transport budget for cycling. Kaya Burgess of The Times also wanted to know whether their manifestos would include clear funding commitments, while Ralph Smyth of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (and the originator of the Cycling & Walking Investment Strategy proposal) wanted to know if the funding would spread from the cities to cover smaller towns and rural areas, to "Get Middle England Cycling".

Robert Goodwill wanted to encourage local authorities in all areas to spend more on cycling, but also to spend the money well, i.e. on facilities connecting the places people really wanted to travel to and from. Julian Huppert said that many rural authorities under-estimated people's willingness to cycle for journeys of around five miles, but cited the cycle route alongside the Cambridgeshire busway as a good example of a well-used cycle link between Cambridge and its rural hinterland. Lilian Greenwood was interested in the idea of spending a proportion of the overall transport budget. Julian Huppert noted that backbenchers such as Ian Austen and Ben Bradshaw (Labour) and Sarah Wollaston (Con) were keen to see stronger commitments from their respective party leaderships.

Joined-up Government

David Davies of the Parliamentary Advisory Council on Transport Safety (PACTS) then asked the panellists what they would do as transport ministers to ensure collaboration from their colleagues in other government departments on promoting the full range of cycling's benefits,  e.g. from the ministers for health, or from planning and local government.

Lilian Greenwood said that cycling was also part of Labour's health policies and that her party was also committed to protecting front-line policing, an important cycle safety issue. She also criticised the Government's decision to scrap road safety targets, a decision which Robert Goodwill defended by saying that the loss of a target didn't mean the issue was unimportant. Julian Huppert added that it is important to balance the need for action on cycle safety without sensationalising it, to the point where fear of the risks of cycling deter people from gaining its far greater health benefits.

Inclusive design standards

Isabelle Clements, from all-abilities cycling charity Wheels for Well-being, wanted to know whether each party would set standards for cycle-friendly design such as those recently adopted by Transport for London, which required all cycle provision to be accessible for users of both standard and non-standard pedal cycles, in the interests of inclusive cycling. Julian Huppert said the Lib Dems would indeed set clear standards, adding that it is important to support projects which make it possible for people with disabilities to discover the benefits of riding adapted cycles. He said we need to get away from the idea of cycling as an activity predominantly for younger, fitter males, and instead promote it as an activity for people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds. Some people with mobility impairments find walking difficult, but are still able to cycle.

The other panellists readily agreed with these sentiments.

20 mph and cycle safety

Jeremy Leech from 20sPlentyForUs asked whether the panel would support a change in the default speed limit for built-up streets from 30 mph to 20 mph, retaining the freedom for councils to apply higher limits where they felt this was relevant. Robert Goodwill said the Government had made it easier for councils to introduce  20 mph, but didn't think it sensible for central government to dictate lower limits. However, Julian Huppert pointed out that central government dictates the current 30 mph default limit, so it would be no more of an infringement of the "localism" principle to change this to 20 mph, if councils could vary the default as easily as they can now. Lilian Greenwood was also keen on the change, but felt that various practical issues would need careful consideration.

Road user training and awareness

Mel Connell wanted to know whether the panel would support a requirement for cycle awareness to be included in the driving test, while Valerie Hill-Archer called for all children to be taught the Highway Code at school. Robert Goodwill stressed the numbers of children now receiving cycle training, adding that the Government was funding 280,000 Bikeability cycle training places in the coming year. However, Julian Huppert noted that Bikeability cycle training still only reaches half of the child population, but the aim should be to make it available for all. He added that it needed to be widely available for adults to discover or rediscover cycling too. In answer to a question from John Humphrys about lorry driver training, Robert Goodwill supported this, adding that he was also a strong supporter of the 'Exchanging Places' scheme where cyclists get to see the inside of a lorry cab.

Reflections

The event was useful not for what the politicians said, but for the message they will have taken back to their national parties to inform the final drafting of their manifestos. They had been put on the spot on funding for cycling, at a heavy-weight event hosted by the Times, with John Humphrys chairing in front of a large and well-informed audience. It remains to be seen whether this will deliver the manifesto commitments we are seeking. However, the party representatives have already said useful things that we can now hold them to account for, whoever forms the next government.

For images of the Big Cycling Debate, check out our gallery.

Roger Geffen
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