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9 May 2006 : Column 40WH—continued

I accept that this is not just a question of the weather, which is why the Liberal Democrats have a five-point plan for cycling. First, we need to create an environment that accommodates and supports cycling.
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Most roads are less than inviting for cyclists. Even where cycle lanes have been introduced, they are often too short, or only advisory. I am sure that other hon. Members will have been as frustrated as me at seeing cars constantly parked in the green cycle area, forcing bikes on to the main part of the road. More and better consultation on cycle lanes is needed to ensure that they are put in the right place and that they suit cyclists’ needs. I am sure that there are cycle lanes in the constituencies of other hon. Members, as there are in my constituency, that are rarely used because they are in the wrong place and inconvenient.

We need to ensure that there are adequate facilities for the safe storage of bikes. I recently received a complaint from a constituent who told me that there was not a single cycle rack within a half-mile radius of his office, and that the council had told him that there was nowhere suitable in the area for a bike rack. Remarkably, there appear to be plenty of metered car parking spaces, but there is nothing suitable for a bike rack.

We need to be smarter when using the planning process to encourage cycling to work. It is all very well forcing developers to put bike sheds in their new developments, but how many members of staff will use them unless there are adequate changing facilities in those developments? Surely we should ensure that such facilities are included, as part of encouraging the use of bikes.

Perhaps Members of Parliament need to do a little more. Rather than give 20p a mile for cycling and 40p a mile for cars, perhaps we should turn that round and give 40p a mile for cycling and 20p a mile for cars.

Emily Thornberry: Does the hon. Gentleman seriously think that if Members of Parliament were to be given another 20p a mile, more of them would cycle to Parliament?

Mr. Leech: Perhaps not, but that might discourage car use. If hon. Members got less mileage for using their cars, they might be discouraged from doing so, and perhaps they would be encouraged to use a bike. Who knows?

We also need to improve integration of public transport with cycling provision. I have already mentioned ScotRail being forced to allow passengers to carry bikes. I know someone who has been forced to buy a car because he cannot take his bike on the train. Without being able to cycle to the train station and at the other end cycle from the station to work, he cannot take that route.

Charlotte Atkins: Why did not the hon. Gentleman’s friend buy a second bike?

Mr. Leech: I cannot answer that except to say that perhaps he did not want to leave a bike overnight somewhere. Given the crime rate in parts of the country, I could understand that.

We must encourage young people to cycle regularly. Most people cycle when they are kids, and one of the most disappointing statistics is that they do not continue to do so. In my opinion, the main reason for that is the fact that among younger people cycling is
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seen more as a recreation than a form of transport. We should be more successful at persuading people to continue cycling if we get more children into the habit of cycling to get from A to B, as well as for recreation.

The best way to achieve that is to persuade more young people to cycle to school. When I became a school governor, I was appalled to find that there was not a single cycle rack at the school. Was it any wonder that people did not cycle to school when they had nowhere safe to leave their bike? Fortunately, the situation has improved, but all too often schools do not make the necessary provision for bicycles.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): I apologise for being late, Mr. Hancock. I was caught up in Committee elsewhere. The hon. Gentleman is making an important point, but may I commend to him the system operated in Milton Keynes? We have a red way system, which is an entirely separate grid road system designed especially for walkers and cyclists. That has been an enormous help to people who want to cycle to school. Does he believe that that system should be used more widely when we build new communities?

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. I remind Mr. Leech of the time.

Mr. Leech: Thank you, Mr. Hancock. Yes, I agree that that should be encouraged, especially in new developments. Developers should be forced to provide such alternative routes for cyclists and walkers. As well as people enjoying cycling, we have to emphasise the health benefits of cycling for adults and for children. That might sound straightforward, but the message is clearly not getting through to people.

