The solution is under our noses: We need more cycling in Britain

Today 27 per cent of journeys in Holland are made by bike - while in Britain the figure is as low as 2 per cent. But cycling could help us achieve our 2050 carbon targets, and take the strain off the NHS.

As water rushes over parts of the UK and the USA recovers from its "Polar Vortex", the climate change debate has returned with a vengence. Correlating directly with our use of fossil fuels, up to 97 per cent of climate science papers now agree that climate change is a problem, and that the world is getting warmer. Comments by figures such as Jeremy Clarkson and Donald Trump calling climate change "science fiction" and "global warming bullshit" look more ridiculous than ever.

But what can we do about it? Although UK cycling has received some bad press in recent months after a spate of deaths in the capital, encouraging more people to cycle seems a remarkably obvious way to help to reduce our carbon emissions and save energy – and is something that is supported by all the major political parties. At least on paper. The transport sector is responsible for a large number of UK emissions, and by limiting them through the use of alternative transport methods the impact could be significantly lower.

On this front, some European countries are well ahead of the curve. Holland, Denmark and Germany all have transport systems that revolve around the use of bicycles. In Holland especially, bikes are everywhere, lining the streets, chained up en masse outside train stations in spaces as large as car parks, and taking precedence on the roads. This healthy relationship with cycling began after protests sparked by the deaths of children on the roads and the 1980s oil crisis led to the introduction of car-free areas in city centres and the rebuilding of roads to encompass separate lanes. Today 27 per cent of journeys in Holland are made by bike.

A 2011 study by the European Cyclists’ Federation, Cycle More Often 2 Cool The Planet, argued “if levels of cycling in the EU-27 were equivalent to those found in Denmark, bicycle use would help achieve 12 to 26 per cent of the 2050 target reduction set for the transport sector.” At the moment, the UK is falling well short, with around 2 per cent of all journeys being taken on bikes by comparison with the Danes' 16 per cent. But that could change: cycling in the UK has a risen by a fifth over the past 10 years.

Speaking to Martin Key from British Cycling, the national governing body for cycling in Great Britain, the wider picture is revealed. While stating that these are “rough calculations”, Key tells me “transport is the single biggest emitter of Co2 (21 per cent of UK emissions)”.

He expands, saying that if we increased the amount we cycle by 500 per cent by 2025, which is “the recommended target of the ‘Get Britain Cycling’ report (which says 10 per cent of all journeys should be made by bike)”, then we would eventually save “10 million tons of Co2 (25 billion miles at 400g of Co2 per mile driven).”

It is in cutting small car journeys and commuter miles where the most energy would be saved – almost a fourth of car journeys made in the UK are under a mile. Despite the imperfect environment for cycling in London, since 2010 "Boris bikes" (or "Ken bikes" as they should properly be called, having been originally planned by the previous mayor) have done a lot to promote inner city commuter cycling – mirroring the 2007 Vélib scheme in Paris.

Boris has promised a "cycling revolution", but little impact has been felt beyond London. A nation-wide scheme would be more appropriate in terms of significantly cutting down on energy usage. Of course there needs to be expenditure in the first instance, but as can be seen in a recent study on town-wide cycling initiatives in England, the social and environmental benefits offset the negatives.

Of course, cycling won’t just benefit the environment: it would lower obesity levels and related illnesses. If the UK can get it right, and create a system comparable to the Netherlands', where despite having the highest proportion of cyclists, they also have the lowest number of cycling fatalities, the benefits to UK carbon output and society as a whole would be enormous.

A lone cyclist on Southwark Bridge. Photograph: Getty Images.
Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.