Walking and Cycling: Government Support

– in the House of Commons at 5:06 pm on 20 February 2024.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Aaron Bell.)

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Conservative, Copeland 5:27, 20 February 2024

Tonight, I will speak about the benefits of walking and cycling. Let me quote Proverbs 22:6:

“Train up a child in the way he should go;
even when he is old he will not depart from it.”

Although perhaps slightly sexist, that is inscribed on the wall of Captain Shaw’s Church of England Primary School in the home village of Bootle where I live in the Lake district. It is where my four daughters all went to school, where I was a school governor, where I welcomed my right hon. Friend Mrs May in 2017 when she was Prime Minister, and where I, for one year only, taught Bikeability courses. As a very small school, we struggled to find an instructor back in the day. Determined that our children should not miss out on the essential life skills provided by Bikeability, I volunteered.

There are many terrifying things that we all do in life. Some might say that speaking from these Benches or from the Dispatch Box fits into that category, but let me tell you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that when your school has just 14 children and you have responsibility for the entirety of years 5 and 6, taking them out on the A595 really is quite terrifying. Of course the children were brilliant. They learned all about the brakes, honed their skills and mastered the basics of road safety awareness, and, verified by an independent inspector, every child passed the test at the end of the session. That provided me with a heightened appreciation of the 2,231 Bikeability instructors in this country.

Conversely, a more joyous occasion that I can just about recall was finding my own freedom. A late developer, I was about six years old when I started to ride my Raleigh Comanche, affixed with stabilisers, which I now know are more of an impediment.

Balance bikes are so much better for little ones to learn to ride, as I observed on a ministerial visit to the Netherlands with Active Travel England, where I saw so many children as young as 18 months—as young as the Minister’s little boy, Kitto—learning to ride their balance bikes in a huge municipal hall. The slightly older children would practise on a street scene, getting to grips with the highway code. The more advanced children would put me to shame with their BMX skills, complete with their mastery of narrow bridges, speedy corners, agility and fast reactions. All the while, they gained confidence and skills that last a lifetime and support healthy lifestyles.

Back to me, though. Aged six, I would enthusiastically and patiently wait for Jonti, the boy next door, to return from college or possibly work—he was about 17 years old. I would spot him coming home, pop round, knock on the door and ask, “Mrs Parr, is Jonti available to come and help me learn to ride my bike?” That poor man; I am so sorry—but I was delighted to feel the freedom of riding my own bike. I am sure that many others in this House have felt that freedom, too. However, only one in four children have a bike nowadays. Later in my speech, I will address that, and encourage the Minister to support me.

Teaching my girls to ride their bikes was a huge privilege. It was an equally amazing feeling to see them on their way on two wheels. The fact that one in four children are lucky enough to have a bike of course means that three in four do not have access to one. That has not prevented Bikeability from supporting schools by adopting the loan of fleet bikes—indeed, all eligible local authorities that applied were successful in getting fleet bikes—but if children and their parents do not have bikes at home, that is clearly a barrier not just to motivating them to undertake Bikeability courses, but to their ability to ride bikes as a normal, everyday thing to do.

Thanks to the brilliant Rich and Sue Martin at Cyclewise, 83.9% of schools in Cumbria received a level 1 and level 2 course, or at least a level 2 course—well exceeding the Active Travel England target of 80%. However, not all local authorities are doing so well. I would welcome it if the Minister took a lead on that, perhaps by writing to the poorly performing local authorities to encourage them to embrace the benefits of more active travel.

Photo of Tracey Crouch Tracey Crouch Conservative, Chatham and Aylesford

I thank my hon. Friend for introducing this Adjournment debate. She was a fabulous Minister who very much promoted walking and cycling, and I am sure that the current Minister will do equally as well. Like my hon. Friend, I love my bicycle—I am pleased that antisocial behaviour orders did not exist when I was a kid, because what I did on my BMX would certainly have got me quite a few—and I continue to cycle. Does she agree that one challenge is that local authorities do not take a consistent approach to encouraging cycling, whether through investment in infrastructure, planning and design, or supporting schemes such as Bikeability?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Conservative, Copeland

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly valid point. We need to encourage all local authorities to embrace the Bikeability training that is available to them, as she will know from the incredible work that she does to encourage us all. She provided huge motivation for my joining the early-morning running club, and for so many people in this House to get a bit fitter, and I am really grateful for that.

