It’s time to end the stop-start approach to cycling

Labour's shadow secretary of state for transport gives her plan for Britain's cyclists.

Cyclists deserve better than the spin they were subjected to from transport ministers this month. A promise of £148m turned out to be an average of just £38m a year until 2016, with the rest to be found by local authorities. From a Tory-led government that axed Cycling England and its £60 annual budget, this was too little too late after three wasted years.

This is a wasted opportunity considering the positive benefits that would flow from a greater priority being given to cycling.

When nearly a quarter of all car journeys are less than a mile, making cycling a more attractive option has a huge potential to cut congestion and boost the economy. With families facing a cost of living crisis, making more journeys by bike is a good way to reduce the impact of rising fuel costs on the household budget. And as a cost and time effective way of staying fit, cycling has real health benefits. Switching to cycling also cuts emissions, reducing transport’s contribution to climate change.

The good news is that these benefits are increasingly recognised, with the number of people cycling up by a fifth in the past decade. However, we will have to really move up a gear if we hope to catch those countries which have set and met impressive targets to increase levels of cycling.

I am clear that the only way this can be achieved is to end the stop-start commitment to cycling that prevents greater progress being made. Ministers recently set out annual budgets for rail and road investment up to 2020/21, but failed to do so for cycling infrastructure. That means a £28bn commitment to roads, but a one-off £114m for cycling spread across three years. It’s time for a serious rethink of priorities within the roads budget, with a proportion reallocated to deliver a long-term funding settlement for cycling infrastructure. The evidence from countries such as the United States is that a commitment to smaller scale transport improvements, alongside a "fix-it-first" approach to roads, delivers jobs and growth more effectively than a list of controversial road schemes of questionable value that may take years to deliver.

The priority for investment to support cycling must be dedicated separated infrastructure to create safe routes. In the past, the focus has too often been on painting a thin section at the side of the road a different colour. Genuinely separated cycle routes are vital to improve safety, but also to build confidence and encourage those not used to cycling to make the switch to two wheels.

A commitment to new infrastructure cannot become an excuse not to improve the safety of cyclists on roads where there is no separation. The priority should be redesigning dangerous junctions, where almost two thirds of cyclist deaths and serious injuries from collisions take place. There must also be much greater use of traffic light phasing to give cyclists a head start. To ensure we do not repeat these past mistakes I have proposed that all future transport schemes be subject to a Cycling Safety Assessment prior to approval, in same way that economic and equality impact assessments have to be met.

Local authorities will be central to devising, prioritising and delivering a new commitment to cycling infrastructure. Councils should be provided with a best practice toolkit for boosting cycling numbers, based on what we learnt from the wrongly disbanded Cycling City and Towns programme and evidence from abroad. They should be supported to deliver 20mph zones, increasingly becoming an effective default in most residential areas. The Labour government in Wales has taken forward Active Travel legislation, setting out clear duties to support cycling, and we should assess the very likely potential to extend that approach to England.

As well as getting the right infrastructure in place to support cycling, we need to reverse some of the reckless decisions taken by Ministers since the last election.

It was wrong to axe national targets to cut deaths and serious injuries on Britain’s roads and downgrade THINK! road safety campaigns. Ministers should restore targets, alongside new goals for increasing levels of cycling, and urgently assess any connection between these decisions and the rising number of cyclist deaths – now tragically at a five year high. The Government should not have ended long-term funding certainty for the Bikeability scheme, nor axed the requirement for School Travel Plans. And, instead of weakening the obligations on train companies, they should have toughened obligations to provide facilities for cyclists. With HGVs involved in around a fifth of all cycling fatalities, despite making up just 6 per cent of road traffic, it was wrong for Ministers to have permitted trials of longer lorries. Instead, the £23m set to be raised annually from the HGV road charging scheme should be used to support the road haulage industry to equip lorries with safety equipment, such as side under-run protection and blind spot mirrors, and improve driver training and awareness.

Cycling has the potential to be a huge British success story, but it needs a new approach and a shared commitment across government, councils, schools, employers and public transport providers. Most of all, it needs Ministers to cut the spin and instead give cycling infrastructure a greater priority within existing transport investment plans. It’s time to end the stop-start approach that is getting in the way of progress and agree a cross-party, long-term commitment to cycling.

This post is part of A to B, the New Statesman's week of pieces on transport and travel.

Photograph: Getty Images

Maria Eagle is the shadow secretary of state for defence and Labour MP for Garston and Halewood

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.