Tag Archives: policy

Some notes on the National Cycling Strategy

I wrote this on Monday, but have been so busy I didn’t notice that I hadn’t tidied it up and posted it. But I don’t have time to tidy it up, so here it is, rambling and unfinished, and probably of interest only to a rather limited audience of campaigners…

A flurry of conversation seems to have broken out looking back at the National Cycling Strategy of 1996. This is good: understanding why past policies and campaigns failed, and learning how to do things differently, is important. And the current conversation is centred on a pretty fundamental disagreement over what exactly went wrong with that policy. Freewheeler has already described the dispute over which history is correct, and expresses some scepticism regarding this version of events which was given by Roger Geffen of the CTC:

Back in 1996, the cycling lobby managed to get some ‘fine words’ on cycling written into a new National Cycling Strategy (NCS), together with some ambitious targets for increased cycle use. It had taken several years of persistent effort, led by CTC, to get that far.

However, at that stage, the Government had made no commitment either to fund the NCS, or to integrate it into wider transport policy objectives. In other words, the targets to increase cycling weren’t seen either as a way of contributing to the wider aim of traffic reduction, nor were the aims of reduced traffic or reduced speed seen as necessary for cycling to flourish.

At the very moment when we needed to focus on securing funding for the NCS, and integrating it into a wider policy framework which supported cycling, the cycling lobby instead broke into a big argument about segregation. This merely provided Whitehall with a perfect excuse to allocate no funding to cycling – “if cyclists can’t agree what they want, what’s the point of funding it?” In other words, we allowed ourselves to be divided and ruled. Hence the NCS never got anywhere near achieving its targets (which were then abandoned c8 years later), and we’ve been living with the consequences ever since.

I’ve seen Geffen make these claims before, and, like Freewheeler, I’ve looked for corroborating evidence and never been able to find any. Quite the opposite. Having researched and written about the history of cycling policies (you’ll have to wait for that), I’m having a lot of trouble reconciling Geffen’s memory of the NCS with the published history. Geffen’s account doesn’t fit with what was happening either before or after the adoption of the policy in 1996.

Firstly, Geffen’s description of the policy’s context — that it was the result of years of persistent lobbying effort — doesn’t seem quite right. One must remember that transport policy was actually a comparatively high profile issue in 1996. The third major wave of road building, launched with Thatcher’s 1989 Roads for Prosperity paper, had led to the inevitable backlash and fierce protest, with the M11 Link, Twyford Down, Newbury Bypass and with Swampy at Fairmile. Lefty environmentalists hated the road building, but so did conservatives, concerned about the shires, heritage, their homes, and their chances at the looming election. At the same time the “new realism” of transport policy and planning, which recognised that accommodating car use growth can not be a sustainable policy, was spreading beyond the academy. And so George Young, the bicycling baronet, was appointed Transport Secretary in 1995 in order to shift the department’s policy. Road building was scrapped and the NCS was developed. So if the Conservatives and Labour were falling over themselves to say nice things about cycling in 1996, I fear it was less a case of the government suddenly giving in to CTC lobbying and more to do with the fact that voters across the spectrum had united against the extremely unpopular road building policy.

Second, Geffen portrays a policy which was written and targets which were set, but which then failed to get off the starting blocks because funding was cancelled. But this is not the National Cycling Strategy that the official documents describe. Granted, official documents are themselves hardly to be considered reliable histories of policy, but the discrepancy would still seem to warrant explanation. There are discrepancies with the original NCS document itself, but the more interesting contradictions are with this House of Commons brief history of cycling policy, with the 2005 DfT NCS review document (which led to the replacement of the NCS with Cycling England), and with Golbuff and Aldred’s history of cycling policy.

The National Cycling Strategy obviously failed. But not because it failed to be implemented. Far from quietly disappearing in 1996 while cyclists argued, the incoming Labour government — with John Prescott in charge of transport — took up the policy and increased its priority and the available money. Local authorities were instructed to develop cycling plans in their Local Transport Plans (the process by which central government part funded local transport projects back then). This is what Keith Bingham refers to in the piece that Freewheeler quotes from:

Sir George told us it didn’t need any money as such, because transport planners would be required to include cycling within the budget already provided for general transport development.