Talking of brilliant people, it is brilliant that we have appointed Chris Boardman MBE as the national commissioner for walking and cycling—a tremendous force for good, not just for sport but, even more importantly, for active travel as an everyday way of life. I hope he will not mind me quoting him. He has said that Gear Change could be one of the greatest health interventions that a Government have ever made.

As the Minister in the Department for Transport responsible for the future of transport, including walking and cycling, I was especially proud to create Active Travel England and appoint Danny Williams as its chief executive. That organisation has gone from strength to strength under the current Minister’s steering: headquartered in York, it is realising wheely great projects right across the country!

One of my most memorable visits as a Minister was to Eaglesfield Paddle Church of England primary school in my constituency. I observed the children, who were in years 5 and 6, undertaking their Bikeability training with Cyclewise. After that training, those children were so enthusiastic—they had really enjoyed the sessions— so I asked them, “Who rides their bike to school?” Unfortunately, not a single child put their hand up, so I asked them another question, “Who would like to ride their bike to school?” Everybody put their hand up. The problem was a rather nasty junction very close to their school. I encourage the Minister to prioritise schemes that will make routes from home to school safer, or perhaps ask local authorities to prioritise those schemes, because it is crucial that children are able to form healthy habits at an early age.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

Does my hon. Friend agree that local authorities often fall into the trap of doing the easy bits—painting white lines on the road—but not tackling those nasty junctions, which are the real disincentive that prevents people, particularly young people, from taking up more cycle opportunities?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Conservative, Copeland

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to tackle those junctions and make those improvements. It is not always about segregated or designated routes; often it is, but certainly in our rural areas where there is less traffic, tackling those quite dangerous junctions makes parents more likely to encourage their children to cycle to school and form those really important healthy habits at an early age.

Photo of Robin Millar Robin Millar Conservative, Aberconwy

I am loth to intervene on my hon. Friend’s speech, because it is quite fascinating —she has talked about the path that each of us takes into cycling and through life. In my own constituency, we have been very fortunate that the Government have invested £18.6 million of levelling-up moneys in the Môr i’r Mynydd—coastal to mountains—active travel route. Crucially, one of the benefits of that route will be enabling pedestrians, cyclists and wheelers to avoid the nasty Black Cat roundabout when getting from Glan Conwy to Conwy. That means that school pupils and students in Glan Conwy will be able to get to Aberconwy school without having to navigate that roundabout, which is exactly what my hon. Friend is talking about. My question, though, is about rurality. In rural areas, those busy A roads are very difficult to get past or get around, so does my hon. Friend agree that along with Bikeability and the ambassadors, the provision of designated active travel routes is a key part of getting more people on to their bikes?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Conservative, Copeland

Yes again. There is a lot of agreement in the House tonight, and enabling those routes to schools and tackling those junctions is primarily what Active Travel England will be looking at. Having routes that comply with local transport note 1/20 is really important, but where that is not possible, we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good; we should enable as many children as is physically possible to get on to their bikes or walk to school, to form early healthy habits so that they grow into healthier adults.

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving way. I am particularly pleased that she has focused on young people in her debate, which is very impressive, but of course, some of the infrastructure for active travel is also needed by older people. On 18 January this year, sadly, an air ambulance evacuated a constituent of mine; it was reported that there had been a collision with a van on the B3440. Does the hon. Member agree that sound cycling infrastructure is needed not only for young people, but for older people?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Conservative, Copeland

Of course that is needed for all ages; I welcome the hon. Member’s intervention. My point is that when resources are stretched and priorities need to be made, we should prioritise those early habits, because those children will grow into adults. It is an absolutely crying shame that in this country an average of about 25 limbs are amputated every day as a result of diabetes. I think it is a national disgrace that we have the third highest population living with obesity in Europe. While we are very good in Cumbria at teaching Bikeability training, we are, sadly, woefully inadequate when it comes to children getting out and riding their bikes, with, unsurprisingly, the health inequalities that follow. Those statistics are national statistics, but they are even worse in Cumbria.

