Ben Bradshaw

Working Hard for Exeter

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Get Britain Cycling Debate

Below is my speech in the Get Britain Cycling debate in the House of Commons yesterday, as well as the Labour Party’s 8 point plan for cycling.

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): As a previous chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Cycling Group, in what seems like the distant past of the 1997 Parliament, I am delighted by the profile that cycling has gained in the past 16 years. I believe that this is the best-attended debate on cycling that the House has ever had, and I understand that, outside this place, we are witnessing the biggest ever pro-cycling demonstration that this country has ever seen.

I have always cycled. As a youngster, my bike gave me independence and the freedom to roam. I cycled to school, I have always cycled to work and I use my bike daily in Exeter and in London. It is simply the best form of transport. When asked why I am still slim at 53, when I eat so much, I tell people that the answer is simple: my bike. My elderly Dawes Audax is the most important thing in my life, except—I should add, as he is outside with the demonstrators—my husband.

When I first worked in London in 1991, I cycled to work because it was the quickest and most reliable way to get there. It helped to keep me fit and to keep my carbon emissions down, but I felt like a bit of a freak. It was a very unusual thing to do. I remember fighting in this place during the 1997 Parliament for a single cycle route through Kensington Gardens. It was a hard battle, but we won. When I suggested to my local authority in Exeter that it should apply to the then Labour Government to be one of their cycle demonstration towns, I was told, “You won’t get anyone cycling here, it’s too hilly.” Well, Exeter did apply, and we got the extra investment. Between 2006 and 2011, cycling rates in Exeter rose by a fantastic 50%.

Stephen Pound: Does my right hon. Friend agree that, were his council to introduce a 20 mph speed limit, there could be even more dramatic improvements?

Mr Bradshaw: I fully accept what my hon. Friend says. There is actually a 20 mph limit through much of Exeter, but the problem is that the Conservative county council and, I have to say, Devon and Cornwall police, do not enforce it. This problem has already been raised by several Members, and it needs to be stressed further. It is vital to have 20 mph limits, but they must be enforced.

Not only has cycling increased by 50% in Exeter, but more than 20% of school children there now cycle to school, whereas hardly any did before. In London, too, the situation has been transformed. Thanks to the congestion charge and other policies initiated by Ken Livingstone, there has also been a cycling revolution here. It warms my heart to see banks of cyclists at all the main junctions at commuting time, particularly young women and even parents with child seats and trailers. However—and this is the hub of the report we are debating today—in spite of the progress that we have made in the past 16 years or so, we are still far behind the best practice of the rest of northern Europe, and without sustained investment and political leadership from the top, we will never catch up.

I am delighted that the Labour party has today launched its Labour for Cycling campaign. I hope that those on my Front Bench will sign up fully to implement the recommendations in our report, but we need the Government to act as well. Without that, we will not see the growth in cycling of recent years sustained; nor will we see a reversal of the worrying recent trend of increased cyclist deaths and injuries on our roads.

I am pleased with some of the things that the Government have announced and done. The recent commitment to supporting cycling in a number of selected towns and cities is welcome, but it is basically a smaller-scale version of Labour’s cycle demonstration towns programme, and instead of happening in a few places, it should be happening everywhere. It would take only a fraction of the annual roads budget to achieve that. I would also like to know why the scheme was available only in places that were already part of the Government’s separate city deal programme. That ruled out cities such as Exeter from applying, which means that now, under this Government, only a quarter of the amount of money is being invested in cycling in Exeter than was the case when Labour was in power.

I deeply regret the abolition of Cycling England, and I believe that the Government do, too. It was the body that drew all the disparate cycling organisations together and it was a vital co-ordinating voice and deliverer of policy. I also think that the Government were fatally mistaken to go soft on road safety, in abandoning Labour’s road death reduction targets and declaring their ridiculous war on speed cameras.

I am encouraged that the noises coming out of the Government more recently on road safety have been more sensible, but I am still concerned that they are not speaking with one voice. If they are serious about cycling, why are they allowing the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to make the ludicrous suggestion that vehicles should enjoy a free-for-all by parking on double yellow lines, without even mentioning the impact that that would have on cyclists, pedestrians and road safety? The Secretary of State went on to say that the only people who were bothered about cycling were the “elite”. I do not know whether his animus towards cycling is a result of some deep Freudian consciousness that he is probably the Cabinet member who would benefit the most from cycling’s health-giving and girth-narrowing magic, but his comments are signally unhelpful and they should not go unchallenged if the Government are really serious about cycling.

Steve Brine: Does that not underline the point that we made in our report about the need for a national cycling champion with real—dare I say it—weight behind him, to force the right way of thinking through every level of Government?

Mr Bradshaw: Yes, and the hon. Gentleman might even be that person in the future. He is absolutely right. During the hearings, I told the inquiry that when I was a Minister, the only time we really got pedalling on this issue, to excuse the pun, was when the Secretaries of State in the Department of Health, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Home Office and the Department for Transport—all the important Departments —were committed to it and were working together to make things happen. Otherwise, nothing would happen.