Finally, we need to make roads safer to give people the confidence to get on their bikes. According to the CTC, the biggest discouragement to cycling is the perception that it is dangerous. Sometimes that is a perception; sometimes roads clearly are dangerous. In some cases, the answer is having cycle lanes where they will make a real difference, but getting cars off the road and getting people on to public transport are equally important, as is tackling speeding traffic. The Government have failed to tackle the congestion in our towns and cities effectively. No wonder people have given up cycling, when our roads are full of fast-moving vehicles.

Cycling is a healthy, environmentally friendly and inexpensive mode of transport. More needs to be done to provide better facilities and support for existing cyclists, and to provide the conditions to encourage many others to get back on their bikes.

12.11 pm

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on securing this timely debate, given that the review ends tomorrow. I, too, was a keen bicyclist when I was younger. There was one sport that no one has mentioned, which is bicycle polo. All that is required is an old bike, equipment such as an old hockey stick or cricket bat and any old ball, and it is a good use of grounds—football or rugby grounds, or whatever—that are too hard to play those games on.
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A minimum of only two players is needed on either side. It is a vigorous game that leads to exciting accidents, and I commend it to those who know nothing about it.

Bicycling is the Cinderella of transport activity. We have 3.6 million people who bike on a weekly basis. Well over 1 million commute daily, and 40 per cent. of people use their bikes for leisure. The British Cycling Federation has 14,000 members, the Cyclists’ Touring Club has 50,000, and Sustrans has 37,000. A lot of people will be interested in our debate.

Activity seems to be extraordinarily patchy across the country: 28.2 per cent. of people in Cambridge commute, while 0.2 per cent. commute in the Rhondda. The hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) made an interesting point about danger. There is a perception of danger, which is partially backed up by the facts: casualties per 100 million km travelled in the UK are eight, while in the Netherlands they are 0.8. Against that, 2.3 per cent. of journeys are made by bicycle in the UK and a massive 27 per cent. in the Netherlands. She made a valid point not only about the perception of danger but about the real danger associated with cycling.

Cycling is a major business. It employs 20,000 people in the UK and there are 4,000 bicycle shops. The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) mentioned the health benefits, which appear to me to be massive. The British Heart Foundation says that cycling at least 20 miles a week reduces the risk of heart disease to less than half that for non-cyclists who take no other exercise.

Emily Thornberry: Is it not possible to mount an argument that a regular cyclist is Britain is more likely to live longer, and that far from being dangerous cycling is life-enhancing?

Mr. Paterson: I am most grateful to the hon. Lady, because she takes the words out of my mouth.The National Forum for Coronary Heart Disease Prevention says that regular cyclists enjoy a fitness level equal to that of a person 10 years younger. If one third of all short car journeys were made by bike, national heart disease would fall by between 5 and 10 per cent.

The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) mentioned space and commuting. Cyclists require far less space to get about than car-borne travellers. For example, a4 m wide cycle path can carry five times the number of people catered for in cars on a road that is twice as wide, according to Friends of the Earth.

The Conservatives have a strong record of supporting cycling. My right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) have given spectacular publicity to the activity. The former said:

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He was going right back to our strategy of 10 years ago.

In 1996, the Conservative Government produced a national cycling strategy that set the ambitious target of doubling the number of cycle trips by 2002 and quadrupling it by 2012. The strategy listed a series of actions to be taken by the Government and by local authorities to enhance the activity of cycling. Sadly, I do not have the time to mention them, but they were effectively endorsed by the new Labour Government in the 1998 transport White Paper. However, everything fizzled into the sand.

We did not achieve the results that were promised. Targets became aspirations. The most damning document was the Government’s review, published in March 2005. In many ways it is a symbol of what happened to the huge ambitions that the Government had when they came in, which were scaled back and changed when they hit reality. They set off with a national cycling strategy, and we were to have a national cycling forum, but that was reduced in number, as were the targets. Indeed, we did not meet the targets; according to the Government’s review, the number of cyclists in England fell by a fifth in the past decade.