Photo of Paul Howell Paul Howell Conservative, Sedgefield

The conversation at the moment is very much about cycling, but I think we need to remember walking as well. In Trimdon, one of my villages, we have a road—we were talking about A roads, but this is a B road—that goes straight through the village at pace. The village is one side and the play area is the other side, and a little stepping stone to get across has been proposed many times. If we could get such things put in place, it would build the habit of walking, which builds the habit of enjoyment in moving around. Is that part of the agenda my hon. Friend is trying to get to?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Conservative, Copeland

Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have been focusing on cycling so far, but I will come on to walking. I will entertain the House with my walking adventure, all the way from Saint Bees in my constituency right over to Robin Hood’s Bay, which is some 195 miles. The infrastructure for walking and cycling is vitally important.

We are having a debate about active travel, which is a very important debate to have, but I think an even more pressing issue—and I ask the Minister to have discussions about this with his counterparts in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—is the growing mountain of ultra-processed foods we now consume in this country. It is perhaps 60% to 80% of our diet, which drives profit away from the local farmer, because this stuff is not really food; it is feedstuff fed into mechanised processes and fiddled with for huge commercial gain, at great cost to our life quality and our life chances. So rather than the local farmer benefiting from food produced sustainably, big pharma profits from the pills and potions prescribed to patch the problem. Thank God for social prescribing, which I think is a fantastic intervention by the Government. I am also delighted to work with people such as Andrew Denton, Jim Burt and William Bird, who are just a few of the geniuses I have had the pleasure of working with recently in trying to create a more naturally healthy Britain.

As part of the Routes 2 Roots campaign, the ask of the Department for Transport includes changing the funding model so that 5% of the road budget is dedicated to supporting active travel; creating safer walking and cycling routes, including better lighting and surfacing, and repairing potholes, which are a menace to all road users; and adopting “20’s Plenty”—not everywhere, but outside schools where it really matters. This would have multiple benefits, such as improving air quality around schools, which are usually in the centre of communities, and making available more of the road space and pavement space that is so important for walking. Importantly, it will develop in young children healthy and active habits that will last them a lifetime.

About a quarter of children in this country are living with obesity when they start school at about four or five. However, the real tragedy is that 35%—over a third—of children are leaving primary school living with obesity. Those figures are alarming, but in Cumbria, again unfortunately, it is even worse. The vast majority of those children will grow into adults who suffer further health issues as a result of their formative years.

I might be asking this Transport Minister to overstep his mark, but it would be helpful if he perhaps wrote to Ofsted, because I think it would be incredibly powerful if, during Ofsted visits, the inspectors asked schools how many of the children are walking or cycling to school. I think that would encourage schools to work with parents to develop safer routes, with things such as side-road zebra crossings and other ways in which we can improve the routes from home to school. That would mean that children get to school and are more able to concentrate, and perhaps that they get in the daily mile in one day from getting to and leaving school. It would also ensure they have formed the early habits of living more healthily that will last them a lifetime.

Photo of Tracey Crouch Tracey Crouch Conservative, Chatham and Aylesford

I am listening to my hon. Friend’s contribution with great interest because I spend most of my time scrolling through social media looking at Cumbria and trail running or walking and cycling there, and I find it astonishing that many people who live there do not access her constituency, which I have the desire to visit every day, as she knows. Why is there a disconnect between those of us who do not live in Cumbria and who want to go there to participate in these activities and the local community itself?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Conservative, Copeland

My hon. Friend raises a very good point about rurality, which was also raised by my hon. Friend Robin Millar. People in rural areas are more dependent on cars; we have less public transport so our roads are busier and there are perhaps more roads with a 60 mph speed limit. I am delighted with the highway code changes. I can really tell the difference; I was out on my bike at the weekend and could really tell the difference. Those motorists who knew about the changes and knew they needed to give cyclists more space made me feel so much safer. It is very disconcerting when a motorist passes a cyclist quite closely. That is one issue, as is the distance that people need to travel. But if I am honest, I do not know the answer to the very valid question that my hon. Friend Tracey Crouch asks. I do not know why more people do not feel able to make use of 32 miles of rugged coastline and of the mountains, the fells and the countryside that is so accessible in the Lake district. The most important thing we can do is enable the little children, and even the pregnant mums, and focus the effort. That is why I will be seeking a conversation with my hon. Friend David Johnston the Minister responsible for babies; as I have said many times, it is important that we support the formation of lifetime healthy habits at an early age so that they last into adulthood.

