It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I thank Robert Courts and my hon. Friend Stephen Morgan for securing the debate and I commend the many excellent points we have heard this morning.
The Government have admitted, albeit under pressure from the Opposition, that the UK and the world as a whole face a climate emergency. We have just 11 years to dramatically reduce carbon dioxide emissions and we need to take practical steps now to protect the planet for future generations. Changes in the way we travel have a vital part to play in responding to this emergency and, as has been discussed this morning, walking and cycling can play an important role in that.
Were the UK to achieve the same cycling culture and levels of infrastructure as the Netherlands, we could reduce carbon gas emissions from cars by as much as a third, and that is not to mention the many social and economic benefits, such as tackling the air pollution crisis and reaping health benefits by reducing sedentary lifestyles, which in turn could save the NHS up to £9 billion per year. I will return to the central point about climate change later and outline some of the other many advantages of encouraging walking and cycling.
Before addressing those points, it is important to consider where we are as a country, so that we can fully understand the scale of the challenge. Mr Bailey, we need to be honest about this challenge; the UK quite simply has a poor track record of encouraging cycling and walking, and the Government are missing their own targets to increase walking and cycling. There are a number of reasons for that. The most fundamental point is the lack of investment. We have too much car-dependent development on the edge of cities or in the countryside, as colleagues have mentioned today. To make matters worse, the budget for the police has been cut severely since 2010, leading to a lack of traffic officers to tackle speeding and to educate motorists. It is hardly surprising, as colleagues have mentioned, that according to the British social attitudes survey, many people believe cycling is simply too dangerous to try, even though they are well aware of the health and lifestyle benefits.
Despite the Government’s failure, there are signs of improvement at a local level, and there has been real leadership from some mayors and local councils. I commend the imaginative mini-Hollands scheme in London, which has made a significant difference in a number of boroughs. I visited parts of Waltham Forest that have been transformed, with dedicated cycle paths, improved pavements and selective road closures, all of which have made a huge improvement in walking and cycling. More people are choosing active travel and there has been a real change in the atmosphere in the streets, which are now easier to get around on foot or by bike, after years of being dominated by cars. There are many other benefits. Trade has increased for local retailers as more people shop locally in these areas, which has encouraged further walking and cycling.
In Manchester, the Mayor’s cycling tsar, Chris Boardman, is focusing on reducing the risk of accidents at crossings, a point that was well made earlier in the debate, which are often the most dangerous places for both cyclists and pedestrians. He has also worked on joining up local routes. His emphasis on asking the public what they want and on low- cost paint and plastic transformation is leading the way; I believe that it is making it easier to introduce real change at a local level.
There are many more examples of this, not least in my constituency where a new cycling and walking bridge over the Thames at Reading has significantly increased active travel. Imaginative work is being done around the country. We heard from my hon. Friend Dan Jarvis, who is Mayor of the Sheffield City Region, and other colleagues about their local authorities. I commend this work, wherever it is occurring.
Encouraging active travel will also breathe new life into our towns, as I mentioned earlier, by reclaiming the urban realm and creating public spaces that are free from traffic and accompanying pollutants, fostering environments that are pleasant places to live and work. There is no doubt that this is a significant task, but we have the benefit of clear examples to show us how it can happen. Cities in the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark experienced steep declines in cycling until policy changes in the 1970s put them on a trajectory to become the most cycle-friendly places in the world. We must have the same ambition in the UK.
We should follow these examples and make a massive step change in funding to match the most successful towns and cities in Europe, as called for by organisations such as Cycling UK. There must be significant investment in infrastructure to develop dense, continuous networks of cycle paths that are physically separated from traffic, including building cycling and pedestrian bridges or tunnels, as we heard earlier. Cycling should be for the many, not the brave. People must also be encouraged and given the confidence to cycle, so there needs to be training and support for all who need it, including affordable bike access for all. Support for e-bikes is vital, particularly for those who are less physically able.
We know that cycling and walking are hugely important. They can play a vital part in helping us tackle climate change. There are health benefits and real benefits in terms of reducing air pollution. Yet, the Government are failing to meet the targets. Mr Bailey, I believe that we need a programme of concerted action with a step change in investment, which is why Labour would improve investment in cycling and walking, to encourage the sort of transformation we have seen and heard about on the continent.
We would take other practical steps, as referred to by other hon. Members. For example, we would encourage use of canal and river tow paths, safe routes in parks and quiet streets to create green ways into cities and towns. We would work with industry—a point that has not been discussed—to develop a proper industrial strategy for cycling, which is very important and would focus on both conventional and e-bikes. We would support cycling and walking by our wider transformation of investment in transport, bringing the railways back into public ownership to deliver better value for passengers and to encourage more people to walk to the station. More investment in bus travel would also encourage walking to bus stops. Encouraging brownfield redevelopment rather than greenfield building would encourage better access to towns and villages from new development.
I am conscious of time, so I will conclude. Walking and cycling are hugely important if we are to tackle climate change and lead healthier lives. It is clear that determined action can make an enormous difference, whether in northern Europe or closer to home in the UK. We need action now, not delay, and I urge the Minister to change the Government’s approach.