Comment: Cycling takes centre stage at Westminster

When cycling is mentioned in Parliament it’s usually treated either as a problem or as a bit of a joke. Over a couple of days last week, however, cycling has virtually dominated the debate.

On Wednesday, Julian Huppert MP for Cambridge, extracted a message of support from David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions. That night 2,000 cyclists joined a flash ride to Parliament and then on Thursday almost 80 MPs crammed into Westminster Hall – the secondary debating chamber – to recount their experiences of cycling and how conditions needed to be improved.

Many MPs noted that the debate was one of the busiest they had seen; there were far more members discussing cycling than in the main chamber, and despite the debate being extended, not all the members who wanted to spoke.

The debate was triggered by The Times newspaper’s campaign ‘Cities fit for cycling’, which has garnered 30,000 signatures and thousands of stories from cyclists. The editor of The Times was at the debate yesterday and in a meeting earlier this week with cycling groups committed to maintaining the campaign for as long as it takes to see a shift in Government policy.

The joint chairs of the All-Party Cycling Group, Julian Huppert and Ian Austin, the MP for Dudley, started the debate by making the point that although cycling was a safe, healthy activity which we need to continue to encourage, the barriers to increasing its share of trips were vast. These ranged from the terrible road conditions to the inadequate sentences handed down to the drivers who kill or injure cyclists on the roads.

To have such issues discussed at such length, so eloquently and in often moving detail in Parliament is rare and welcome. In decades of campaigning CTC has never seen such a strong, cross-party consensus behind cycling. In addition to the briefing materials for the campaign, CTC – along with Sustrans, British Cycling, and LCC – was in Parliament on Wednesday to brief many of the MPs who went on to speak in Thursday’s debate.

“I fell in love on a tandem” was the delightful opening gambit of the independent-minded MP for Totnes, Dr Sarah Wollaston. Oliver Colville, a Plymouth MP, candidly noted that by his calculation the 30 letters he had received on cycling suggested the cyclist lobby represented roughly half of his majority and thus, despite it being sometime since he had last ridden a bike, he was there to register his support for the cause. As member after member piled into the debate, it became clear that there is a political tailwind – a credit to the thousands of cyclists who have written in to their MPs over the last few weeks.

At the closing of the debate the Shadow Secretary of State Maria Eagle passionately endorsed the measures put forward by The Times. Unfortunately the Minister, Norman Baker MP, despite the endorsement from the Prime Minister, was rather more circumspect. He is a cyclist himself, eschewing Departmental cars for an official Brompton, but his enthusiasm is tempered by the restrictions of being the budget-holder. All that was on the table was a defence of the Government’s current stance and a reiterated announcement of an extra £15m for cycling (found down the back of the Department’s sofa a week or so ago).

While welcome, this is clearly not going to be enough to resolve the problems that were set out by the MPs over the course of the previous three hours. Time and again, poor conditions for cycling, bad driving and the fear people feel about riding on Britain’s roads had been expressed, but it didn’t appear that the Government had a coordinated response.

Perhaps now, with the political space that has been opened up with this debate, additional funding can be found in the forthcoming Budget to properly fund cycling at the level necessary required making a difference. CTC will be urging Ministers to develop serious plans for both more and safer cycling. The wheels can turn slowly in Westminster, so let’s keep up the pressure on the Government to move up a gear.

See this week’s Cycling Weekly (out Thursday March 1) for more on the Parliamentary debate.

Related links
MPs turn out in force for Parliamentary cycle safety debate
Over 1,500 cyclists take part in London flashride
Cameron supports Times cycle safety campaign
Parliament to debate cycle safety
London Cycling Campaign says we should be more like Dutch
British Cycling calls for road safety reforms
How Britain has failed cycling