I want us to crack the issue of the far too cheap and easily available ultra-processed foods and to stick with the really great “Gear change” programme—in case the Minister did not get that the first time. I want us to ensure that Active Travel England is resourced and supported as it has been into the future, and Bikeability has the ability to teach all children those essential skills, and I want us to value the work of Cycling UK, Sustrans, British Cycling and the Conservative Environment Network. There are so many brilliant organisations who are doing so much good to roll out better networks, better education and more encouragement.

There are huge benefits to the economy as well from having a healthier population, reduced air pollution and less congestion. That means fewer sick days, more work days and longer life expectancy. It means more start-ups, more scale-ups and more exports by brilliant British businesses making fantastic state-of-the-art bikes like Ribble, which is the make of my own brilliant gravel bike, and the companies that are making technical clothing, equipment, cargo bikes and trikes of all kinds. There are so many brilliant British brands. I had the joy today of speaking with the founder of Frog Bikes. Its products are a great example of tackling a problem, ridding young children of the need for stabilisers and enabling them to harness balance bikes instead. It is a great company, which is growing by the year.

The commitment in the Environment Act 2021 that everyone should live within 15 minutes of a blue or green space, is a fantastic one. I wholeheartedly welcome the formation of national trails within the national landscapes portfolio in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I know full well that the Minister works very collaboratively and I ask him to meet with Ministers from other Departments. On this subject, we can achieve a sum greater than its parts by working together. Clearly there is a key role for the Department for Transport, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of Health and Social Care. If the Minister were willing to convene his counterparts, that might be incredibly effective, not least because he is an incredibly effective Minister. I understand that there is already an inter-ministerial group focused on physical activity, which is good, but a focus on how we can achieve a naturally healthy Britain across transport, the environment, homes and communities, levelling up, health and the prevention agenda, education and lifelong learning of healthier habits, the sports strategy and supporting a visitor economy to embrace the great outdoors would be truly transformational.

On tourism, in my constituency we host part of the Sustrans sea-to-sea cycle route, which goes from Whitehaven to Sunderland. We also have Wainwright’s coast-to-coast, which is soon to be a national trail, from St Bees to Robin Hood’s Bay. We conquered the latter last year—all 194 miles—carrying everything on our backs across the Lake District, the Yorkshire dales and the North York Moors, spending money as we went. Later this year, again with my husband Keith—an avid lifelong cyclist—we will be cycling the Atlantic coast between Porto and Lisbon along part of Eurovelo 1. That is just a flavour of the tourism benefits of walking and cycling.

Our target in government is for half of all short journeys in towns and cities to be walked or cycled by 2030, and for 55% of five to 10-year-olds to walk to school by 2025. In urban areas, we are nearly there, but much improvement is needed in rural areas, where only 17% of school journeys are walked and hardly any are cycled. While a distance of a mile or two may be too long to walk in the modern world, it is perfectly possible to warm up on a bike.

May I also give a huge shout-out to the technology advancements of e-cycles as well, because hills are no problem—she says, living in Cumbria, home of the highest mountain in England—with an electric bike? One can carry cargo or the kids. When I was in the Netherlands on a ministerial visit, I stood in awe in the car park in Utrecht, I think, which was one of the cities we visited. There was an aisle of bikes adorned with carriers of all kinds for children—on the front, on the back, on the crossbar, with a tow hook and with a trailer. There were all manner of ways of carrying one’s children. I was so impressed, and we could learn so much from the Netherlands. If he has not been already, I recommend that the Minister undertake a visit. Danny Williams came with me when I went, and I recommend the Minister take him once again, because it was an inspirational visit. It is part of why I am speaking with such enthusiasm today.

Let us look at why more children are not cycling or, perhaps, why more parents are not encouraging or allowing their children to cycle to school. Sadly, in Cumbria we have rates above the national average of children being killed or seriously injured, so parents’ reluctance is justified. While great safety improvements have been made, they have been predominately benefiting the car occupant, rather than the more vulnerable pedestrian or cyclist. We also have the fact that most road injuries are happening during school commute times.

