Cycle Trails

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 28 February 2024.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Tracey Crouch Tracey Crouch Conservative, Chatham and Aylesford 11:00, 28 February 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the provision of cycle trails.

As always, Mr Twigg, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I sit on the board of British Cycling Events, which is a subsidiary of British Cycling. That has no direct relevance to this debate, but I thought it safest to refer to it.

This debate is inspired by a young constituent of mine, Harrison Crick, who emailed me last year with what I thought at the time was a simple request to help him improve local mountain bike trails:

“I am wondering whether you could help me with putting forward an idea to improve mountain bike trails in Medway as there are no decent parks or trails that include jumps, berms and drops. As a teenager I can’t travel far on my own without it being very expensive and even if I can get driven some of the closest places are over an hour away. The Capstone trails”, which are in my constituency,

“are alright but could use development and implement new features or possible new lines or areas. This is what I was wondering if you could help me with to see if this idea is possible as it would give me and many other teens proper facilities to ride our bikes locally.”

As an enthusiastic cyclist who always welcomes and applauds young people’s contributions to local politics, I did not think that that was an unreasonable ask. However, it came in just before the local elections, so I advised Harrison that I would do some investigating and get back to him once the local political situation had settled down.

It was really an excuse to jump on my gravel bike with Luke, who worked for British Cycling at the time, and with Stewart Vanns from Community Cycleworks, an incredible organisation that has done wonders with young cyclists in and around Snodland, a town in my constituency that had an issue with antisocial biking that seems to have calmed thanks to a new pump track and Stewart’s amazing energy for taking kids out on trails. The three of us met at Capstone and headed out on the trails before venturing into the wider Medway towns. It was fun, but the fact that I—a complete trail novice on a gravel bike, not a mountain bike—felt comfortable on the adventure made Harrison’s point that the trails needed some improvement.

I wrote to the council to make those points. For once, it was not about the money; our Conservative police and crime commissioner had given money to the council for exactly this kind of initiative. It took some months to get a reply, but eventually I received one:

Medway Council is not able to offer such an extent of land in our ownership in the area of Capstone that would include that type of riding challenge with respect to both distance and gradient.”

The reply was helpful in that it directed to other trails in Medway, but sadly it also reinforced Harrison’s point:

“I have been riding mountain bikes off road for over 40 years all over the UK, so I speak with some experience of this matter. When I advanced my riding skills I had to travel much further from home either by taking my bike on the back of my car or planning a route from my home that took in local bridleways, trails and roads over a much further distance as I had outgrown what was on offer on my doorstep.”

The reply was meant kindly, and the officer clearly wanted to highlight that his own experience and interest in this area had enabled him to respond intelligently. But the Minister has visited Medway on many occasions and will be aware of the deprivation in the towns, so he will appreciate that for some people, advancing their skills further afield is not possible.

I am now looking at other areas that are near Harrison but not actually within the Medway local authority, where the PCC’s generous funding could be better used. That is not within the Minister’s remit, but loving cycling and accessibility to good cycle trails is. Harrison’s tale inspires a wider discussion of active travel schemes.

Photo of Kim Leadbeater Kim Leadbeater Opposition Whip (Commons)

In Batley and Spen we have the amazing Spen Valley greenway, which is a much-loved and well-used part of the national cycle network and is used by many groups, including the fantastic Streetbikes. The greenway is run by Sustrans, which does an excellent job. Does the hon. Lady agree that what we really need is a national strategy for cycle trails, to enable them to reach their full potential?

Photo of Tracey Crouch Tracey Crouch Conservative, Chatham and Aylesford

I agree with the hon. Lady, as I often do. I will come to that point later on.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I commend the hon. Lady for securing this debate and for all her endeavours and her commitment to sport. We all appreciate her work. She has also been a guest at one of my Strangford dinners, and I was very pleased to have her there. She visited Comber Rec women’s football team; that is just an example of her work with sports.

Does the hon. Lady agree that by encouraging cycling trails, of which my constituency has many, we are also encouraging improved health, socialisation and understanding of our natural environment? It is certainly worth the focus of this House and the funding that is required from this Government.

Photo of Tracey Crouch Tracey Crouch Conservative, Chatham and Aylesford

I agree wholeheartedly. I am a passionate advocate for the outdoors and all that it can bring, and the hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to learn that I think that cycling is just one way of bringing that natural wellbeing. It does not have to be cycling; it can be walking, rambling, climbing or canoeing—there are all sorts of wonderful activities. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I am hosting an event next week with Kim Leadbeater on bringing the outdoors to everyone. Cycling is an important part of that story.

