Localism for Dummies

A Wet Parliamentary Bike Ride

Last Tuesday morning, I put on my Cycling Embassy of Great Britain approved attire (just a regular suit for a regular activity) and attended the Annual All-Party Parliamentary Bike Ride, which is now in its twelfth year and is a prelude to Bike Week. Despite the wretched weather, there was a respectable turn out of MP’s (also in Cycling Embassy of Great Britain approved attire) including Norman Baker again (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport).

After the ride, we assembled in the Houses of Parliament to listen as Mr Baker spoke about how wonderful cycling is and took questions (I recorded it for YouTube and it should be going out shortly if you can contain your excitement). One of the key points he made was that cycle campaigners should not be afraid to approach Government Departments other than transport. This, in a way, makes sense; after all riding a bicycle is healthy so the Department for Health should be actively promoting it, it could get kids to school so the Department for Education should be actively promoting it and it is good for the economy where high quality infrastructure would bring rewards both locally and nationally to the exchequer so the Treasury should be actively promoting it. The problem is that we are pretty hopeless at the ‘high-quality infrastructure’ bit – the very thing that has been proven to have success overseas in getting the masses on their bicycles with increased subjective safety. So I guess that brings us back to the Department for Transport, who should be actively promoting it.

Cycling has always been about ‘Localism’ and ‘Big Society’ with local campaigners and activists that have been bashing their heads against the wall of local democracy for years (and for free). This, for me is where the problem lies; it’s all well and good giving local authorities ‘the right tools’ with devolved powers, but what if they don’t know what to do with them (or don’t even want to know). It’s like giving a group of primary school children ‘the right tools’ to design Britain’s successor to Trident – many will be keen as mustard and will give it their best shot. The results they come up with, whilst thankfully not feasible, will be all the more wonderful as a result and fascinating.

…and then it comes back down and blows everything up, Daddy. Next week we’re redesigning Bow Roundabout to give it lots of pretty lights….

The results that local authorities come up with for bicycles are usually far from wonderful and although we’d be fascinated to know how they arrived at their conclusions, local campaigners are usually locked out. It’s as though they are left staring through the railings at some sort of nightmare-ish Willy Wonka factory churning out pointless pavement conversions. Except their Council Tax helped pay for the nightmare.

Where ‘Transport’ and ‘Sustainable Transport’ collide (Worthing, West Sussex)

What’s worse is that when Councils across the land started to make austerity cuts, we didn’t need a crystal ball to predict that the position of Cycling Officer would be the first to go thereby cutting what is usually the only gateway between local campaign groups and the local authority. Worse still is that many councillors are actively hostile towards the humble bicycle, who view it as a symbol of non-aspiration to ferry the great unwashed along the gutter or an imposition to progress in their local area (particularly to the golf club). After all, bike parking doesn’t bring in parking fees, the most consistent issue in any local newspaper. In many cases, asking a Council to organise a consistent quality cycling policy is a bit like asking Nick Griffin to organise the Notting Hill Carnival.

I’m certainly not against localism. There are Local Authorities that are trying at the very least to understand the bicycle and just what a bewilderingly diverse mode of getting about their patch it is. But I personally believe that there has to be stronger guidance from Central Government in terms of consistent infrastructure standards, policy and funding which is at best piecemeal and often utterly soul-destroying for local campaigners. I still cannot fathom why ‘Transport’ and ‘Sustainable Transport’ are still treated as separate entities – We build a major road scheme and then apply the sustainable bits at the side or as an afterthought, which is why it needs to be integral to the Department for Transport, as opposed to a quango whose flame can be snuffed out as easily as Cycling England.

Everyone, from Local Authorities that haven’t yet realised the real benefits of the bicycle from more energised workforce & schoolchildren, better local business and increased tourism (or ‘Localism’) to local campaign groups (or ‘Big Society’) deserve far better than this.

4 thoughts on “Localism for Dummies”

  1. The public health and clinical standards body, NICE has been developing a set of public health guidance recommendations. They went out to stakeholder consultation recently and are due for publication in October.

    Norman Baker in the MPs’ debate at Westminster Hall mentioned that cycling will play a key part in the public health agenda.

    Whether health funding will be allocated to infrastructure projects remains to be seen. The money may be diverted to ‘soft measures’ – training, travel planning, etc.

    The NICE draft guidance points out that evidence indicates that fastest growth rates for cycling have been achieved in cities where the broadest range of measures has been implemented. There appears to be no single, magical ingredient (like high quality infrastructure) which has a transformational effect. Rather, it is all initiatives being aligned to creative a positive climate for cycling by making it easy and attractive for motorists to switch their short trips to bike.

  2. I’d be interested to know how you actually felt riding in everyday clothing.

    That’s a good point about approaching non-transport government ministers, I’ve been thinking about doing that for a while by writing to my Health Ministers to get them to repeal Australia’s Mandatory Helmet Laws for cyclists.

    As for localism vs centralism in government, it’s amazing that the Netherlands favour the former strongly (I’m led to believe) yet they have managed to install an integrated countrywide network of cycle paths.

    And at an actual nightmarish Willie Wonka factory you’d at least get yummy chocolate and not cyclist-killing infrastructure. FWIW I found your analogy almost perfectly funny, and that’s only because it’s actually what happens with Anglosphere government transport planners.

  3. I have, a handful of times, ridden to a dinner wearing full Black Tie kit. You just have to take it a bit easier so you don’t get too stewed. According to the laws of physics, the energy expended to maintain a given speed (ie overcome resistance) increases with the square of the speed so you don’t have to slow down all that much to get a measurable result. Last time, I rode from Fleet St to Queensway, about 5.5 miles, in 40 minutes. If I had flogged it I might have managed 30, and then needed at least 20 to shower and change – if there had been a shower available!

    I think the problem with localism is that broadly speaking national politicians are professionals, supported by further professional policy advisers and strategists, while local politicians are amateurs, with no such support. While there may be differences between Labour, Tory and Libdem over transport policy, there is at least some prospect that any national politician can be sold the health, environmental and economic benefits against all the prejudices, special interest lobbying etc. Local councilors are, in my experience, far more likely to be ruled by their hearts than by their heads.

    You can introduce an element of localism, as I guess the Welsh assembly plans – impose an obligation to provide but give the local council some latitude as to how. That is how roads and schools are currently managed (bar of course academies etc) – provide a grant, specify certain minimum standards, an absolute entitlement to be educated to a certain age, curriculum etc and then leave counties to determine how best to implement. There will be some variations, eg Surrey is probably one of the lowest per capita spenders on education (perhaps because it has fewer disadvantaged pupils? perhaps because it is stingier?) but the variations are not gross.

    There are similar obligations to provide/maintain roads. It surely is quite feasible to do the same with cycle infrastructure – a grant, a set of standards, and leave the rest to them.

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