Maria Eagle (Photo: Daily Telegraph)
In the parliamentary debate on “Get Britain Cycling” it wasn’t just the CTC who thought that “the most impressive speech came from Labour’s frontbench spokesperson, Shadow Secretary of State Maria Eagle”.
We look at her contribution below, in the context of the evidence we have to assess what Labour is likely to actually do if it comes to power. For while Labour formally endorsed “Get Britain Cycling” at their annual conference , there are key areas where necessary commitment to achieve the aims of the report is apparently lacking.
We start with the main points from “the most impressive speech”:
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.
That’s pretty good.
Of course, there are some issues here:
- The “road safety targets” is actually part of the old “road safety” ideology with all its negative baggage, and I can’t see how they are going to help reduce danger on the road for all road users.
- The good words in Point Seven fade into support for “sensible changes” – which can mean more or less anything.
- Cycling to school will not just be about training up schoolchildren – and there are problems with how Bikeability is actually going to be delivered effectively.
- The “cycle-proofing” is only for new schemes – what about the existing highway layout?
We could go further – but to be fair, the eight points are not bad.
However, my view is that the statements so far from Ms Eagle indicate that Labour – so far – does not have the basic commitment to advance the aims and objectives of the “Get Britain Cycling” report.
Why it just is not good enough (1) Targets
I have to say that I’m wary of targets, particularly after the National Cycling Strategy set targets which just sailed past unmet. But consider Chris Boardman’s comments :
“The government refused to set targets after the Get Britain Cycling report. They say targets don’t work. Well I can tell you not having recognised, tangible targets to aim for doesn’t work. Another term for setting targets is being accountable for your performance; it enables you to measure progress against a meaningful yardstick. In my time at British Cycling, the only athletes who avoided setting themselves targets and measuring their progress failed.”
If targets are set with appropriate funding – and the possibility of removal of such and other transport funding if progress is not met – perhaps they can play an important part in moving forward.
Why it just is not good enough (2) Money, money, money…
The most obvious point was made by Chris Peck of the CTC:
“but the weakest part of that was the [lack of pledged] money.”
Figures (of at least £10 per head of the population to be spent on cycling) have been quoted at length in the report and elsewhere – why didn’t Maria Eagle make the necessary commitment here? Let’s not forget that Ms Eagle has been in the forefront of promoting High Speed Rail 2 with its £40 billion cost. Would it be that difficult to give a firm spending commitment to cycling in this context, if you were serious about it?
In the first point of her eight we see:
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.
Is she going to criticise the £28 billion spend? Because, if not, there is plainly enough money in the transport budget – whatever austerity programme Labour chooses to follow – for money to be available for cycling.
My view is that the £28 billion spend should be criticised – in which case there would be even more money to be spent on sustainable transport.
But it gets worse: while all this has been going on, we have the cancellation of the fuel tax accelerator – and the promise of fuel duty being frozen during the rest of this Parliament. That means a loss to the Exchequer of about another £500 million per year. All this when the £10 per head of the population for cycling would be just £600 million per annum.
I would go further – if we are to reduce emissions from the burning of petrol, we need not only to reduce motor vehicle use but also to shift to far more fuel-efficient engines in cars. A key driver for this would be significantly increasing the price of petrol, and/or carbon rationing. Besides, if petrol prices did not go up with more fuel-efficient vehicles, driving would be very similarly priced to cycling – reducing yet further one of the key possible advantages of cycling over driving.
Why it just is not good enough (3) The Great God Car in Labour’s transport policy
All of this makes us ask – what kind of transport policy do Ms Eagle and the Labour Party actually have? Her past comments do not inspire confidence – one idea was raising the motorway speed limit ; She has also said that she “was preparing a radical overhaul of Labour’s motoring strategy”, hoping that her policy will “revive its reputation among drivers who accused the party of ‘waging war on the motorist’ while in government.” This includes possible incentives such as paying motorists (through discounts on VED) if they have not been caught by speed cameras.
Is bribing motorists by paying them for not being caught speeding a good way to enforce road traffic law?
The problem is that as long as motoring continues to be encouraged – quite apart from all the adverse effects on the local and global environment, community and public health, etc. etc. – how exactly is cycling going to be encouraged? Encouraging someone to drive a long distance to work or the shops through reduced fuel duty, more road building for cars, and associated planning allowing adequate car parking for all this, will impede the prospects of that person cycling to work. If road space needs to be re-allocated away from motoring to cycling, how does that fit in with encouraging motoring?
We have been here before
A commitment towards sustainable transport was made by John Prescott at the start of the last Labour government. The commitment towards reducing motor vehicular traffic was not only dropped but reversed. And Prescott was for ten years a key player in the Labour Party, wielding more clout than Maria Eagle is likely to.
With this background to Labour transport policy, the current statements of Maria Eagle do not inspire confidence.