The more I travel around on my bike, on and off-road, the more I despair. I know that the Minister shares my desperate desire to get people out of their cars and on bikes, but the roads and cycle lanes around my constituency and beyond are dangerous. I certainly would not let my son ride his bike on the road; instead, I would willingly accept the wrath of those he negotiates on a path. Where cycle lanes do exist, they are often left unswept and covered in debris, meaning that cyclists have to cycle in the road. There are potholes that not only damage bicycles but are frankly dangerous on many routes.

In some situations, section 106 money has been offered to improve existing cycle routes, whether they are trails or lanes, that are pleasantly away from traffic, such as those between Aylesford and Larkfield. Instead, however, it is being used to create cycle paths that share the road with enormous lorries and delivery trucks. Sustrans, which the hon. Member for Batley and Spen mentioned, was kind enough to send me a note before this debate, pointing out route 17 in my constituency. I know parts of that route very well. This morning, I invited Sustrans to cycle it with me, because personally I do not think it is a viable route, especially in the winter months.

There is the most wonderful path between Aylesford and Maidstone, which I had the pleasure of opening in 2017. It was much loved and well used; it was flat and perfect for teaching little people how to ride a bike. Unfortunately, a small section of the Aylesford river path crumbled and part collapsed into the river at the beginning of lockdown. I have been campaigning constantly ever since, to the point of exasperation, for it to be fixed. It is a regular grumble on local residents’ pages. The Minister has been the unfortunate victim of my ear-bending about how the path needs some funding—not least because, as the main off-road walk from Aylesford to Maidstone, it had several thousand users per month at one point. It feels like such a wasted resource for walkers, riders and runners alike. Any news from the Minister today on the path would be very welcome.

Last week, my hon. Friend Trudy Harrison led a debate in the House, to which the Minister responded and I contributed, that highlighted the health benefits of learning to cycle. Kent’s Bikeability stats are woeful. Just 13% reach the required level against a target of 50%, which is well below the national target of 50%. Medway’s is better, at 47% against a target of 60%, but it can be much improved. Both appear to have had central Government investment. It would be useful to hear from the Minister what more he could do in Kent in particular to scale up provision.

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

The hon. Lady refers to statistics on provision in Kent. To get good statistics on cycle trail provision in our constituencies, consultation is necessary. A consultation opened yesterday on the Cullompton and Tiverton local cycling and walking infrastructure plan, which is very welcome; I encourage people to get involved. Does the hon. Lady, like me, pay tribute to people in Sidmouth in the East Devon constituency, who provided more than 185 responses to a questionnaire from a Sidmouth cycling campaign?

Photo of Tracey Crouch Tracey Crouch Conservative, Chatham and Aylesford

I pay tribute to the people who responded. I was speaking last week to my hon. Friend Simon Jupp about it, because he wanted some advice on cycle trails; he is clearly passionate about providing cycle trails and routes. I fondly recollected that the first people I met when I did the recent Ride the Night charity ride from Windsor to Buckingham Palace and back were a couple from Honiton. Cycling is obviously important in Devon, as is having the appropriate routes.

It is really important that we have routes that people want to use, rather than ones provided by local authorities without any consultation. One of my frustrations is that planners quite often put a line in and think it is the appropriate route, when they have not engaged with people on whether it will be used. I definitely welcome the consultation in the constituency of Richard Foord and in the neighbouring constituency of East Devon.

It would be really helpful if the Minister outlined what he thinks good provision for cycle paths and trails looks like, because there is no point in learning to cycle if we have nowhere safe to ride. Cycling is great for physical and mental health, and it is also good for the environment. Establishing a proper trail network benefits everyone, but it requires a proper strategy that connects transport and planning. It is so infuriating to see cycle routes being retrofitted to new developments as an afterthought. The Minister, who shares our love of the outdoors, would be the perfect person to lead a trail strategy that recognised the health, economic, tourism and environmental benefits of a safe network of trails.

Finally, we have some inspirational elite riders who we hope will dominate the Paris Olympics this summer. What message does the Minister have for local authorities to provide to youngsters such as Harrison who wish to take their trail riding to the next level?

I love my bikes; I have a special room for them. I know that I am fortunate to have more than one, but I love the freedom that cycling gives me on and off the road. It can take us into the fresh air away from our trials and tribulations and forge new friendships, build resilience and tackle antisocial behaviour. The more we can do to open provision up to all levels for all types of activities, the better. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 11:12, 28 February 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I congratulate my hon. Friend Tracey Crouch, a fellow ardent cyclist, on securing this important debate. Although I have a very good speech written by the Department, I will try to respond to the individual points that she made.

