Devolving Dutch Cycle Power from London to the Regions

Festive urban cycling. Photo flckr: credit Gerrit Huttentot
With London receiving several times the level of funding for cycling and associated media coverage that the rest of the country enjoys, is there a ‘London Bias’? Or is this what you get with an elected mayor with extended powers? And can devolution bring this to a region near you?

London Cyclenistas and the Dutch Factor

If you live outside the South East, you might occasionally wonder whether there is a ‘London Bias’ towards news coverage of cycling-related stories, particularly surrounding safety issues, infrastructure and the politics of cycling. For example, Boris bikes,  cycle superhighways,  campaigns about London lorry deaths, and pledges by mayoral candidates on cycling issues - all London cycling issues ‘Going Dutch'  and attracting national coverage.

Before the majority outside the capital embark on a ‘Bike on Boris Bias’ crusade to confront the London Cyclenistas, I should declare a personal interest. Having only lived and worked in the South East for three months, and spent the rest of my life living, working and cycling either in the North West or North East of England, I am not naturally inclined to write about London over Leeds or Lindisfarne, but I do. Understanding why is crucially important for people who cycle outside London if they want their cycling voice to be heard.

Mayoral mandate and the cycling vote

London is not just the country’s largest and capital city. It has something that most other places currently only possess in limited measure, a truly effective cycling vote.

Since 2000, the Greater London Authority (GLA) has had a directly elected mayor with various responsibilities across the London boroughs. As of May 2015, 16 council areas across England had opted for directly elected mayors to replace the traditional ‘mayor and cabinet’ model, but the mayor’s powers in those 16 councils remain similar to those of executive committees in the traditional model.

Boris Johnson has completely different powers as London Mayor. His individual role matters in London. He needs votes from people who want to know what he’s going to do about matters that affect them, including transport networks, roads and policing. What’s more, he can’t pass the buck because it stops with him.

All aboard the devolution train

Bully for Boris. Why does that matter outside London? It matters because devolution is the buzz word in politics, and it's likely to arrive somewhere near you very soon. When it does, you need to be ready to seize the moment and ask those standing for office what they are going to do about road safety, cycling infrastructure and measures to promote inclusive cycling for all.

Sick of the perceived London bias? Then you need to follow the lead of the voters and bike riders of the capital. Mayoral powers mean accountability and a chance for a cycling mandate.

If you follow the cycling press, and have not been confused trying to follow exactly what funding the Government is proposing to provide for cycling investment, then congratulations are deserved. Double counting previously allocated money for Cycle Ambition Cities, factoring in money earmarked for the  Bikeability scheme, guesstimating how much of the Access Fund monies might be apportioned to cycling as opposed to walking initiatives and investment: all examples of smoke and mirrors as an art form.

It does however appear that when powers over transport are devolved, as they have been to London, Wales and Scotland, devolution leads to an increase in transport investment, and more money being spent per head on cycling.

Mayors and cycling manifestos

Within the GLA, the mayor is responsible for transport across the whole metropolitan area through Transport for London (TfL). Contrast that with the position elsewhere in England, where councils with different legal powers attempt to deal with transport issues across artificial boundaries, with neighbouring authorities and limited funding or fund raising powers. The consequence is poor spacial planning and transport co-ordination, with development often proceeding entirely dependent on car access.

Transport, and specifically cycling, are not generally priority issues outside London because there is a lack of accountability. Not so in London. If there’s a problem with transport the first question is ‘What’s Boris going to do about it?’.

It’s worth remembering the commitments that were extracted from the mayoral candidates prior to the 2012 London election. Boris Johnson signed up to London Cycling Campaign’s Love London Go Dutch campaign, including commitments concerning Dutch design standards for the superhighways and new developments, with the £30 million Mini Hollands a direct consequence of LCC’s campaign.

Prior to the May 2016 mayoral elections, campaign groups such as Stop Killing Cyclists and the Road Danger Reduction Forum have also sought and secured commitments from the main candidates regarding various cycling issues including lorry bans, making more of London car-free, and protected cycle lanes. In short, if you want to stand for London Mayor, ignoring the cycling vote would be a risky strategy. Conversely, most MPs and local councillors can disregard the velo vote with little concern.

Pedal power – to the regions and beyond!

Pedal power in London can be seen from the level of investment per head TfL has provided for cycling, currently £12.50 per head per annum (p/a). Although London is the most striking example, wherever transport has been devolved to regions or devolved nations, cycling funding, whilst still insufficient, has exceeded average UK levels in those areas.

Pedal on Parliament (PoP) has run an extremely effective campaign in Scotland for real and sustained investment in cycling. Their manifesto calls for 5% of the transport budget in Scotland to be allocated to cycling investment, which equates to between £20 and £25 per head p/a, an amount comparable to that spent in the Netherlands.

Prior to the publication of last week's draft Scottish Budget, the figures for which are still being digested, the  cycling spend per head north of the border was around £3.80 p/a. Way below what is needed and what PoP have demanded, but more than the spend in England outside the capital and the eight cycling ambition cities (who bid successfully for a share of a separate funding pot of £114 million).

