The long history of how 'localism' hasn't worked for cycling

Lord (formerly Sir George) Young: still promoting cycling (photo c/o Lord Young)
In the second of two parliamentary debates within a week, Lord (formerly Sir George) Young harked back to his first speech on cycling as a new MP in 1975. It prompted CTC's Roger Geffen to reflect on why governments of all colours keep passing responsibility for cycling to local councils, and why this prescription still isn't working

After last week's Commons debate on investment in cycling (3 February), this week it was the turn of the Lords to debate the promotion of cycling as a safe form of transport (10 February).

The debate was led by Lord Young of Cookham, formerly Sir George Young MP, otherwise known as 'The Bicycling Baronet' (although his elevation to the Lords has prompted a change of nickname to 'The Pedalling Peer'). I was pleased to have had the opportunity to brief him beforehand.

Opening the debate, Lord Young recalled his first parliamentary speech on cycling back in 1975. He then went on to suggest a "modest shopping list" of pro-cycling measures for the minister to consider, much of which echoed the "cyclists' charter" he had proposed 41 years earlier.

Notably though, he ended his speech with a call for the Government to back up its "admirable vision" with "the necessary investment to make this form of transport safer and more popular." He added: "It needs to be dynamised by more ambitious targets than the modest ones currently adopted by Government."

The Government can give clear guidance on the designing of new roads. At the moment there is a confusing plethora of design guidance notes which are contradictory and lead to poor outcomes. Excellent standards have been developed by Transport for London and the Government should follow that example. Planning policy can ensure that all new developments are cycle-friendly

Lord Young of Cookham

Coming from a former Conservative Transport Secretary (1995-97), we can but hope his words will carry weight with his current successor.

The next speaker, from the Labour benches opposite, was Lord Berkeley. As well as being a CTC Vice-President, he is also Secretary of the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group (APPCG), whose Get Britain Cycling report had proposed targets that were far more ambitious than the Government is currently considering, backed by a good deal more funding. He too had had a CTC briefing prior to the debate.

He noted that, in 1982, David Howell MP (now Lord Howell of Guildford, but then the Secretary of State for Transport) issued a Statement on Cycling Policy. It said: "The Government very much welcomes the revived interest in cycling, which can bring benefits to the community in terms of reduced congestion, pollution and energy costs".

It expressed the "hope that the growing recognition of cyclists' needs will lead to more widespread action to improve facilities which in turn will encourage more people to cycle".

However it then passed responsibility for finding the funding to local councils, explaining that "The amount of cycling varies from county to county, and expenditure priorities must remain a matter for local decision".

Eleven years later in 1993, the House of Lords held a similar debate to the one held earlier this week. Speaking in that debate 23 years ago, Conservative Peer Lord Colwyn (another long-standing champion of cycling who was regrettably unable to be in the Lords this week) referred to this 1982 policy statement. He asked: "What happened in the intervening years? I regret to say that little changed."

Sadly, his words are still largely true today in much of the UK. Then, as now, cycle use amounted to around 2% of trips.

In the meantime, we had a 1996 National Cycling Strategy (NCS), with ambitious targets to double cycle use by 2002 and redouble it by 2012. However the NCS was quietly dropped in 2004 when cycle use had failed to shift - unsurprisingly, given that no funding had been allocated to it.

It was replaced that year (2004) with Walking and Cycling: an Action Plan. Again, plenty of fine words, no funding, no progress. The same fate befell the Government's Active Travel Strategy drawn up during the last months of the Labour Government in 2010.

What all four statements, plans or strategies had in common was the argument that cycling was essentially a local matter, hence it was up to local councils to find the funding - and that is what has consistently failed to happen. And my fear is that, despite strong backing from the public, businesses and MPs of all parties, the Government's forthcoming Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy (CWIS) looks set to go the same way, unless Ministers can be persuaded to have a serious rethink.

The commitment to adopt a Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy only came about thanks to campaigning by CTC and its allies, and is itself an important step forward. However the Chancellor's Autumn Statement last November provided just £0.3bn for cycling over the next five years, compared with £15bn for road-building.

This amounts to just £1.39 per person annually, a derisory figure compared with the minimum of £10 per person, rising to £20 per person, called for in the Get Britain Cycling report – not to mention the £12.50 per person which Transport for London is committed to, and the £24 per person invested annually by the Dutch.

Admittedly George Osborne's £1.39 is only the central Government contribution: there will doubtless be some additional funding from local sources. However it also intended to cover walking as well as cycling. In short, national Government has finally given us the "long-term funding commitment" we've long been calling for – and it's tiny.

Yet despite this, there are signs of real progress in some cities. Cycle Superhighways are now starting to appear in London, Greater Manchester and other cities, and there are some individual examples of excellent facilities elsewhere.

Meanwhile the Welsh Government has passed an Active Travel (Wales) Act which requires Welsh local authorities to map their existing and proposed walking and cycling networks, and to make continuous progress in developing the latter in accordance with some excellent design guidance.

However, outside of London and the eight Cycling Ambition Cities, there is little money to implement these fine ambitions – least of all in Wales.

CTC urges ministers to reallocate some of the £15bn earmarked for the Government's Roads Investment Strategy over the same period. Achieving just the £10 per head minimum called for by the APPCG would amount to £450m annually for England outside London, or £2.25bn over the five-year period of CWIS (April 2016-21).

CTC therefore believes that at least £3bn, and preferably nearer £4bn, is needed if investment levels are to rise from an initial starting point of £10 per person for cycling, with enough funding to cover walking as well.

The Department for Transport conservatively estimates that investment in cycling yields "very good" value for money, delivering at least £5 of benefits for every £1 spent (a Department for Health study put this benefit-to-cost ratio at £13:1). This is far better than most road schemes – as explained in CTC's briefing on cycling and the economy.

The Supreme Court has ordered the Government to take immediate action on air pollution, while the continued growth in transport-related CO2 emissions also threatens our ability to meet our legal commitments on climate change. Surely it is time we cut spending that would worsen congestion, pollution, road danger, physical inactivity and climate change, and invested in a hugely cost-effective solution to these problems instead!