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This has been a excellent debate with positive contributes from 33 colleagues on both sides of the House. The clear message is that Parliament wants to see greater support for cycling, not just from the Government but from all parties. That is the call to which I want to respond on behalf of the Opposition this evening.
First, let me pay tribute to the all-party group on cycling. The “Get Britain Cycling” report is excellent, well-argued and persuasive and has had a considerable influence as we have reconsidered our approach to cycling as party of Labour’s policy review. I congratulate Dr Huppert on securing and opening the debate on behalf of the all-party group, but I also particularly want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend Ian Austin. He also made an excellent contribution to the debate, of course. Less visibly, but absolutely vital, is the energy with which he has sought to persuade my colleagues and I that we must make a much greater commitment to cycling and that we must go significantly further than the important progress that we started to make in government.
Finally, let me mention my hon. Friend Jim Fitzpatrick. He not only made a customarily informed and passionate contribution today, but has been a powerful advocate for both cycling and improving safety on our roads for many years—advocacy that, coming from a respected
Transport Minister, delivered real policies that saved lives. I am very sorry to have lost his expertise as a Member of our Front-Bench team. However, I know that he will continue to make a considerable contribution on this and many other issues in the future, albeit from the Back Benches.
I am clear that supporting cycling is a hugely cost-effective way of improving our personal and national quality of life. When nearly a quarter of all car journeys are for less than a mile, making cycling a more attractive option has great potential to cut congestion and boost the economy. With families facing a cost of living crisis, making more journeys by bike is a good way to reduce the impact of rising fuel costs on the household budget, and as a cost and time-effective way of staying fit, to which many Members have attested this evening, cycling has real health benefits. Of course, it also benefits the environment, helping us to cut emissions and reduce transport’s contribution to climate change, which remains significant.
The message is being heard, with 20% more people cycling than a decade ago, yet if one goes to the Netherlands—as I also have as part of our policy review—it is apparent how much further we still have to go. In Holland, a third of all trips to and from rail stations are by bike compared with 2% here. I have seen for myself the fantastic facilities for cyclists at stations in Holland, where there are not just bike spaces but undercover staffed storage with people on hand to repair and maintain bikes while owners are at work. It is a matter of investment—10 times more is spent per head of population on cycling in Holland than in the UK—but it is also about attitude and commitment. I am sorry to say that we have not seen the commitment from the Government that we need to see to increase cycling and to make it safer to cycle.
Immediately on taking office, Transport Ministers abolished Cycling England and, more importantly, its £60 million annual budget and the cycling city and towns programme that we established. Since then, policy after policy has set back the progress that we were making. Targets to cut deaths and serious injuries on our roads were abolished, even though they brought focus to efforts to improve safety. The THINK! road safety campaigns have been degraded, road traffic police numbers have fallen and support for speed cameras has been axed, which has made enforcement much more difficult. Longer HGVs have been given the green light, despite the Department for Transport’s analysis of consequential increased road casualties.
This summer we heard the long-awaited promise that axed funding for cycling would be restored, but headlines about the figure of £148 million turned out to be spin. The reality is an average of just £38 million a year until 2016, with the rest to be found by local authorities, which is a third less than the previous Government’s investment. With only one tenth of the population benefiting, that is simply too little, too late, after three wasted years.
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.