Then we have the real barriers of affordability. That is not just the bike and helmet, but having somewhere to conveniently, safely and securely store the bike. Having access to the right bike is even more expensive. Storage at home, en route, such as at train stations, and at destinations, such as schools, colleges, work, essential services, shops and recreational places, is required. While bikes remain a cheaper form of transport than private cars, bikes in the UK are increasingly state of the art and are often highly prized. They are costly feats of engineering, so security is a key factor.

It is brilliant to witness the resurgence of manufacturers making bikes, from the Frogs I mentioned earlier, which are made in Wales, to my own great choice of gravel bike, the Ribble, from Lancashire. There are many more, along with equivalent clothing from Restrap in Yorkshire to Endura in Scotland. It is fantastic that we have the Sustrans national network, but Sustrans found that 42% of households with children have no children’s bikes. Sustrans route 72 is a mostly traffic-free route from Seascale to Whitehaven and on to Workington. The brilliant route 727, which is more fondly known as the Viking way, is a project that I was involved with when I worked as a regeneration officer at Copeland Borough Council. Thanks to the then Cumbria County Council, Sellafield and Sustrans, the villages of Seascale and Gosforth are now connected by a superb, segregated, designated route, which is well used by people walking and cycling alike, and by children and adults.

Sustrans reports that just 52% of adults feel that their areas are safe for cycling. Even worse, only 29% feel that their areas are safe for children to ride their bikes. That is why seven out of 10 adults say they will never cycle, with safety cited as the main reason. Our gear change strategy, which as I said is one of the greatest health interventions, really is the way forward. We should stick with the programme.

I am pleased that we have strengthened the highway code and thank everybody involved with promoting that. I also thank Cycling UK for its great work. As it said to me, in Cumbria, only 12% of young people meet the World Health Organisation recommended amount of daily exercise, but just 14% of parents feel confident to teach their child to cycle on the road, so the work of Active Travel England is vital, creating routes that are local transport note-compliant wherever possible and creating an atmosphere and environment that is more conducive to walking and cycling.

We have come so far in creating Active Travel England, but there are real barriers in affordability and, of course, storage, and local authorities need to prioritise those healthy habits. I think that I have pretty much summed up the opportunities if we get this right, the barriers currently faced, the progress we are already making, and the benefits of working together. My overriding ask of the Minister is that he joins with other Government Departments—the Department of Health, which has the most to gain; the Department for Education, which can make possible the formation of early habits; and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which can think about how we pay farmers for access to their land—in recognising that the sports strategy should embrace the great outdoors, as well as the visitor economy benefits from walking and cycling. I very much look forward to his response.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 5:57, 20 February 2024

What an honour and a privilege it is to respond to my hon. Friend Trudy Harrison, who is a former Minister for active travel and a good friend of mine. I was delighted to campaign to get her into the House—I think I visited Copeland on 14 separate occasions during a very long wet and wintry by-election—where she has been a transformational influence. Her legacy is massive, not least because she was an outstanding Minister for active travel.

I thank my hon. Friend for visiting Northumberland when she came to see the benefits of the Tynedale superhighway. Madam Deputy Speaker, I must be careful not to talk for the next hour and a half about the amazing cycling and walking projects that exist in Northumberland and to take my hon. Friend Tracey Crouch to task on why she particularly favours Cumbria over what is clearly a better county in Northumberland. However, the long and the short must surely be that my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland has done a massive amount to drive forward active travel, and she should be extraordinarily proud of that.

Photo of Tracey Crouch Tracey Crouch Conservative, Chatham and Aylesford

As Madam Deputy Speaker cannot say this herself, it is only right to note that RideLondon now goes through her constituency, which is an excellent part of the country to cycle in.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

My hon. Friend has done a very good Radio 2 link to what I was going to talk about. As the Minister for active travel, I am delighted to say that I have done RideLondon. On several occasions I have done the Haydon Hundred in my constituency. The most interesting of all is the Dunwich Dynamo, which is undoubtedly the most iconic cycling race of all time. It is an attempt by more than 5,000 people to leave a Hackney pub on the shortest night of the year and cycle, totally unsupported, from Hackney all the way to Dunwich in Suffolk—120 miles—through the night. The instructions are literally an envelope. Without a shadow of a doubt, it is the most fearsome and amazing cycle trip to be part of. RideLondon is a massive boost to the local economy, and extols various local virtues.

