This blog has been complaining for some time about the ridiculous amount of red tape that restricts councils from making perfectly reasonable changes to allow cycling on paths away from roads. Councils need to apply for Cycle Track Orders to allow cycling on a footpath, and these Orders involve more hurdles than a track and field meeting. A public enquiry can result if even a single objection is received no matter how ill-founded. As a result, many local authorities can’t be bothered with, or cannot afford, the hassle. Even painting a yellow line to prohibit parking in a cycle lane requires the approval of the Secretary of State, who will usually have no clue where the road in question is, let alone what traffic conditions are like. Perhaps the most famous example of the tortuous battle of attrition necessary to allow cycling is Wandsworth Common, which took over 10 years, two public enquiries and untold amounts of public money, before cycling was allowed.
The previous Labour government didn’t create all the bureaucracy that prevents or inhibits the development of decent cycle routes, but it didn’t do anything about it. As a result, Grant Shapps, Local Government minister finds he’s got the ball at his feet and an open goal. He can sweep away the red tape, give a boost to cycling and save money into the bargain. A total no-brainer – which begs the question: why didn’t Labour do it while it had the chance?
Shapps has announced that councils will no longer have to receive permission from Whitehall to remove restrictive by-laws.
Of course, this move alone doesn’t achieve anything: it’s also necessary to create the conditions in which local authorities do in fact allow cycling where it’s safe and practical – which is in many public areas and on many footpaths. More progressive councils will hopefully press ahead with opening up more of the public realm to cyclists, but doubtless some, such as Westminster, will doggedly stick with their anti-cycling prejudices. I’ll be watching carefully to see what happens, but it’s not enough to simply pad the responsibility for cycling away onto councils – the Government need to give a clear signal that it is pro-cycling rather than just anti-red-tape.
At this blog, we have no political allegiance. We’re not afraid to tell it like it is. And in this case there’s strong evidence of incompetence on the part of the last government. As for the current Government, the jury’s still out. Piecemeal initiatives like this one are welcome, but they don’t amount to a pro-cycling strategy. We still have the ridiculous situation in London where responsibility for cycling is split between the Mayor of London and the various London boroughs, some of which are pro-cycling, and some of which are not. So we have Cycle Superhighways, which, while they are imperfect, speed the user into central London only to be dumped into a car-centric mess of dangerous junctions and one-way streets almost completely devoid of cycle infrastructure. We have the Cycle Hire scheme, which tempts residents and visitors with a cheap opportunity to use a bike, only to scare them off with a confusing, intimidating and motor-dominated road network.
What we need is not just the destruction of red tape and the removal of quangos. Cycling won’t happen in a vacuum. We need local and national policy frameworks and organizations that enable investment to be made in cycle infrastructure, in a cost-effective manner, underpinned by a strategic, London-wide and national plan. We can’t allow individual councils to opt out, because cycling does not stop at borough boundaries. The fact that Westminster is failing in cycling terms affects cyclists from Merton to Barnet, and most of them don’t get to vote in Westminster Council elections.