I will start with the origin of the debate, which is Harrison. My hon. Friend told the tale of a young man getting in contact with a Member of Parliament in the probably slightly sceptical hope that he could make a difference—both locally and by getting through to the MP. Clearly, that is why we have this debate. I hope that I will be able to give some good long-term news to both Harrison and the wider Medway community of which my hon. Friend is part. That is a great story—it really is—and I for one want to put on record my personal thanks as, frankly, this is what Parliament and representative democracy are all about. I sincerely hope that Harrison not only wins various future cycling competitions, but contemplates running for the local council and being a Member of Parliament. I look forward to welcoming him to the green Benches and, ultimately, to him becoming Prime Minister in about 25 years.

That is my first point. The second is that I must also make a declaration as an ardent but slightly fat cyclist, who has done everything from the Rye 100 to the Dunwich Dynamo as well as a variety of interesting cycle routes, including through most parts of Kent. I took the train down to Margate and cycled all the way back to London along the coast on the amazing trails that Kent has. As my hon. Friend rightly says, it is a fantastic opportunity to get out and about, get into the fresh air, try to fight the flab, get fitter and do all the things that we want to do. She is right to highlight the interesting differences in Bikeability stats in Medway and Kent, and we would like to work on them. I will come on to that in more detail. The figures for year 6 pupils of 13% in Kent and 47% in Medway are not too bad, but we would like to make that bigger. I encourage local authorities to get behind that supportive scheme, and we have to ask why they are not fully behind such things.

We should put on record our thanks to Luke, Stewart and the PCC for getting behind the individual cycle trails and then putting forward the money for the initiative locally, which sounds eminently sensible to me.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Labour, Halton

Order. I remind the Minister that he is supposed to be addressing the subject.

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

I apologise, I was focusing far too much on my hon. Friend.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Labour, Halton

Mr Speaker is very clear about that.

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

That is a good point. I apologise unreservedly for not addressing the House and for speaking too much to one individual colleague. As I say, we put on record our thanks to the individuals involved.

I will now return to the cycling and walking investment strategies of 2017 and 2022 and the establishment of Active Travel England. Last week, my hon. Friend Trudy Harrison led a debate on active travel in the main Chamber, in which my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford spoke, and, as we said, we are on a journey in this country, without a shadow of a doubt. Countries such as Holland have a whole host of state-of-the-art cycling infrastructure that has transformed their cities, yet decades ago they looked exactly the same as the UK. Those countries had the same problems and difficulties of trying to build infrastructure, segregated lanes and so on.

First and foremost, we have committed more than £3 billion that will be invested across Government in active travel up to 2025. That includes money from the city region sustainable transport settlements and the levelling-up fund. I should declare that I have a £9 million project in my constituency of Hexham. There are also other opportunities through the local transport fund, which was the money announced for northern and midland regions through the termination of the second leg of High Speed 2. It was announced on Monday, and many billions will go to local authorities up and down the country to ensure they can drive forward infrastructure, which can include cycle trails and all manners of road improvements.

On delivery, Active Travel England has been providing capital funding to local authorities for active travel infrastructure through the active travel fund. Since then, £515 million has been provided to local authorities for the development and construction of almost 1,000 permanent schemes, of which 299 have been delivered. In May of last year, we announced £200 million of capital funding for walking and cycling schemes to improve road safety, ease congestion and ultimately improve the health and wellbeing of the millions of people we want to choose active travel.

To turn specifically to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford, that funding included £138,976 of dedicated capital funding from the fourth tranche of the active travel fund that is being used to fund two school streets in the area, among other projects. Since 2020, over four tranches of the active travel fund, more than £12 million of dedicated capital funding has been provided for active travel within Kent and Medway. Indeed, Kent and Medway have also received £1.3 million of revenue funding through the capability fund and I am pleased to say that both are in the process of developing authority-wide local cycling and walking infrastructure plans.

On the Aylesford river path, it is fair to say that my hon. Friend has been extremely assiduous—that is how I think they describe it in the House of Commons—in standing up for her local community as a Member of Parliament, as we all should do. I am aware that Kent County Council has been working with Active Travel England to undertake further design and assurance work to put the scheme forward under the active travel fund 4 extension programme. I can confirm that I have approved ATE’s recommendations for allocating funding through the programme. Although I cannot announce the funding for the scheme today, we expect to announce further capital and revenue funding allocations very shortly. I sincerely hope that I will be jumping on my bike and coming down to Aylesford to meet my hon. Friend, Harrison and anyone else so that we can formally announce the Aylesford river path and the work that my hon. Friend has so assiduously sought.

