Transport Secretary causes confusion with calls for mandatory licensing

Department for Transport Secretary of State Grant Shapps caused a stir on Wednesday when he voiced his support for policies successive governments have dismissed as unworkable, impractical and costly. Cycling UK’s Sam Jones reports

Confusion reigned in the national media on Wednesday 17 August as media briefings given by Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, gave two conflicting messages on one controversial topic: the registration of people who cycle.

A front-page splash in the Daily Mail cited Mr Shapps’ full-hearted support for registration. The Transport Secretary however contradicted this position in an interview with The Times published the same morning.

In this article he rolled back from such an idea, saying he was “not attracted to the bureaucracy of registration plates”, and that it “would go too far”.

Adding to the misunderstanding of government policy, it emerged junior Transport Minister, Baroness Vere, who has responsibility for road safety, had stated only last November in a parliamentary question:

“The Government has no plans to introduce a mandatory registration scheme for cycle ownership. The costs of doing so would outweigh the benefits, and this would deter many people from cycling.”

These latest proposals to regulate cycling are impractical and unworkable, and have been repeatedly dismissed by successive governments. They’re also a complete U-turn on current government policy as laid out last November

Duncan Dollimore, head of campaigns at Cycling UK

The Guardian questioned the Department for Transport (DfT) press office whether there were official plans in place to bring in number plates for cycles. The DfT are reported to have said “there was no plan in place and it would be a matter for whoever was transport secretary under the new prime minister”.

Where there was agreement between the two articles was Mr Shapps’ support for people cycling to be subject to speed limits in the same way they are when driving. In neither article did he elaborate on how this would be possible, given cycles are not fitted as standard with speedometers.

In his interview with the Daily Mail, Mr Shapps also called for a review on insurance for cyclists, though he did not state whether as “a keen cyclist” himself he had insurance when he was out on his bike.

Cycling UK has offered its members free third-party liability insurance since 1925, and recommends it for everyone who cycles, but does not believe it should be compulsory.

While Mr Shapps' proposals drew support from organisations such as FairFuelUK, which campaigns against cycle lanes and the need for action on climate change, well-respected organisations such as the AA questioned their value.

AA President, Edmund King was reported on the PA newswire to have called these proposals as “retrograde”, and said, “Most adult cyclists are also drivers, and therefore more should be done to encourage harmony on the roads.”

Duncan Dollimore, Cycling UK’s head of campaigns who discussed the impracticality of these proposals on BBC Radio 4’s World at One (from 28:50) said: “These latest proposals to regulate cycling are impractical and unworkable, and have been repeatedly dismissed by successive governments. They’re also a complete U-turn on current government policy as laid out last November."

Mr Dollimore added, “Every country which has tried to implement such ideas have soon realised their costly mistake.”

With around 25 million children and adults aged five or over owning a bicycle in Great Britain, successive governments have viewed the necessary licensing body and compulsory training system for cyclists and/or their cycles as complex and very costly.

Estimates show it would cost not much less than the current system for drivers (of which there are almost 38.5 million) and private cars (over 29 million).

With the current Government pledged to reduce the civil service by 90,000, news reports did not make it clear how the Transport Secretary proposed the extra workload would be managed. Reports also did not say who would bear the cost for such licensing – the Exchequer, the individual or both.

“As cost of living ramps up, we’re seeing more people turning to cycling to meet their local transport needs,” said Mr Dollimore. “Rather than proposing expensive barriers to cycling more – both to the Exchequer and the individual – we need this government to encourage people to cycle more, not less.”

Compared to pre-pandemic levels there has been a 47% increase in mid-week cycling since March 2022 when fuel prices began to rise. Cycling UK attributes this to more people choosing cheaper modes of transport for their local journeys.

Were the UK to introduce mandatory licensing, it would, according to the Guardian, place the UK on a par with North Korea which is currently the only country to persist with mandatory licencing.