Following the announcement by the Prime Minister of large sums of money for cycling in England, Tom Hayes looks at whether it represents real new money and just how deep the Government’s commitment to cycling really is.
Cycling is an issue where we can do right by doing well. Yesterday the Prime Minister seemed to recognise this fact, telling a media pack that national parks and cities such as Oxford and Manchester will share what his Transport Minister hailed “the biggest cash injection ever into cycling schemes”. Yet, a close look at the fine print suggests that the only cycle Cameron truly cares about is the news cycle, and even then he’s too lazy for the steep climbs.
BBC News and The Guardian floated the headline figure of £94 million in reports on the cycling investment. The Times, a campaigner for safer cycling and whose pages were inked by the Transport Secretary yesterday, said £148 million. Both sums overstate the amount of new central government money by tens of millions. Both figures also exaggerate the dedication to cycling of a man photographed cycling his bike to work followed by a car carrying his briefcase. It’s only possible for this Government to lay claim to the more impressive sum of £148 million if we charitably add the £42 million of central government investment promised seven months ago to the contributions of £54 million of local authorities. Cameron’s announcement yesterday was simply a case of recycling cycling announcements.
With a face reddened by a rare return to pedalling, Cameron proved yet again that the only fit he aspires to is a fit of hyperbole. As he dreamed of a ‘cycling revolution’ that would turn England into the Netherlands, he forgot to mention that his one-off injection of £52 million, equivalent to less than a pound per person per year, could never match the Dutch yearly investment of £32 per person per year on cycling infrastructure and the same again on cycling measures. The PM’s voice went on, as though speaking to hear itself, but nowhere did it say that this proposed funding falls short of the £10 per head demanded by the ‘Get Britain Cycling Report’ of the All-Party Parliamentary Cycling Group. Nor did it mention that the quango abolished in 2010 by the Government, Cycling England, had been granted £60m of government money by the last Labour Government plus council funding, thereby voiding Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin’s boast that his was a Government making the biggest cycling investment.
A lack of clarity about how much new money the Government will spend on cycling compounds the concerns of cycling experts about how Cameron is planning to disburse the funds. When Cameron abolished Cycling England, with its staff of four experts spending larger funds on well-chosen projects in pursuit of clear objectives, he made the Department for Transport the chief distributor of cycling funds. But, McLoughlin’s ministry has an underwhelming record when it comes to funding and promoting cycling. And that shows in the media show yesterday, which wore the exasperated air of Just Cycle without announcing clear policies or even the outline of the Government’s plans.
There is a body of expertise in the country that Whitehall could turn to if it really wanted to promote safer cycling. However, in the absence of central government action on safer cycling – repeated at the county council level by Conservatives in Oxfordshire – Labour Councils have taken the lead nationwide. In Oxford, where I live, the proportion of adults cycling at least once per week (28%) and at least five times per week (14%) is the second highest in England. As a top cycling city, Oxford also has the tenth highest cyclist casualties. The Labour City Council has funnelled more of a budget radically cut by the Coalition over the last three years towards protecting the growing number of cyclist on its streets. Oxford City Council has allocated a quarter of a million pounds to shovel-ready plans for improving cycling lanes around the city and overhauling the signage of routes for cyclists. With the help of partners, a new biking course has been created to help reduce cycling fatalities. And the City Council encourages cycling explicitly as part of its effort to replace car journeys wherever possible, especially in zones with 20mph restrictions.
Without the City Council’s efforts, I worry that, with a growing number of cyclists on Oxford’s streets, the injury statistics could be much worse. Last year 478 cyclists in Oxford suffered cycling-related injuries, 71 of which were very seriously hurt. That’s 478 cyclists too many. Much more has to be done to encourage cyclists onto our roads while also making those roads safer for cycling. Results achieved at the local level, even with very limited resources, should tempt Whitehall to consult with council leaders and give them more responsibility for improving cycling safety. A portion of the national roads budget should be ring-fenced to safeguard our cycleways, putting an end to the arrangement whereby local programmes have to seek out one-off headline-making government funding. Permanent, large-scale funding should be made available to local authorities on a large-scale and permanent basis for investment in on-street infrastructure. Only then can we stop people being killed by the lorries and large vehicles currently dominating our roads.
We cannot overstate the importance of getting more people onto bicycles. On the day that the University of Oxford and the British Heart Foundation said that 80% of children skip five portions of fruits or vegetables, but half consume chocolate and sugary drinks every day, we should be proactive in limiting the extent of our overweight and unfit population. The strains on people’s wellbeing and an already overstretched NHS compel this. Yet, we’ve a weak Prime Minister, once commanding the height of his headlines, now fighting to the last bell with the softest jabs just to control their content. Yesterday’s announcement shows a PM who doesn’t need to believe in the value of what he’s saying. That would be sad were it not so tragic. We’ve got to deal with these problems before they deal with us. Although cycling is the right measure at the right time for tackling these problems, Cameron isn’t the right person for boosting the nation’s pedalling power.