Open letter to Norman Baker: save cycling cash

Open letter to Norman Baker, minister for cycling, walking, buses, alternatives to travel, etc

 Dear Norman

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



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  • Christian Wolmar

    This is the response from Philip Hammond in the following issue of Transport Times

    An open letter to Christian Wolmar
    From Philip Hammond, Transport Secretary

    I think we both knew when I took this job we weren’t going to see eye to eye. After all, the election result meant that the man you describe as your “star pupil” – Lord Adonis – is no longer the Transport Secretary.
    It was only a matter of time before you began criticising us for not continuing the policies of the last Government. I expected you to attack us for being “populist” when we implemented our manifesto commitments.
    But I have to say I was surprised to read your recent and personal attack on Norman Baker. After all, it is now a near universally- accepted fact that spending cuts have to happen. The profligacy of the past cannot continue if this country wants to have a bright future. Unless we balance the books, and balance them quickly, there would be no chance we would be able to afford many of the things you want us to do in the future, such as High Speed Rail.
    Your letter attacking Norman for not being able to guarantee by Central Government diktat that every penny currently spent on cycling would go on being spent on cycling shows that you have failed to understand that all areas of spending need to contribute to cutting the deficit – and failed to understand the scale of our commitment to local decision-making.
    The way I see it is that you have a choice. You can stand on the sidelines, shouting loudly about how no cuts should ever be made to cycling spending and demanding Government ring-fencing, or you can rejoin the reality-based community.
    Because if you are able to accept that there are some difficult choices ahead, and that, yes, some of your pet projects will have to share the pain; if you can accept that local people should have more say in deciding what’s right for them, then we can have a grown-up conversation and your knowledge might gain some influence and your expertise be put to good use.
    That after all is the tough decision that Norman Baker and his Liberal Democrat colleagues have taken. We may not always agree on everything, but we are both realists and we know that the country is stronger when we work together on the difficult decisions ahead. And, truth be told, Norman has far more influence now inside the Government than he ever would outside it. I can assure you Norman in Government remains a doughty campaigner for sustainable travel.
    So the real question here is whether you will join Norman and me in the real world, or whether you will retreat to a comfort zone of knee-jerk criticism. I hope for your sake, and for the sake of the causes you champion, that you choose the former.

  • RapidAssistant

    He can’t have read CW’s writings that well when he said ” things you want us to do in the future like High Speed Rail” – when most people who follow rail issues know that Christian is well known for his HS2 scepticism.

    Twaddle like – “We are both realists….. “Stronger when we work together….. – all this from two parties that both have egg on their faces; what should have been an easy hatchet job for the Tories on Gordon Brown turned into a hung parliament, whilst the Lib Dems saw their share of the vote fall. He’s a politician after all…nuff said!

    How could a Conservative ever describe his policies being liable to be accused of being “populist”?????

    On his last sentence about the “real world” – it could well be that it is they themselves who are finding out that being in office (as opposed to opposition) is an object lesson in facing up to realities….it’s not just because I’ve had a couple of drams that I find this response hilarious……..

  • DanRichards

    This country might have a better chance of a “bright future” if people like Mr Hammond didn’t organise his finances to avoid paying the taxes we need to pay off the debts and decrease the deficit, so good stuff like cycling promotion can be properly funded.

  • Dan

    Forgive me if I’m wrong – but didn’t Cycling England devlove money out to local areas so they could run local priority based cycle schemes, delivered mostly by local council or local voluntary orgs.

    When you have an org with a small budget – and you need to make cuts, then you might as well cut it all – and the SoS should say that – not say ‘we’re cutting and sending it local’ – after all if he really expects us to believe that the budget that CE had spread over all 300+ local council areas (and after it has been cut back) is going to amount to much I think he needs to join me “in the real world”.

  • Chris Bird

    Well – I thought encouraging cycling was a green issue plus both a healthy past time and takes up less space on our overcrowded roads. It seems that in their haste to make all sorts of cuts, the government hasn’t investigated what benefits services bring. Cycling England has done some sterling work and it seems a dreadful waste of all the money and work spent so far to arbitrarily shut the whole lot down. Less rush and more sensible investigation and planning please. No an alternative is not sensible it will completely destroy the momentum gained so far.

  • Ian Raymond

    Chris – the government doesn’t care what benefits services bring. If it reduces immediate expenditure and has limited negative press exposure then it goes, simple as that.

    Don’t get me wrong BTW – cuts have to be made, but there’s been too many examples already (both within and without the transport arena) where the long term economic and social impact will cost a heck of a lot more than it will save in the short term.

  • I wrote this response to Philip Hammond’s letter back to me in the November Transport Times:

    PS A short response to Phillip Hammond’s answer to my open letter to Norman Baker

    Dear Phillip

    It was very gratifying to receive such a considered response to my letter to Norman Baker, your junior minister, although I was surprised that it was from you rather than him. However, I think you missed my point. I was not complaining about the need for cuts, which I accept are inevitable though I think being imposed far too harshly by your government, but on the fact that you were abolishing a fantastically efficient delivery mechanism for the money you were spending on cycling.

    If, as your coalition document suggests, you are keen on boosting cycling, then Cycling England was just the right vehicle. It employed just three people, all of whom were expert in their fields, and was run by a voluntary group of board members (Big Society!) delivering a programme of £60m. If you had said, well we have to cut your budget by half, then we would have been happy to accept that. It was your government’s headline grabbing decision to abolish quangos which seems to have been the driving force behind the move to scrap Cycling England.

    Perhaps, though, rather than corresponding through the pages of this magazine, we could meet to discuss ways forward to encourage cycling which seems to be something we both support.

    Christian Wolmar