Compulsory Cycling Helmets? (January 25th, 2012)

January 25, 2012 in Uncategorized

A number of constituents have engaged me on Twitter – including my friend and excellent Labour councillor Ian Martin – on the issue of cycle helmets asking why I am against making wearing them compulsory and why I usually don’t wear one myself in Exeter.

On compulsion, the simple reason I am against this is that where it has been tried – in Canada and parts of Australia – cycling rates plummeted. So the overall health impact of a ban has been highly negative. All the UK cycling groups like CTC, the London Cycling Campaign etc are against compulsion. We’ve made good progress at increasing cycling rates in Britain in recent years, particularly among children and I fully support encouraging helmet use – particularly for children – but I wouldn’t support legislation that reduced cycle use and damaged child and adult health. I have also heard of research that indicates helmets give cyclists a false sense of security and that drivers take less care around cyclists wearing helmets – but I haven’t managed to verify this – so would not use it as an added argument.

Not usually wearing a helmet myself in Exeter is a more complex issue. One of the very valuable things about using a bike to get around Exeter is that people often stop me to raise a problem they have or a concern about policy. I’ve always tried to make myself accessible to constituents and I pick up a lot of issues out and about on my bike. I’ve noticed when I have worn my helmet that people don’t stop me nearly as much. I don’t know whether it’s because they don’t recognise who it is under the helmet or there is something about somebody wearing a helmet that puts them off – but it definitely makes a difference. I decided that being accessible to constituents when I’m out and about was more important, so only tend to wear one in Exeter when it’s dark or raining hard. I always wear a helmet when up in Westminster.  

Ben’s Echo Column (January 19th, 2012)

January 19, 2012 in Uncategorized

The Government has been suffering a rare series of defeats in the House of Lords over its plans to cut support for disabled people. I’m a strong supporter of reforming welfare. More should be done to make work pay. But some of the changes to disability benefit – in the words of one of the independent Peers who helped defeat them – cross the line of decency. Bringing up a severely disabled child can be one of the most heartrending experiences – as anyone who has done it or who has friends of relatives who have – will know. The proposal to remove completely support for such children as soon as they become adults is abhorrent. Charities that campaign on behalf of the disabled say 20,000 blind people will also be hit by the changes. We’re not talking about the work shy or shirkers here – but people who through no fault of their own may never be able to work in the same way as is understood by the rest of us. When they came into Government both David Cameron and Nick Clegg promised repeatedly that the weak and vulnerable would be “protected” from their austerity drive. You can’t get much more vulnerable than a disabled child and yet they are being targeted while the bankers in the City of London are once again queuing up to collect their huge bonuses.


When the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, suggested the tax payer should pay for a new Royal Yacht as a Jubilee present to the Queen I assumed he was joking. I have huge admiration for Her Majesty, which only grew the more I got to know her as a Government Minister. Like many MPs I’ve personally contributed to a fund from which Parliament will buy her a special present. Nor would I object if, as some have suggested, the bosses of Britain’s leading companies club together to buy a yacht and pay for its running costs – after all the chief executives of Britain’s 100 biggest firms awarded themselves an average 49% pay rise last year. But given what’s going on in the real world it takes a politician with a good sense of humour or a tin ear to the public mood to suggest the public fund the building and maintenance of a new yacht – many years after the last one was decommissioned.


It’s time for the “Occupy Exeter” camp to pack away their tents and allow that patch of Cathedral Green to be restored. The Cathedral has been extremely accommodating with the protesters. Its offer of an alternative site on the Green for an awning from which they can continue to make their case during daylight hours is a perfectly reasonable one. It’s important in a democracy to defend the right of peaceful protest. But like all rights, that one must be balanced against the right to manage and protect one’s property and to maintain and nurture a public amenity. The protesters have said some interesting and important things – even David Cameron and Nick Clegg are now talking about the need for a more responsible capitalism – but as I told the campers when I met them last weekend their message will be blurred if they allow this to turn into a spat with the Cathedral.


Exeter’s re-opened Royal Albert Memorial Museum is a triumph. I’m not surprised that more than 50,000 people have poured through its doors in the first month. I could spend days wandering round its exhibitions and galleries and still want to come back for more. There is literally something there for everyone. And what impresses me most is how they’ve brought the local history of Exeter and Devon to life. There’s a wealth of material there to inspire a life-time’s interest in children and school groups. We should also not underestimate the value of having a really good regional museum for attracting visitors and tourists from elsewhere. My guess is the investment will more than pay for itself over the years in increased revenue in the city, testimony to the economic as well as the social benefits of investing in Culture.


I was thrilled to discover last week that kingfishers and otters can be seen just yards from where I live near Exeter Quay. I was visiting the beautifully restored Cricklepit Mill – home of Devon Wildlife Trust. I didn’t actually see any but was assured by the Trust that both species are spotted regularly in the leat that feeds the mill wheel. I shall be keeping a closer eye out in future when passing. It felt somehow appropriate that the restoration of one of Exeter’s iconic buildings by a charity devoted to protecting our wildlife has helped encourage the return of two of our most loved species to the heart of our city centre.