Depending on how you account for the population of the ambition cities, their separate funding and any benefits they may receive from the residue of funds available nationally, the cycling investment per head in the rest of England (the majority of the UK population), is somewhere between around £1.00 and just under £2.00 p/a, with  most commentators calculating this at around £1.39.

Neither London, Scotland, or Wales receives enough, but they get more because devolved power gives transport and cycling a higher priority, and because the cycling voice and vote matter more when the politicians you elect regionally have the power to make and be held accountable for sustainable transport decisions.

Integrating infrastructure and enforcement

When you talk to cycling campaigners, or just people who ride bikes who have an opinion on ‘things to do with cycling’, some will talk about infrastructure and imply that cycle safety is just a question of getting the design right in the first place. Others have a stronger Road Justice view on enforcement and traffic policing. In truth, these are not entirely separate issues, but throughout England we hold different people and organisations responsible for design, planning and enforcement issues.

Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) have no involvement in designing the transport network, but decide how many police traffic officers they are going to axe to meet their central budget cuts. After all, traffic policing is not a priority is it?

Local governments' transport policy operates largely separate to any linked enforcement (except parking). Their powers are limited, with some services centrally controlled by Government: a recipe for transport systems which are not integrated, with no identified person or organisation held accountable for collective failure.  

In London, Boris Johnson exercises the functions of the PCC for the GLA. As well as transport policy, traffic police numbers and enforcement against HGV drivers are within his overall remit. The need to address air pollution from congestion, public health and land use issues also means he cannot deal with transport in isolation, and blame someone else if the wheel comes off.

The buck stops with Boris

Where there is devolution, politicians and administrators realise transport is linked to other functions and services. A healthy activity like cycling, which tackles obesity, reduces congestion, is environmentally-friendly, socially inclusive and provides economic benefits ticks various boxes, and becomes easier to sell – ultimately to one person.

The reference to one person above may alarm some who worry about the democratic nature of mayors with powers such as those endowed upon Boris. The theme of this blog is the opportunity further devolution presents to cycling campaigners to force a better deal from elected mayors in terms of funding and cycling infrastructure than they get currently, not the suggestion that devolution is perfect or entirely democratic. If you ask about London bias in cycling terms, or the ability to get things done, I do however have a very simple tale.

In October, I attended the joint CycleNation / CTC annual conference. Brian Deegan (Principal Technical Specialist for Cycling at TfL) gave a presentation on cycling infrastructure and design, understandably referencing various London examples. I asked him what impact it made in his work when trying to push through cycle infrastructure, that his ultimate boss is a mayor with combined responsibility amongst other things for both transport and policing. He replied: "I could not do my job without it, if I hit a problem I just go and speak to Andrew Gilligan (The Mayor’s Cycling Commissioner), and he speaks to the Mayor".

That’s why London’s different and why it gets more coverage on many cycling issues. Because campaigners like LCC have been able to exert more influence, and help achieve a better deal for cyclists than most outside London, not because they were necessarily better campaigners, but the governance system in London enabled them to hold someone accountable and make bold demands; and they did.

Boris of the North

If you’re now wondering whether George Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse' and devolution promises have more relevance to you and cycling than you first imagined, you could be right, but it does depend upon where you live.

The Local Government and Devolution Bill passed its third reading in the House of Commons on 7 December, and is likely to be enacted early next year, paving the way for Combined Authorities (CAs) to hold elections for mayors who exercise similar powers to the London Mayor. The exact powers may vary between authorities, but significantly can include those of the existing PCC, who would be then be replaced by a ‘Boris Style’ mayor outside London.

A fab five, but who will be first?

So far, five CAs have been established, with elections for directly elected mayors either planned or anticipated for 2017 in four of those, Greater Manchester CA, Liverpool City Region, North East CA and Sheffield City Region. 2017 mayoral elections are also expected in the proposed Tees Valley CA and West Midlands CA, with other regions such as Derby and Derbyshire proposing CAs and West Yorkshire CA  yet to announce their mayoral plans.

Taking one of the above as an example, Greater Manchester (GMCA), legislation has already been passed providing that the GMCA Mayor will assume the role of the PCC for the area. With a population of 2.7 million GMCA could well be the first area outside London where cyclists across a large metropolitan area can, individually or through campaign groups, attempt to secure the type of commitments on infrastructure and other integrated transport issues from mayoral candidates which the LCC and others achieved in London.

Cycling revolution through devolution

A directly elected mayor of GMCA, or indeed the other CAs, would have powers over issues affecting cyclists where they live and work far in excess of the vast majority of elected MPs or current local politicians.

If there was ever a time for those who care about cycling, funding, infrastructure and road safety to join a local or regional campaign group and ‘gear up’ for future changes, it is now. Devolution will not affect everyone equally or at the same time, but if my prediction is correct, and devolution brings with it the campaigning and potential manifesto commitment opportunities envisaged, then hopefully I will be writing about campaign wins, achievements and cycling infrastructure throughout the UK, and won’t be accused of a London bias.