I’ve mentioned before that parliamentary select committees tend to be pretty good. Slightly less of the absurd archaic jargon and formality and front-bench pantomime of the House of Commons and slightly more incisive discussion and in-depth inquiry. At their best, they will ask all the right questions and won’t accept evasive non-answers. This morning, the House of Commons Transport Committee will be putting their questions on cycling to junior ministers — Mike Penning, Roads Minister, and Norman Baker, Under-Secretary for The Bits Of Transport The Government Doesn’t Really Care About. I don’t know whether it is a good or a bad sign that they are [choosing to / have run out of ideas and been forced to] turn to twitter for inspiration on what to ask. I’ll choose to interpret it as an acknowledgement of the extent to which online discussion has moved the cycling argument and campaigning forward over the past couple of years.
Lots of great questions have been tweeted. A few of them are spot on. A few of them are completely bonkers. Most of them are nice, but completely wrong for this forum. “How do we make this an 8-80 cycling country?” Right question, wrong situation. This should be a proper forceful cross examination. Given their record, the ministers should feel like they’re on trial.
The exact questions that come up are not the most important things about the session. Whatever opening questions are thrown at them, we know that the ministers will bring out their stock evasive statements. We know that they will say these things because it’s what the ministers always say when questioned about cycling, and because it’s what so many of their predecessors have said for thirty years or more. The only thing that could stop the ministers from saying these things is if a member on the committee has been so taken in by the evasive statements that they say it themselves before the ministers have a chance to. I have already judged the ministers for the fact that will be saying these things. I will judge the committee by whether they let the ministers get away with it.
The ministers will say:
1. “Cycling is booming.” Mike Penning said it just last week in questions in the house: ”Cycling is very popular in this country, and becoming even more so.” As we’ve seen, at a national level, there is little more cycling now than there was when cycling hit rock bottom in the early 1970s. Cycling has seen small fluctuations and localised booms and busts, largely unrelated to cycling-specific policy, for three decades. If government policies and actions are responsible for the current levels of cycling, then that does not reflect well on the government. Even if it were true that “cycling is booming” now — as politicians have claimed so many times before — the ministers should have to explain how they are going to capture and build upon the boom this time around and avoid, as in previous “booms”, the bubble bursting.
2. “We’re funding Bikeability.” Despite pantomime bad guy John Griffin’s recent claims that cycling proficiency is “not on the agenda any more”, cycle training is one of the few things that the current government has a relatively good record on — as it never passes up on an opportunity to remind us. There are several interesting problems with cycle training (which I’ll probably get around to discussing on the blog one day), but on balance, it’s probably a good thing that the government are funding it. Governments have been boasting about “promoting” cycle training and “encouraging local authorities” to fund it for at least as long as they’ve been talking about the “boom” in cycling, but it wasn’t until 2006 that central government (through Cycling England) finally gave up prodding reluctant local authorities and started paying for it themselves (Scotland, as usual, beat England to it by a few years; London still hasn’t caught up with England: the mayor continues to rely on the patchy coverage of the boroughs). It’s a good thing that this government decided to save the Bikeability training programme from the ruins of Cycling England, but it’s time they stopped using this fact to distract from the still gaping policy, strategy, expertise and funding gap left in Cycling England’s place. Bikeability on its own does nothing to deliver a cycling policy. The government promised very early on to fund Bikeability for the duration at a rate of £11 million per year, and they confirmed this in the local transport policy paper in January last year. That’s it. Job done for the term of this government. It’s time they stopped putting out new press releases “announcing” the funding every few months, and stopped citing it as evidence that they are working hard and making progress.
3. “Local authorities can bid for LSTF funds: it is right that local authorities decide what to do in their area, we can only encourage them.” The we’ll-scrap-everything-and-call-it-localism thing. We’ve tried this approach to delivering on cycling policy before. For quarter of a century, in fact. In 1982 the Thatcher government had a policy for growing cycling. They “encouraged” local authorities to include cycling projects in amongst all the big road projects that they submitted for central funding. In 1995 the Major government went much further and created the National Cycling Strategy, which set a target of quadrupling the cycling rates by 2012, and they “encouraged” local authorities to implement it. These policies came and went, failing to make the slightest difference to the national cycling rates because they relied entirely on reluctant local authorities to implement national policy. Authorities took the grants, generated plenty of work for their highways departments, but rarely managed to generate any cycling. The same thing can be seen now with grants for sustainable transport, a large part of which seem to be cleverly diverted into road schemes disguised as things like “bus rapid transit routes” or “town centre pedestrianisation (with diversionary routes)”. Few local authorities have the vision or the expertise to do really great things for cycling with the grants on offer. That is itself a problem, but especially so when local authorities are expected to deliver national policy on cycling. It is, after all, why the ministers don’t rely on “localism” in the delivery of cycle training.
The Blair government, after eight years of continuing this course while repeatedly revising down the targets of the National Cycling Strategy as the deadlines flew past without a hint of any real “cycling boom”, finally acknowledged that this doesn’t work:
The Government are committed to encouraging more cycling in England, given the benefits in terms of transport, public health and the environment. Today the Department for Transport is publishing a review of the 1996 National Cycling Strategy… The key findings of the review are that:
- whilst investment in cycling has increased substantially in recent years, there has been no commensurate increase in cycling levels;
- The Government need to get a better return on their collective investment in cycling—for transport, sport, leisure and tourism;
- cycling is not sufficient a priority for local authorities that we can rely on them as exclusively as we have to date to deliver an increase in cycling.
And so Cycling England was set up — not to ride roughshod over local councils and local people, but to lend to them expertise and oversight to ensure that what little money the government did give to cycling would be spent efficiently and effectively. It was the first sign of progress after 25 years of trying the same things over and over without any growth in cycling, and during its tragically short lifetime it managed to do more with the little resources it was given than the sum of local authority achievement from the previous quarter of a century of “encouragement”.
As Earl Howe, Conservative minister at the Department of Health, described the very much not “booming” cycling rates in 2008 when still in opposition:
How the Government have allowed that dismal situation to come about is not particularly difficult to diagnose; they took their eye off the ball. They did not manage to hold local authorities properly to account for delivering on the targets. The ball was picked up again in 2005, when Cycling England was created…
The present coalition government burned Cycling England on the bonfire of the quangos. It was one single sentence buried in a gesture to briefly placate right-wing newspaper editors. They didn’t just drop the ball, they kicked it into the long grass. And so we are back in the same position as 1982, 1995, 2005, and every year in-between: a national policy ostensibly to enable and encourage cycling, but which relies on usually underfunded, often unwilling, not infrequently incompetent, and always misadvised local authorities for implementation. When the ministers admit that, yes, their government abolished Cycling England, they will point to the LSTF and claim that the money is still there. But the point is not that the funding was taken away. It is that the ministers have deliberately opted for, in the words of the 2005 report, a worse return on their investment. If, that is, local authorities consider it a priority to put in bids for cycling projects at all.
If the ministers don’t say these things, or use any of the other tired stock distractions and excuses of thirty years of failing to deliver, I can at least be consoled in my embarrassment of being wrong in public by the pleasant surprise that the stuck record has been changed. But I think they will say these things. They always say these things, and these things have always been said, since the policy to “encourage” cycling was set more than three decades ago. I hope that the select committee don’t let them get away with it. The ministers should feel like they’re on trial for what their government has done.