That leads me to my final point. Time and again, when our Committee was taking evidence on cycling, our witnesses came back to the importance of long-term, sustained investment and joined-up political leadership. We need more than a Prime Minister who cycles to work for a photo opportunity while his limo drives behind him with his papers. We need a Prime Minister, and the whole Government from him down, who will make it clear that cycling is a priority across Government. It is cheap, and it will save lives, improve health and boost productivity. It will also reduce congestion, air pollution and carbon emissions. This is a no-brainer, and the infinitesimal cost of doing it would be more than recouped in the form of a happier, healthier, safer, greener, cleaner, thinner and more productive nation in a very short time indeed.

 Labour’s 8 Point Plan for Cycling

Maria Eagle (Garston and Halewood) (Lab): It is clear that we need a step change in the Government’s commitment to cycling. There should be a long-term commitment that is supported by all parties and that will last across Parliaments. I shall briefly set out clear proposals for what should form the basis of that new commitment and I hope that the Minister will respond positively to each of them so that we can begin to forge the cross-party consensus that cycling needs and deserves.

First, we must end the stop-start approach to supporting cycling, which means that we need long-term funding of the infrastructure needed for dedicated separate safe cycling routes. Ministers recently set out annual budgets for rail and road investment up to 2020-21, but they failed to do so for cycling infrastructure, which means that while there is a £28 billion commitment for roads, we have only a one-off £114 million from central Government for cycling, and that is spread across three years. It is 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 priority for investment to support cycling must be dedicated separated infrastructure to create safe routes. 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 not only to improve safety but, as we have heard from many hon. Members, to build confidence and to encourage those who are not used to cycling to make the switch to two wheels. It is also important that a commitment to new infrastructure does not 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 due to collisions take place. We need a much greater use of traffic light phasing to give cyclists a head start.

Secondly, we need to ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past, so I propose a cycle safety assessment before new transport schemes are given the green light. In the same way in which Departments have to carry out regulatory impact assessments and equality impact assessments, there should be an obligation to cycle-proof new policies and projects. We need new enforceable design standards and measures to ensure compliance.

Thirdly, we need national targets to cut deaths and serious injuries to be restored, but they should sit alongside a new target to increase levels of cycling. The number of cyclist deaths is tragically at a five-year high. Of course, targets alone are not the only answer, but they help to focus minds and efforts, so Ministers are wrong to reject them. However, it is vital to ensure that targets do not perversely lead to local authorities and others seeing the way to cut deaths and injuries as discouraging cycling. In fact, cycling becomes safer when more cyclists are on the road, so we should learn from the success that has been achieved in European countries that have set clear goals to increase levels of cycling alongside the policies necessary to achieve that.

Fourthly, we should learn from Wales and extend to England its active travel legislation, which sets out clear duties on local authorities to support cycling. Local authorities are central to devising, prioritising and delivering measures to support cycling, so it is important that additional support from central Government is matched by clear obligations. To assist councils, we should provide them with a best-practice toolkit to boost cycling numbers that is based on what we learned from the cycling city and towns programme and evidence from abroad. Councils should be supported to deliver 20 mph zones, which should increasingly become an effective default in most residential areas.

Fifthly, we must ensure that children and young people have every opportunity to cycle and to do so safely. The Government should not have ended long-term funding certainty for the Bikeability scheme, nor axed the requirement for school travel plans. Those decisions can and should be reversed. Sixthly, we need to make it easier for cycling to become part of the journey to work, even when the commute is too far to do by bike alone. Employers can play an important role in providing access to showers, changing facilities and lockers. However, our public transport providers need to step up and do much more too. Instead of the Government’s approach, which has been to propose a weakening of franchise obligations, we should toughen up the requirement to provide station facilities and on-train space for bikes in rail contracts.

Seventhly, we need to ensure that justice is done and seen to be done in cases where collisions lead to the death of cyclists and serious injuries. I welcome the recent commitment from Ministers to initiate a review of sentencing guidelines. It is vital that this is a comprehensive review of the justice system and how it protects vulnerable road users, and it should be concluded without delay in this Parliament. We are certainly willing to work with Government to implement sensible changes that may be proposed.

Finally, we need tough new rules and requirements on heavy goods vehicles that are involved in about a fifth of all cycling fatalities, despite the fact that HGVs make up just 6% of road traffic—there is clearly an issue there. We should look at the case for taking HGVs out of our cities at the busiest times, as has happened elsewhere in Europe, including in Paris and Dublin. As a minimum, we should require safety measures on all HGVs, including sensors, audible truck-turning alarms, extra mirrors and safety bars, as well as better training and awareness. I have previously suggested to Ministers that the £23 million that is expected to be raised annually from the new HGV road-charging scheme could be used to support the road haulage industry to achieve that. I hope that that idea will be taken seriously and considered by Ministers, along with all those clear proposals. Taken together, I believe that that would be a significant improvement in the Government’s current approach, and it is something that all parties could support across the House.

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 greater priority within the existing transport investment plans that they have set out. It is 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.

[Maria Eagle's full speech can be read here.]

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