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Open Letter: Ministers urged to act on New Forest Cycling Charter

Local campaigner @forestcyclist outlines why he believes controversial charter is flawed and discriminatory

Editor's Note: As we reported yesterday, the New Forest National Park Authority (NFNPA) is  set to approve its controversial cycling charter today, Thursday 22 January, despite the opposition of organisations including CTC and Sustrans. Local resident Forest Cyclist has written an open letter to its members to outline why he believes it should be scrapped. 

It's not the first time Forest Cyclist - he chooses to use his Twitter name - has written such a letter. Last year, one reproduced in a blog post here on outlined why he felt the NFNPA was wrong to seek to allocate money provided by the Department for Transport (DfT) to cycling to what he believed were essentially road maintenance projects. Last November, the DfT declined to fund two projects, worth a combined £1.5 million.

Besides being addressed to members of the NFNPA, the letter has also been sent to secretary of State for Transport Patrick McLoughlin, his counterpart at the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs Liz Truss, and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport, Robert Goodwill, whose remit includes cycling.

The letter is reproduced in full below unedited apart from minor layout issues and correction of two typographical errors.

Dear Secretaries of State, Under-Secretary of State, and Members of the New Forest National Park Authority

The New Forest National Park Authority regrettably plans to make history on Thursday 22nd January 2015 by becoming the very first local government organisation in the UK to attempt to overrule the Highway Code by restricting the number of cyclists accessing public highways. As a local cyclist and a proud lifelong New Forest resident I take significant issue with elements of New Forest NPA's discriminatory, disproportionate, and deeply damaging cycle charter that will very likely do far greater harm to the New Forest National Park than any cyclists will ever do.

*What exactly is proposed?*

The New Forest National Park Authority (NFNPA) is seeking adopt a ‘Cycling Event Organisers Charter’ which contains a range of measures to manage and restrict organised non-competitive cycling events. The vast majority are ‘common sense’ measures from the Highway Code which cycling event organisers and participants have been consistently delivering on and adhering to perfectly safely for many years. However, the Charter also includes a proposal to limit the number of cyclists participating in organised non-competitive cycling events to 1,000 per day, and seeks that participants wear A5 sized numbers on the front and rear of their clothing, a greater level of identification than even the law requires of motorcyclists.

Importantly, the Cycle Charter is an entirely voluntary and unenforceable document. To be a worthwhile, constructive, and effective method of engagement with which to work productively with the cycling community it unarguably requires the representatives of its core cycling stakeholders (British Cycling/CTC/Sustrans) to support its contents in full. However, in its proposed form it is NOT supported by the representatives of these national cycling organisations, or indeed any non-competitive cycling event organiser such as UK Cycling Events, who as a responsible local company have arguably been singled out and indeed targeted by this process. In other words the cycling community does not support it, therefore it remains entirely unworkable and a grossly excessive waste of public time and money given we can plainly see that it is almost the exclusive preserve of motorists to damage, pollute, and sadly kill on the public roads of the New Forest National Park.

Full details of the proposed Cycle Charter including the supposed basis for the cap and the entirely unnecessary requirement for additional numbers (which will only encourage vigilantism) can be viewed and downloaded from the link below, Paper 472/15

It is claimed that this Cycle Charter will only effect 'event cyclists', however that is simply not the case. These 'event cyclists' are the same 'family cyclists' that are resident in the New Forest and/or come here as visitors and will revisit the New Forest time and again making significant contributions to the local economy, in turn telling their friends and family about their experiences, negative or otherwise. It must be remembered that cyclists are fundamentally regarded by law as road traffic, indeed there are hundreds of thousands of vehicle movements each and every day in the New Forest National Park, it is therefore entirely disproportionate to target one minority group who use the roads in far lesser numbers on only a couple of weekends a year. If this cap on cyclists numbers on open public roads can happen in the New Forest National Park then it could in theory sadly happen anywhere. We know that the DfT have received a number of calls for regulation of cycle sportive events from NFNPA members and others. However, given that cycle sportive participants come from a variety of ages, backgrounds, and capabilities (indeed around 20% of participants are 'families') then this Cycle Charter could well ensure that cycling remains at a derisory 2% modal share for many years to come, it will therefore only do irreparable damage to NFNPA claims of being supportive of cyclists and sustainable transport, as well as smearing the New Forest as a thoroughly unwelcoming tourist destination for anyone who wishes to cycle here.

*Why are they (NFNPA members) doing this?*

NFNPA state that the Cycle Charter is responding to concerns from ‘some local people’, who are allegedly ‘inconvenienced’ by cycling events. However, the NFNPA has not shared any information regarding how many local people are concerned, or the exact nature of their alleged inconvenience. In the local media NFNPA have claimed the cap was a result of Parish Council Meetings, however, having trawled through many months of minutes from meetings of various New Forest Parish Councils the only mentions/proposals of a cap on cyclists numbers come directly from NFNPA members themselves when they are wearing their parish councillor hats!

When considering the ‘why’ it’s also worth looking back at the NFNPAs track record in this area. Cyclists have essentially been vilified by a core of New Forest interest groups and some politicians for many years, whether it be via a wilful lack of investment in infrastructure, continued restricted access to existing infrastructure in the form of the New Forest gravel track network, or most recently the decision to abort the £2,000,000 ‘Boris Bike' scheme (only after wasting £84,000 of public money in procuring a supplier). Such is the vendetta against cycling in the New Forest National Park by its members that a proposal to introduce a British Cycling Ride Leaders programme was recently refused on the basis that the programme was associated with the SKY brand. That’s right, SKY TV…… also associated with Team SKY, winners of the 2012 and 2013 editions of the Tour de France, the 'golden goose' of UK Cycling. An utterly ridiculous decision which is beyond the comprehension of anyone exercising a mere modicum of common sense.