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Chair, Science, Innovation and Technology Committee, Chair, Science, Innovation and Technology Committee

When the Minister makes that visit to Aylesford, will he also come to the west of the county of Kent and visit the Bedgebury forest, where there is a much-used network of cycle trails? It is used by my hon. Friend Tracey Crouch as well as by me. The Minister will enjoy that, but he will also see that it is quite isolated from public transport and towns such as Tunbridge Wells. It may give him pause for thought about how we can make cycle trails accessible for people who live in towns and may not have access to cars.

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

My right hon. Friend makes a very serious point. I have the great honour and privilege of being asked to visit a whole host of cycle trails, whether they are in Tunbridge Wells, Batley and Spen, or Strangford, all of which possess amazing countryside that I would be very happy to visit. However, getting to and from these locations, particularly for children and those on a low income—with all those complications—is not easy, bluntly. We must take that on board.

This and future Governments need to wrestle with a whole host of challenges, as do local authorities. Some of that is funding, but we also need to have a different sort of vision about the community we are looking after. There are examples of train companies that will not allow bicycles on trains, and of bus companies that are reluctant to have bicycles on their buses—I could go on. Frankly, that sort of stuff must stop.

When I took this brief on, I specifically made the strong point that although, yes, I would be looking after roads and buses, there was relatively little point for the active travel aspect not to be integrated with other parts of the portfolio. The beauty of that is that if we are having a conversation with local authorities or bus companies about trying to do things in a different way, we are also trying to integrate active travel and accessible travel so that the system is joined up. My right hon. Friend Greg Clark and my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford know the great joy of being a Minister—it is amazing—but any Minister knows that joined-up Government is a holy grail that we all aspire to and cannot always achieve. Getting different Departments and parts of an individual portfolio to talk to and integrate with each other is utterly key.

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

There are places where we have public transport links and good rail services, such as in my Tiverton and Honiton constituency. Does that suggest that perhaps the Department would be more welcoming of constructing cycle trails around places such as Tiverton Parkway, the new railway station at Cullompton, and Feniton, Axminster, Honiton and Whimple?

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

As the hon. Gentleman knows, this amazing Government brought forward the new railway station at Cullompton.

It is clear that I want to see more people on a bike, and more accessible and active travel. The best bit of that is Bikeability. I will just talk about that very briefly, because it really matters. The Government have given £21 million for Bikeability, which has delivered almost 500,000 places and reached 51% of year 6 children in 60% of primary schools. I genuinely believe, however, that we can do a lot more. Local authorities really need to step up to the plate, because this matters. Learning to cycle from a young age is a life skill. Aside from all the health benefits and independence that it provides, and aside from the fact that it is so much cheaper in the long term, cycling gives individuals great confidence in their capabilities and develops our children in a game-changing way.

Over the coming years, we will invest a further £50 million in Bikeability to deliver training for over 1 million more children. We believe that, by 2025, 80% of year 6 children will be taking part in on-road cycle training before leaving primary school. Turning to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells, although teaching kids in school how to ride a bike is great, we also need local authorities to use their local cycling and walking infrastructure plans and development funding to ensure that it is easy for kids to cycle to school, as we discussed in the debate on active travel in the House last week. That is the holy grail. With no disrespect to individual parents, we want kids to walk or cycle to the local school. That is why so many of us support 20 mph zones outside schools, which make total sense and support ongoing cycling.

I echo the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford for the national cycle network and the work of Sustrans. The network is clearly a national asset; it provides more than 12,000 miles of signed paths and routes for walking, wheeling, cycling and exploring the outdoors. The Department has supported the upkeep of this national asset to the tune of £75 million. I take my hon. Friend’s point about cycle trails, and note her example of cycle trails funded by the police and crime commissioner. Without a shadow of a doubt, we want to do more, and I am keen to look at that. I will engage with Danny Williams and the Active Travel England team in York to see what more we can do.

Photo of Kim Leadbeater Kim Leadbeater Opposition Whip (Commons)

The Minister is making fantastic points about the amazing work of Sustrans, but will he commit to looking at its funding? It is a charity, and unfortunately the lack of funding means that we have lost the warden for the Spen valley greenway, which is in my constituency. The warden did a fantastic job of making people on the greenway feel safe and ensuring it was a clean and tidy space for people to work.

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

I am not going to get into the question of funding decisions for charities, but this Government have backed active travelling and cycling to a degree that no other Government ever have, and are continuing to do so. My respectful view is that this House should welcome the journey that we are on.

I look forward to visiting Aylesford in the near future. We are here only because Harrison stuck his hand up and had the courage to do something that we wish everybody would do: write to their MP, in a respectful, kind and constructive way. I put on record the due thanks of the House to him. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford for securing the debate, and look forward to driving forward greater cycling infrastructure in her part of the world.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.