Yesterday, I travelled to Westminster for a very important reason, and not just my 3pm meeting with Network Rail. And no, it wasn’t for the Space4Cycling protest ride. Though from the reports, it seems that there were more than enough people there for me to go unnoticed!
I instead went to the public gallery in the House of Commons to sit in and observe the Get Britain Cycling debate (a full transcript of which can be read here). My thought behind this is that this would prove to be a useful insight into the politics behind the cycling debate in Government. And applying a footballing analogy, watching it on TV can only show you so much. The BBC Parliament Channel cannot reveal the atmosphere of the chamber and the off-camera discussions and reactions of MPs.
I stayed at the debate for about 2 hours, until the Deputy Speaker stated that a further 19 speakers wished to speak and I realised that I wanted to be home on the right side of midnight. During my time, there were many excellent speeches. I was particularly impressed by the contributions of Dr Sarah Wollaston, David Lammy, and Ian Austin. And any MP whos slates Eric Pickles is always ok with me.
What struck me about the debate wasn’t so much it’s content, but about it’s tone. The Chamber largely agreed on most of the issues raised in the report, with the only real bone of contention being the thorny issue of cycle helmets (expertly swatted away by Ian Austin, I must say).
By tone of the debate, I don’t necessarily means it’s positivity. I had no doubts the debate was always going to be a positive one. But what I mean is that is was, by and large, free of party politics. By way of contrast, I sat in on the last 35 minutes of the preceding debate on Post Offices in Rural Areas. This debate focussed as much on political point scoring as about the issues at hand. What the Lib Dem Manifesto said seemed to be a particular matter of interest to the opposition benches. It was Westminster politics at it’s advasarial worst.
The Get Britain Cycling debate was not like that, with most MPs focussing on solutions and the issues at hand. Yes, we may complain at some of their understanding (the idea that 20mph zones seem to be the saviour was a particular bug-bear of mine) and their priorities. But there seemed to be a great willingness to do more for cyclists, and get things done that will achieve the Get Britain Cycling vision.
The cross-party consensus revealed to me where the real political battles lie for cycling. They are not between parties – that would be too easy, as we would just vote for the party with the best cycling policies – but within them. They are discussions between politicians in parties in Government and opposition about the relative priority of cycling as part of their transport policies.
For campaigners and professionals, this presents a difficulty. Whilst we can argue based upon fact and reasoning to sympathetic politicians, this counts for little if they are unable to influence policy. That is why it is important to not just have a Cycling Champion, but to have the right person as a cycling champion.
What I mean by that is it shouldn’t be just a politician who says the right things and agrees with our point of view. But they should be a person who has influence over the right people, and importantly is willing to do what it takes to get things done. From my experience in local government, many infrastructure improvements get through via political deals as opposed to their technical merits. As professionals and campaigners, we need to accept that to get what we want, we may have to accept various political deals that we don’t like or agree with. I know that’s not a puritan view, but that is harsh reality.
In a sense, the fact that the Commons voted to endorse the Get Britain Cycling recommendations is somewhat a side issue to me. The important outcome of this debate is that the cycling champions within Government – Norman Baker, and if reports are to be believed the Prime Minister – take confidence from the support of the House into their work and negotiations with other Cabinet members and even their departments (judging by the response of the Department for Transport to Get Britain Cycling, Norman will need it). The cross-party support for cycling is there to see, and cycling champions on all sides of the political divide should take great confidence from this debate and it’s outcomes.
But as many MPs observed yesterday, these are just warm words. The proof of the pudding will always be in the eating, but if yesterday’s events in Parliament inspire our political cycling champions to deliver and not just promise, then it will have been a very good day indeed.