My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland asked me to go to Holland on a cycle trip with Danny Williams, the amazing chief executive, and I endorse her assessment of him. I must confess that about 20 years ago, long before I came to this place, I did the trip from Zandvoort on the coast to Amsterdam on a bike, and I have cycled extensively in Holland. We in this House should be excited because although we might say, “Our infrastructure is not quite there. We want to do more cycling and walking, and we want things to be better. We want active travel to be more impressive and for the opportunities to be better,” we only have to look back at the situation in Holland only 30 or 40 years ago to see the degree to which its infrastructure has transformed the nation and how its populus gets about. That is totally tangible. We are some years behind it in that change, but we should strive to emulate that objective.

My hon. Friend spoke glowingly about the coast-to-coast, the quality of which I endorse, having done it. I trump her 190 miles with the 268 miles of the Pennine way, the first part of which I was delighted to do with my good friend Paul Blomfield, who sadly is also standing down, when we were raising money for brain tumours, having both suffered from them. The transformation of the visitor economy and the tourism boost from cycling and walking is game changing. There is no doubt whatsoever about that. We should be fully behind that. That is why I invited my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland to Northumberland to get behind the Tynedale superhighway, and why this Government have given £9 million for the Hexham to Corbridge cycle route, the work on which is ongoing. The LCWIPs that she talked so glowingly about are clearly the way ahead.

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

The Minister talked about LCWIPs at the last Adjournment debate of 2023 on transport infrastructure in Cullompton. I remember him saying that the LCWIPs for Cullompton would be consulted on, which is true—that consultation concluded earlier this month. Can his Department work with Devon County Council to ensure that the walking and cycling infrastructure around Cullompton extends all the way to Tiverton, Willand and Uffculme?

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I will await the information put forward by the local authority, but it is unquestionably the case that we are trying to take forward the LCWIPs and to ensure the best usage, enhancement and improvement of local infrastructure. I await what the local authority has proposed.

On the point my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland made about schools, surely we can all get behind the 20 mph zone around them. It is unquestionable that where local authorities can prioritise LCWIPs around schools, they should do so. If the message has not gone out, I am happy to make that point.

I have been asked to do an awful lot of writing to an awful lot of people, and let me address those points. First and foremost, all cycling and walking has a massive benefit and impact on health. My hon. Friend identified that if we want a healthier Britain, more people need to be cycling and walking. The evidence is overwhelming that regular physical activity of any shape or form reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes by up to 40% and cardiovascular disease by up to 35%. My hon. Friend is right that there are sadly far too many obese children in our schools and far too many people who are not taking advantage of the great outdoors, much to the consternation of my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford. We have to change that. We have to try to change those perceptions and get this country out of the torpor that it descended into slightly during covid.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Conservative, Copeland

The Minister is making an excellent point on the value of the great outdoors and being active. I know that this is not his Department’s responsibility, but does he agree that approximately 80% of that ill health is related to diet, and that ultra-processed foods have a part to play in the state of the nation’s health?

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

As a Government Minister, I am not allowed to endorse a particular book or approach; that would be genuinely wrong. A bit like the BBC, we think that all organisations, institutions and authors have merit and everything like that. However, having been given as a present “Ultra-Processed People”, Chris van Tulleken’s book on the science behind food that is not food, I have to say that I utterly endorse the point my hon. Friend is making. We have a genuine problem in this country: we are allowing the production of food that is neither supporting our farmers nor necessarily good for our population.

This is not my Department’s responsibility, so I could not possibly comment on the efficacy of evidence or on changes that should be made. However, there is a growing body of evidence that says that Government really have to look at what we are doing about ultra-processed food and how to put out better messaging. That is difficult, and pretending it is not is naive. However, I utterly endorse the message that we need to eat more healthily if at all possible, and taking out of the game some of those ultra-processed foods and their impact seems to be a no-brainer to me. More particularly, it cannot be a good thing for this country that we are allowing our population to eat food that will inevitably give them diabetes and allow them to put on weight without, in most cases, people realising that that is what is going to happen. That just cannot be right, in my humble opinion, and we should do something about it.

