Health Minister backs plans to Get Britain Cycling at parliamentary inquiry

Signs of joined-up thinking between Whitehall departments as inquiry addresses local issues

by Simon_MacMichael   February 27, 2013  

Palace Of Westminster At Night © Andrew Dunn.jpg

Health Minister Anna Soubry has told the Get Britain Cycling Parliamentary Inquiry that more money spent on cycling infrastructure would translate into savings for the NHS due to the beneficial effect more people cycling would have on the nation’s health.

Agreeing that the government “needs to show leadership” on the issue, Ms Soubry, who is the first government minister to speak at the inquiry, said that she has been in contact with Transport Minister Norman Baker regarding potential initiatives.

Her comments are a sign that calls for Whitehall departments to work together rather than in isolation are starting to bear fruit.

Describing herself as “wildly enthusiastic” about cycling, she said: “I see no reason whatsoever that cycling shouldn't be part of sport in schools,” adding, “I distinctly remember doing my cycling proficiency and it's stayed with me for life."

However, she cautioned that perceptions of cycling as being dangerous were a barrier to getting more people on their bikes, saying that she wouldn’t let her own children cycle on the road because of worries about their safety.

Her comments were welcomed by Jason Torrance, policy director at the sustainable transport charity Sustrans, who said that her "support and enthusiasm for the benefits of cycling is fantastic and now is the time to put her words into action.

"More people cycling will save the NHS millions through a more healthy and active population - it's a no brainer for health officials at all levels across Britain.

"The Minister has rightly called for more collaboration between education, health and transport departments, which must work together if we are to get Britain cycling."

Today’s fifth session, the penultimate one in the inquiry, addressed local factors, and summarising the key points highlighted today Ian Austin MP, co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group, said: “The issue that stood out for me today was the need to get departments working together both nationally and at local authority level.

“It’s obviously good news we’ve got a health minister who say she’s passionate about cycling but we need to make sure her enthusiasm is shared across government so that a cohesive plan can be worked up to get Britain cycling.

“Without this, we’ll continue to have a piecemeal approach. That sentiment needs to be shared across local authorities – we saw some great examples today of what can be achieved.”

Among those giving evidence today were representatives of Transport for London (TfL), Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM), Leicester City Council and Devon County Council, as well as the Local Government Association.

Andy Salkeld of Leicester City Council outlined that decades of planning that has favoured motor vehicles create a challenge, saying:  “We’ve spent the last 50 years building cities for a car culture. We can’t change that overnight.”

The Local Government Association emphasised that “political will is vital” and urged that “every council should have a cycling champion,” while the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England highlighted one big barrier as being that most planners “don’t ‘get’ cycling.”

London was the focus of one of the five panels today, and TfL’s Ben Plowden underlining the role of “strong leadership, partnership working and sustained investment.”

However, the difficulty of achieving that was illustrated earlier this week through the failure of a motion laid before the London Assembly to have an additional £41 million set aside in Mayor Boris Johnson’s budget when Conservative Assembly Members declined to support it.

Other organisations represented today included Cambridge Cycling Campaign and Cyclenation, and a blog post on the CTC website has a summary of the points they and others made.

At the close of the session, Dr Julian Huppert, co-chair of the APPCG, said: “It was really good to hear today from local campaigners and local authorities - the people who really do the work on the ground.

“It makes a world of difference if local authorities are backing cycling in their towns and cities. It was also good to hear the Public Health Minister say so clearly that cycling was a healthy thing to do, and that public health benefits from cycling investment.

“We need joined up thinking at all levels of government if we are to really make progress in promoting cycling. In cities where local authorities are on board, more people are cycling; it’s as simple as that.”

The final session of the inquiry, which addresses Leadership from Government, takes place next Monday 4 March, with witnesses including Transport Ministers Norman Baker and Stephen Hammond, the broadcaster Jon Snow and journalist Andrew Gilligan, recently appointed to the new role of London’s cycling champion.