The NCS was funded, by the mechanism that was (and in essence still is, with minor variations like LSTF) in place for funding such things, and things did get done. The NCS review of 2005 found that something in the region of £200,000 of the DfT’s money had been spent by local authorities implementing their cycling plans, buying enough paint for 674 advance stop lines, 3093 kilometres of gutter cycle lane/car parking bays, and 4072 kilometres of shared pavements, along with several thousand cycle parking places.

This was an era of a great proliferation in useless facilities, and all the while that this crap got built, people carried on abandoning the bicycle as a mode of transport.

(The decline in use private transport over this period is compensated for by a great increase in the use of trains and, in London at least, buses.)

£200k spread across the whole nation (well, the DfT’s jurisdiction of England excluding London, at least) and several years is obviously as good as nothing — worse than nothing when it’s paying for crap like advance stop lines and other useless lines painted on roads. But how were the government to know otherwise? The mantra of the day was that cyclists are cheap to provide for: all they need is some Sheffield stands, a bit of paint, and “improved road user courtesy“, which is easy, right?

The strategy failed not because of a lack of funding but because of a lack of any understanding in government — national and local — about what needed to be done and why. The miserly sums spent on it merely reflect the fact that nobody had any idea of the scale of the problem or of the substantial changes that are required to fix it.

The main fundamental flaw in the NCS is that which was identified by the 2005 review: that local authorities — overstretched and lacking the necessary expertise, and in some cases actively opposed to the policy — were put in charge of implementing national policy, with inadequate guidance and resources. The miserly sums spent reflect less central government’s refusal to pay, and more local authorities’ lack of clue and/or care about what they actually need to do to break down the barriers to cycling. It’s why Cycling England was created to replace the NCS in response to the 2005 review, with an annual budget soon rising to 2000 times the amount the department was spending each year on local authority delivery of the NCS, and close supervision of what the money was being spent on.

The other big flaw — the one which was only partially recognised by the review — was that guidance for what to provide for cycling was not, and (despite revision) still is not, fit for purpose. Advance stop lines and crappy cycle lanes are what authorities were told they should be painting, and advance stop lines and crappy cycle lanes are what got painted.

The lessons from the NCS episode are that local authorities shouldn’t be put in charge of delivering national transport policies, and that there’s no point in having a policy at all if the people in charge of it don’t know what works and what doesn’t and what actually needs to be done or even why they should be doing it.

The final thing to comment on is the claim that another reason for the failure of the NCS is that it was not set in a wider framework for modal shift. In fact, the history of cycling policy that I’ve given is very closely tied up with the wider transport policies, which are documented at length in Shaw and Docherty’s Traffic Jam — a review of policy in the New Labour era. I’ve already described the context of the rise of the NCS: the dramatic demonstration that public opinion was against road building, a shift in policy away from attempting to accommodate growth in car use, and the installation of a transport secretary friendly to cycling. When Labour took over in 1997, we got in John Prescott a very rare thing: a transport secretary who seemed to actually want the portfolio, and who set out a vision, the New Deal For Transport, the opening lines of which reiterate the consensus for radical change in policy at that time, and propose an “integrated” and “sustainable” transport system. Prescott promised investment across the board, including giving 25 cities tram networks.

But the government were shaken when the “consensus” for reducing car use was challenged by hauliers blockading refineries in 2000, and the new deal had the fight taken out of it when John Prescott moved on from transport in 2001. Transport policy was crippled by the fact that there was strong public opinion against accommodating growth in car and truck use, but some equally strong opinions and powerful forces against taking from the road to provide for the alternatives. And so after Prescott a succession of short tenured transport secretaries — bland career politicians hoping to avoid controversy — passed through without really doing anything much at all. Without any leadership, the the tram networks quietly died, “sustainably” and “integration” lost all meaning, and the National Cycling Strategy plodded along without anybody really noticing how ineffective it was until 2005.

I could continue and go into whether it’s really more important to have one united “cycling lobby” than to at least have a clear voice asking for the right things, either then or now, but this post is already long and rambling enough, and I’ve no time for pruning and editing.

What the ministers will say today

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:

  1. whilst investment in cycling has increased substantially in recent years, there has been no commensurate increase in cycling levels;
  2. The Government need to get a better return on their collective investment in cycling—for transport, sport, leisure and tourism;
  3. 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.