There are a few things that I can do about it. My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland challenged me on a number of points. The first relates to an inter-ministerial group that I am part of. As anyone who has been a Minister will know, there are some inter-ministerial groups that are really important and worthy, and some that are interesting, to say the very least. The national physical activity taskforce, which is run by the Sport Minister, my right hon. Friend Stuart Andrew, is meeting on 25 March at 2 pm, by chance. My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland might want to send a copy of her speech and an itemised agenda to the Sport Minister and invite him to treat that as the agenda for the meeting at 2 pm on 25 March at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. That is merely a suggestion that she could, in theory, contemplate.

As for bringing together all the Departments to address national physical activity, I think it is entirely the right thing to do. It is wider than just saying, “We want people to do sport. We want them to get physically active.” Of course, that is right, and individual Members of Parliament can make a real difference on this. There is no doubt about that. They can meet with Sport England—I recently met both the chief executive and my local representatives—and drive forward the sporting infrastructure that we all want to see; they can get local representatives in their constituency. I should put on record my thanks to the amazing Rob Aubrook—whom my hon. Friend met when, as the Minister with responsibility for cycling, she came to Northumberland—who has driven forward more cycling infrastructure and other local infrastructure projects, just as my hon. Friend made sure the infrastructure was improved in her local area when she was just a humble campaigner from Bootle. That surely is what we should all aspire to.

There is more we can do, and many colleagues put forward proposals. I agree with much of what my right hon. Friend Sir Robert Goodwill said. I answered the point from Richard Foord. My hon. Friend Robin Millar made a point about his amazing coast-to-mountains route, of which I am exceptionally jealous and which I am keen to try. It obviously comes third in the batting order of places to visit, after Cumbria and Northumberland. My hon. Friend Paul Howell rightly made the point that small pieces of infrastructure, in this case a crossing, enable people to access all the benefits that only one part of the village may otherwise have. I urge him to seek the extra local transport funding in Durham that will flow from the Prime Minister’s decision on HS2; it will release infrastructure funding for certain transport projects. I will take that up with him separately.

This is a good opportunity to put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford for her service in this House, because sadly she has decided to step down. She was an outstanding sports Minister. We troll each other in a very polite way on the extent of our Saturday morning cycling or racing activity. Both of us have suffered cancer and have made a remarkable recovery. She is a good example of never letting the past define you, and always looking onwards and forwards. We will miss her desperately. She raised a key point, which is: what more can we get local authorities to do? Bluntly, a lot more.

The first point is surely this. Every MP will see a new housing development come into existence. Said housing development will always have a section 106 agreement on local infrastructure and support. Too often, however, only after its development will there be a thought about cycling infrastructure, accessibility, accessible transport, buses and so on. I am genuinely trying to change that, because what we presently have is unacceptable. It is just not good government to allow a situation in which local authorities do not grasp that there is so much more they could do.

We are trying to retrofit old infrastructure. My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland talked about York. I was lucky enough to go to Active Travel and meet Danny and all the amazing team. Everywhere I go with Active Travel I always get on a bike, so we cycled around the medieval and Roman town of York, with all the difficulties there are there in ensuring cycling infrastructure on the very narrow streets that Harry Potter was delighted to use. But for modern housing, we surely must get it right. When it comes to modern housing, section 106 should provide for all the necessary cycling infrastructure. The best part of 10,000 people are moving to Barrow for the AUKUS project—my hon. Friend Simon Fell is doing great work on that—and we are trying to ensure that where we do big housing, the infrastructure is part of the development. That is the first and key point of education for local authorities.

Secondly, we have set up an amazing scheme called Bikeability. It is fundamentally a success story, as my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland rightly outlined, because it encourages more and more children to cycle on an ongoing basis, get training and so on. The honest truth is that some local authorities are very good at that—Cumbria is a great example—and some local authorities are shockers. I am strongly urged by officials not to name and shame them, but I will certainly write to every single local authority and extol those that are doing well, and ask why that is not 100% of them when there is this amazing, free Government scheme to encourage our population to get healthier, get fitter, get outdoors and learn how brilliant it is to be on a bicycle. I give my hon. Friend an undertaking that I will definitely do that.

