Open letter to Norman Baker, minister for cycling, walking, buses, alternatives to travel, etc
It has been remiss of me not to write before now to congratulate you on your new post. It is gratifying to see a Liberal Democrat being given key responsibilities in the Department for Transport, especially as you have always been a supporter of various sensible measures such as rail line reopenings, cutting back on road spending, lower rail fares and encouraging cycling and walking.
But Norman, I am a bit worried. It seems that things are happening on your watch that seem to go against policies you have previously supported. My big beef is cycling which is, of course, a key part of your brief and I will focus on that.
I declare an interest here. I have been on the board of Cycling England, which tries to get more people cycling, since its creation five years ago and I am a lifelong cyclist for both work and pleasure. But this is surely something you support since the coalition document says “We will support sustainable transport initiatives including the promotion of cycling and walking”.
Cycling England battled away in the dark days of Alistair Darling’s tenure in the Department for Transport with a budget of just £5m annually for all its work. Then Douglas Alexander doubled it, and Ruth Kelly upped it to £60m, almost serious money.
As a result, a replacement for the virtually defunct Cycle Proficiency scheme, Bikeability, has been created with the aim of offering every primary school child the opportunity to learn to ride safely. Ways to boost cycling have been funded in 18 cycling demonstration towns and early results show that coordinated measures to boost cycling through a combination of education, engineering and inspiration can succeed in getting more bums on saddles. There’s lots of other bits and pieces too, such as funding of Safe Routes to Schools and of initiatives to get train operators to be more cycle friendly.
Now all that is under threat. Cycling England faces the axe for the crime of being a quango –when it could quite easily not be one – and supposedly there will instead be some nebulous green travel fund.
Details are unclear but the implication is not. Without the direction of an efficient and well-thought out body like Cycling England – this is not a personal plea, so it could quite easily have a different structure, but ring-fenced funds are essential – all these initiatives are under threat.
And what have you done so far Norman? By all accounts sat on your hands, and hidden behind your civil servants making no comment on the future of cycle funding.
Now don’t start blustering that cycling will be safe without Cycling England or a properly-funded successor body. It won’t. The new fund is not due to start till 2012 anyway, and Cycling England’s money runs out in 2011.
Giving “freedom” to local authorities with less money and no precise remit to spend it on cycling will result in more kids failing to learn to ride. Many will be unhealthier and fatter and our roads will be clogged with more parents driving their kids around everywhere. Make no mistake – your decision will affect real lives.
So Norman, ask yourself this. What is Norman Baker for? Or more precisely, what is the point of you being in the Department for Transport? Are you a fig-leaf for the most reactionary policies to come out of the Marsham Street since the days of Nicholas Ridley and his obsession with owner-driver buses? Look how your boss, Philip Hammond, has cut the road safety budget and done away with speed camera funding, in moves that smack of the most ghastly kneejerk populism, and counter to all serious evidence.
If you are not going to attempt to save the work that Cycling England has being doing, and are going to hide behind this vague general fund which is clearly going to result in far less encouragement for cycling, you really have to ask yourself why you are bothering. No doubt the trappings of office are great fun, but unless you are prepared to stand up for what you believe in, chuck it in Norman. Or battle away hard for it behind the scenes and prepare to stand up and be counted. Show us, in essence, that you are not simply a collaborator.
Yours very anxiously,
Christian Wolmar’s new book, Engines of War, will be launched with a lecture at the German Gymnasium, St Pancras, on the evening of Tuesday September 28th at a charity event in aid of the Railway Children. For tickets, which are £15 each, contact the Railway Children website at http://www.railwaychildren.org.uk/article.asp?id=876 or just call 01270 757596.