Considering how much depended on local government input, it is extraordinary that none of the best value indicators took account of cycling, as one of the main delivery agents was bound to be local government. Nor was it in the Audit Commission’s comprehensive performance assessment, because cycling did not have a category of its own; it was lumped in with transport.

There appears to be a conflict on funding. Although cycling is covered by a number of Departments,they seem to be muddling around with the funding. There is Department for Transport funding; there is Department for Education and Skills funding; and there is the travelling to schools initiative. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is involved. Indeed, Hull’s local initiative on cycling is one of the success stories, although it does not appear to have changed the outward profile of the Deputy Prime Minister. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is involved through the Countryside Agency, with its quiet lanes and rural transport partnership initiatives; the Forestry Commission is involved; and so is the Environment Agency. The Department of Health mentions cycling in its action plan on diet, physical activity and obesity; and then there is Sport England.

What measures have been taken since the review to co-ordinate better that kaleidoscopic group of Departments? They all have the best intentions, but they do not seem to be well co-ordinated.

There are some interesting examples. I mentioned Hull, and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) mentioned Milton Keynes, but perhaps the most interesting is Bristol, where a 14 km bus priority lane increased cyclingmore than any initiative targeted on cycling itself. What is the Government’s current policy? Three optionswere mentioned at the end of the review—working exclusively through non-governmental organisations, reforming and refocusing the national cycling strategy board, or working more closely with local authorities. I would be interested to know the current state of play, because in a somewhat Irish manner the conclusion appeared to be in the introduction to the review, which
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said that the intention was to create a clear steering board of funding Departments to co-ordinate the Government’s cycling strategy and to direct the work of Cycling England. I will be grateful if the Minister can tell us how that was brought together.

I want to touch on the vexed question of cycle helmets. Like many hon. Members, I have received numerous letters from constituents. For instance,Mr. Adrian Hanson-Abbott of Wollerton said that he is worried about having compulsory cycle helmets. He thinks that they are poorly designed and that some are positively dangerous. He also raised the conundrum of the insurers of a driver who had been negligent and injured a nine-year-old boy wriggling out of liability on the ground that the parents had not made the child wear a helmet. This is a vexed area that the hon. Member for Stafford was right to raise.

Cycle helmets are compulsory in Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Iceland, the Czech Republic, Canada and 20 states in the United States, and there is clear evidence that a good, properly designed helmet will reduce brain, head and facial injuries. My worry is enforcement. Several hon. Members have mentioned mobile phones. We have enough trouble enforcing existing traffic laws without putting a huge extra burden on police. There is also a valid problem of deterrence, and it would be unfortunate if compulsion deterred people from wearing helmets.

I would also like the Minister to comment on research on helmets that work. The CTC briefing, which was most helpful, said that helmets are currently designed for impact speeds of about 13 mph, whereas 93 per cent. of serious and fatal accidents for cyclists occur on roads in collisions with vehicles, and 22 per cent. with HGVs, where the speeds will obviously be far more than 13 mph. The work should be on better technology and cycle helmets that really work. I wonder whether there has been any discussion of that with the equestrian industry, which has done an enormous amount of work on riding helmets. Finally, has the Minister also examined the merits of reflective clothing?

12.20 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Derek Twigg): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on securing this interesting debate. I also congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) and for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) on their contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands did a lot of work when she was a Minister in the Department and I should like to recognise that. I also recognise the tremendous work that the all-party cycling group does to promote cycling and address the issues that relate to it.

Many people have an interest in cycling, whether they cycle or not—although I suspect that we have all been cyclists at some stage. The Government want to encourage more people to cycle; the basic advantages of cycling are convenience, health, cost, environment and enjoyment, as hon. Members have mentioned. To put it simply, cycling contributes to a better quality of
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health. As some hon. Members pointed out, there has been a decline in cycling, and people continue to use their cars even for short journeys. Between 1999 and 2001, one quarter of all car trips covered less than two miles. In many cases, those journeys could have been made by cycle and we want to promote that.