*Why is the 1000 cap an issue of contention?*

There are a number of reasons why CTC/British Cycling/Sustrans/UKCE and indeed all 'cyclists' will not support the ‘cap’ and cannot therefore support the charter:

*Evidence* – the NFNPA has produced absolutely no tangible independent evidence as to why the cap is needed, unquantified alleged inconvenience to some local people is simply not an acceptable reason. Freedom of Information requests have been made to NFNPA and other local public bodies regarding details of cycling incidents connected to cycle sportives in the New Forest but yet again, absolutely no independent evidence has been forthcoming. It is vitally important that in these times of austerity and accountability, all public sector decisions are evidence led and in the wider public interest. The NFNPA Cycle Charter is clearly not a good example of these simple and effective decision making processes which any responsible public authority acting in a reasonable manner would adhere to vehemently.

*Scale* – the New Forest National Park is a popular destination with nearly 14,000,000 outside visitor days per year, and which plays host to numerous large scale public events covering a wide range of interests. It is a well-known fact that there are many events in the New Forest which are on a much much larger than any cycle sportive, and which have a far greater impact on local people, the New Forest Show and the Beaulieu Auto/Boat Jumbles being but a few examples. Yet these events are completely and utterly untouched and unaddressed by NFNPA, that alone makes this proposed cycle charter ompletely discriminatory. Why has the NFNPA not been fair and impartial and quantified the impact of all large events and then prioritised any required mitigation with evidence based on those events with the biggest impacts?

*Government Policy* – in August 2012, the NFNPA was awarded £3.57M to implement Prime Minister David Cameron’s cycling revolution. He said at the time “Following our success in the Olympics, the Paralympics and the Tour de France, British cycling is riding high - now we want to see cycling soar. Our athletes have shown they are among the best in the world and we want to build on that, taking our cycling success beyond the arena and onto the roads, starting a cycling revolution which will remove the barriers for a new generation of cyclists". How exactly does the NFNPA Cycle Charter help with this well known and widely publicised government policy? It simply does not, it only serves to prevent and hinder people from accessing cycling in a safe, organised, and enjoyable format in a National Park, somewhere the Government also said in a recent vision statement "is an ideal location for such events". Of the £3.57M NFNPA received to progress this cycling revolution within the National Park it was embarrassingly forced to hand back £1.6M after the Government saw through NFNPA members plans to use the cycle specific funding on schemes which completely failed to fulfil the DfT's funding criteria, and which were only a result of damage caused by motor vehicle drivers! Is there a theme developing here?

*Economic impact* – research undertaken in 2014 demonstrated that a single weekend New Forest cycle sportive event with 3000 participants contributes nearly £350,000 to the local economy, through participant spend in local tourism businesses. Any reduction in participant numbers will reduce this valuable economic contribution, which is ironic, given that all national parks have a statutory duty to ‘foster the economic well-being of their local communities’.

*Health and Wellbeing* – at a time when the costs of inactivity and obesity are skyrocketing, it seems completely at odds to restrict and limit a perfectly safe and healthy activity in order to reduce a very minor inconvenience to impatient drivers. A complete reversal of this policy which effectively prioritises motor vehicle drivers over cyclists is urgently required here if NFNPA members are to retain any shred of credibility with the cycling community.

Inactivity kills more than obesity

Obesity costs more than war and terrorism

*What are the likely consequences of the Charter being introduced?*

In the short term, absolutely nothing will change. Event organisers targeted by the voluntary cycle Charter will most likely ignore the cap and requirement for numbers, and they are perfectly within their rights to take this approach and at the same time continue fully engaging with New Forest District Council's Safety Advisory Group to deliver the perfectly safe, and entirely legal events that they have successfully delivered in the New Forest National Park for many years now.

In the medium term, the ball is firmly in the NFNPAs members court. They have a very clear choice in front of them, to continue with this pointless, baseless, and frankly childish vendetta against harmless cyclists, or listen to evidence and reason and redact the Cycle Charter as CTC/British Cycling/Sustrans/UKCE representatives and the majority of cyclists request, on the basis that it is evidently entirely unworkable in its proposed form. If the former course of action is chosen, it is only likely to further inflame the minority of negative attitudes to harmless cyclists, making the New Forest a more dangerous place for families to cycle in, and therefore a more unwelcoming place for tourists to visit. We have already seen acts of sabotage against New Forest cyclists which have coincided with anti cycling propaganda which has been repeatedly broadcast to the local media by some NFNPA members.

In summary it is clear that a majority of NFNPA members are stubbornly intent on risking destroying the New Forest 'brand' with a continued tirade against a minority road user group which contributes enormously to the local visitor economy and the health and well-being agenda without damaging the environment; these are precisely the reasons why national parks were created and exist today.

In their actions a core of NFNPA members have made it plainly obvious that they have other agendas, so for the sake of common sense and the freedoms of the next generation of people who wish to enjoy the New Forest National Park, it is now well beyond time that central government paid appropriate attention to a catastrophic failure of leadership, governance, and engagement in one of England’s most treasured landscapes.

Kind regards,

@forestcyclist (find me on Twitter)

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