My hon. Friend rightly raised the issue of schools. It is true that I am not an Education Minister—some would say that that is a very good thing—but I will write to Ofsted, as she invited me to, to establish the extent to which we can drive forward an assessment. I take comfort from the daily mile, a project that originated in Scotland and has percolated southwards. It is a massive success story: every single headteacher at the schools that do the daily mile will genuinely say to those who visit them that it transforms the way that the kids are educated. It transforms their attention, their fitness and their engagement, and does them a world of good in a host of social and other ways. A natural extension of what schools are doing would be for there to be an assessment of, or at the very least inquiry into, how schools are trying to improve rates of walking and cycling, both at school and in the journey to school. We have a Walk to School Week, which is part of a programme organised by the Department for Education, but the blunt truth is that it is not very successful. Far too few kids walk to school, and we must try to do more about that.

My hon. Friend invited me to comment on social prescribing. On her watch, that started with a £13.9 million budget, which has been invested in 11 local authority pilots over three years. One of them is of course in Cumbria; the others range from Suffolk to Bath and from Gateshead to Plymouth. The pilots are expected to engage tens of thousands of people in walking, wheeling and cycling, and we will assess their impact in 2025, at the end of the three-year project. However, I can tell her that if I have anything whatsoever to do with it, we will continue that project, which has my hearty endorsement and support.

I come to our approach to rural areas, and I speak as the Member representing the largest constituency in the country. Rory Stewart and I used to have a dispute over whose was larger. I told him that size did not matter, but that Hexham was larger. The long and short of it is that rurality in general is very difficult, and trying to establish a rural cycling infrastructure is very difficult. Off-road is often better: I can extol, without a shadow of a doubt, the Sandstone Way, which runs from Hexham to Berwick in Northumberland, and the work that we are doing in Kielder Forest. However, it is hard to secure taxpayer funding for more rural routes because the Treasury operates on a bang-for-your-buck, Green Book basis and so tries to get more ongoing funds for urban beneficiaries.

Let me end by saying a bit more about the key issue of funding. Ten or 15 years ago, £30 million, £25 million or less was spent on cycling and walking. I look at the budgets of up to £300 million over the last four or five years, and the ongoing £200 million investment in active travel, and I see that we have come a long way. Do we have further to go? Of course we do, but the direction of travel—and in a debate about cycling and walking, the direction of travel is surely important—is utterly clear. We are investing more than any previous Government. Our projection is that over the period up to 2025, £3 billion will be invested across Government in active travel, including investment from the city region sustainable transport settlements and the levelling-up fund. There will also be further funding opportunities through Network North in future years.

It is important to note that whatever the original active travel budget may have been, the HS2 money—whether through the city region sustainable transport settlements or the levelling-up fund additions—and any further local transport funding that may or may not result in the next few months can be used to support walking and, in particular, cycling schemes, and we would encourage Mayors, where appropriate, to pursue those opportunities.

In September last year, we announced £60 million of revenue funding for supporting active travel to school, including through Walk to School, the Big Bike Revival, Modeshift STARS and, obviously, Bikeability. I have had a Bikeability meeting with Emily Cherry, the brilliant chief executive of Bikeability Trust, who is very well known to my hon. Friend. I endorse the support for that initiative, and we think that more can be done, but 500,000 places with £21 million of support is not to be sneered at. We have reached 51% of year 6 children in 60% of primary schools. I would love to do more, and we are trying to make it happen.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Conservative, Copeland

May I congratulate the Department, Bikeability and the wonderful Emily Cherry on recognising the difference that it can make to children with special educational needs and disabilities to learn to ride a bike or trike that is right for them? Huge improvements have been made in creating a more accessible Bikeability.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

My hon. Friend is right: Bikeability is transformational. We need to do it bigger and better, and more widely, but it also requires a change in the Great British public. First and foremost, it requires mums and dads, headteachers and local authorities to say, “We want to get behind this.” I think we can do that, and the direction of travel is good. She is right to praise Emily Cherry, Danny Williams and all the Active Travel team. I met the vast majority of them when I went to York. They are doing God’s work in transforming hundreds of projects up and down the country. I have not mentioned Mr Boardman—probably because I owe him a beer, which is always a worry—but it is great to have the opportunity to work with one’s heroes. I grew up watching Chris Boardman in various races, including when he famously led the Tour de France and came off his bike. That was one of the tragedies of my sporting TV career.

What is happening with active travel is genuinely transformational, and we continue to support it. I believe that the record of this Government is good, but we can do more. It has been an honour and a privilege to respond to my hon. Friend and her very important debate tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.