The Government are committed to reversing the decline in the number of cycling trips. If we are to attract people out of their cars and on to two wheels, we have to make cycling safe, easy and as convenient as possible. That means seeing cycling as a solution to problems of accessibility, health, affordability andthe environment. That is why Cycling England, our advisory body on cycling, reports not only to my Department but to others with an interest in cycling, such as the Department of Health, the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Education and Skills. That is also why I will host a meeting of Ministers next week to discuss how cycling can help to deliver a range of Government targets across Whitehall.

Encouraging cycling means having the right facilities at schools and places of work, and training youngsters to enjoy riding a bike. There are many good examples of improvements and good practice in cycling. For example, as one of my hon. Friends made clear, there has been a considerable increase in cycling to work in London thanks to investment and commitment from Transport for London and the development of the London cycle network. I cannot recall seeing as many cyclists on the roads in recent months as I saw this morning on the way in. Perhaps that has something to do with the good weather, but there are tremendous numbers of cyclists on the road.

The Mayor announced last year that the number of recorded cycle journeys on London’s key roads had doubled in the previous five years, from 59,000 in 2000 to 119,000 in 2005. Even more impressively, London has experienced a reduction in casualties among cyclists, as other road users have become more aware of their presence. Transport for London reports that since 1990 there has been a 35 per cent. reduction in cycling casualties. That shows that, with the right support and infrastructure, casualties will not necessarily rise if cycling increases.

As has been mentioned, there are also good examples of increases in cycling in the rest of the country, such as in Hull and York, where the national trends have been bucked and a successful cycling programme has been implemented. We undertook a review of the national cycling strategy in 2004, which led to the appointment of Cycling England, the new advisory body made up of experts from the main cycling organisations. Cycling England has been given an annual budget of £5 million, which is in addition to nearly £55 million that has been provided for cycling through local transport plans and Transport for London. Outside London, there has been an increase from £29.5 million in 2001-02 to £36 million in 2005-06.

One of the key elements of Cycling England’s work plan is six cycle demonstration towns. Cycling England is investing some £8.4 million in Aylesbury, Brighton, Darlington, Derby, Exeter and Lancaster over the next three years. I return to an earlier point about incorporating cycling into the design of new housing developments
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and towns. One reason why we picked Aylesbury was the expansion in housing that will take place there soon and the opportunity to incorporate cycling into the design of the new housing development and expansion there.

Work has already begun to showcase best practice in design and planning in relation to the promotion of cycling. The aim is to test the hypothesis that if we spend levels per head of the population equal to the levels spent in European cities where there has been a significant increase in cycling, we can achieve similar increases here. I assure hon. Members that I take a personal interest in those developments, and I will visit each of the cycling demonstration towns. We have already had a meeting in London to discuss their progress, which will be regularly monitored.

Journeys to school were mentioned. Only 2 per cent. of children cycle to school. Increasing that figure is important not only to increase cycling but to reduce obesity levels and generally invest in healthier future generations. Some £2 million was invested in 2005-06 to extend the links to schools programme, which several hon. Members mentioned, on top of £10 million of Government investment in the previous year. That money has drawn in additional funds, so that £31 million has been spent on the project. So far, more than 300 schools have been linked to the national cycle network by more than 230 km of new routes, of which about 70 per cent. are traffic-free.

Cycling England has a number of other initiatives under way, and is developing and promoting a new national cycle training standard to replace the old cycle proficiency test—I took that test in a previous life, as other hon. Members might have done—so as better to equip children with the skills they need to ride safely on today's roads. Cycling England is also working with health authorities, improving the skills of local authority practitioners through a free advisory service backed up by training programmes and improving the marketing of cycling schemes.

Tomorrow I shall attend Cycling England's first annual forum. I am looking forward to discussing its achievements to date and meeting many of the partners who are helping to deliver new initiatives on cycling.

Mr. Leech rose—

Derek Twigg: I will not give way, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind, as we are short of time and I want to get some comments on the record.

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