Sir George speaks out on cycling
16 Oct 2014
Below is the text of a speech which Sir George made in the House of Commons, in the debate on cycling:

Sir George Young (North West Hampshire) (Con):
I congratulate the all-party group on securing this debate, which is the third such debate in this Parliament. I was precluded by ministerial office from contributing to the earlier two, although I attended them, but I am now unconstrained.

I pay tribute to the work of the all-party group on cycling, The Times, British Cycling, Sustrans, Living Streets, CTC and all the other cycling organisations that have helped to propel cycling up the political agenda. A substantial number of cyclists in North West Hampshire have e-mailed to ask me to support the campaign, which I do.

I also pay tribute to the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), who is replying to the debate and who himself travels regularly on two wheels—as, indeed, I do. I commend him for the way in which he has responded to the campaign and engaged with the key stakeholders. Within the Lycra suit of public expenditure constraint, no one could have done more than him. I also commend the progress made by the coalition Government in recent years under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. I am delighted that they are both present. They have both been pedalling hard and I urge them to press even harder on the pedals in the remaining months of the Parliament. For example, we have an autumn statement coming up soon, and it would be helpful if the Chancellor were able to mention cycling in that statement and how it might be supported in the future.

I want to make a brief contribution by putting in perspective this ongoing campaign by MPs to get a better deal for cyclists. On 11 July 1975, nearly 40 years ago and before some contributors to this debate were born, I initiated an Adjournment debate on cycling, along with our former colleague Anthony Steen. The two of us took over the APPG, which had been free-wheeling for many years, in order to raise the profile of cycling. The debate took place at 4 pm on a Friday—that was when we had the Adjournment debate in those days—and I quoted Ernest Marples, who said in 1968:

“there is a great future for the bicycle if you make the conditions right. If you make them wrong there isn’t any future.”

I presented the Minister who was replying, Denis Howell, with a cyclists charter: a bicycle unit in his Department; cycle lanes through the royal parks; more proficiency courses for children; a direction from the Department that, in all new development, provision should be made not just for the cyclist of today, but to encourage the cyclist of tomorrow, by separating his journey from that of the motorist; the identification of cycle priority routes; a 10-second start at traffic lights; and more provision for bicycles on trains, with more covered parking spaces at stations.

Unlike what is going to happen today, the response from the Minister was disappointing. My suggestions were described by the then Minister as “interesting”. This was before the time of “Yes Minister”, but I knew enough about Whitehall to realise that “interesting” meant “absurd.” The very first point he made was that cycling was dangerous, and I am afraid that that coloured the whole response to the debate.

I was told that differential timing at traffic lights would be a costly operation, and the Minister did not know how the motoring public would take to it. Although British Rail was a nationalised industry at the time, the Minister washed his hands of the idea, saying that he hoped I would do better with my campaign than Ministers. On cycle lanes—or traffic lanes, as he called them—I was told it was difficult to provide them in the middle of Birmingham, Manchester or London. On a cycling unit, he said:

“I cannot accede to the request that my Department should set up a separate cycling advisory unit…We already have a traffic advisory unit.”—[Official Report, 11 July 1975; Vol. 895, c. 1026.]

Undeterred by this response, Anthony Steen and I set up a parliamentary bicycle pool, years ahead of Boris. For £5, Members could join and borrow a bicycle for their journey around the capital. We had a good response, particularly for the photo opportunity in New Palace Yard which launched the scheme. Jo Grimond was good enough to join us. Members who had not been on a bike since they did a delivery round took again to two wheels.

It was not an unqualified success. At midday, Members would take out a bicycle and cycle off to their lunch. Owing to the generosity of the hospitality extended by their hosts, on a few occasions they did not return by bicycle, and my fleet had to be retrieved from London’s finest eating establishments. In 1979, when there was a change of Government and I became a Minister, I could not find anyone to run the pool. So, in the first of the Thatcher privatisations, we sold the pool to the Members.

We have some way to go before we reach the status of Holland, which I visited along with the APPG a few years ago. There, a typical cyclist was a mature lady in ordinary clothes bicycling slowly—the exact opposite in every respect of a typical cyclist in London, although that is beginning to change.

I agree with what the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) said about joined-up government and the benefits to other Departments of a regeneration of cycling, including on climate change, obesity and cutting the cost of travel.

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab):
I very much agree with what the right hon. Gentleman says about encouraging people who might not see themselves as Lycra cyclists to take part. Although we all want dedicated cycle areas and tracks, lone cyclists can feel very vulnerable along some of those made from back lanes or railway tracks. Does he agree that in the cycle delivery plan we need to examine strategies for increased visibility in those areas, so that young women in particular do not feel afraid of using them?

Sir George Young:
The hon. Lady makes a good point; better lighting is important not only for the security of the cyclist, but so that they can see what is on the path ahead of them. I am sure the Minister will focus on safety in his reply.

From the modest acorn we planted 40 years ago, today’s all-party group has grown and gone from strength to strength. Today’s debate is better informed and better supported; only three Back-Bench speeches were made back then. I commend the campaign and the support it has received from all sides, and I can think of no better Minister to respond than my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the former pairing Whip.

Ian Austin:
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir George Young:
That was a peroration, but I give way to the chairman of the all-party group.

Ian Austin:
Before the right hon. Gentleman finishes, I wanted to thank him, on behalf of the group and all Members here, and to recognise the enormous contribution he has made in Parliament to cycling throughout his time as an MP. He has achieved a huge amount, his work has been an inspiration to the rest of us and we are very grateful for it.

Sir George Young:
I blush and I sit down.

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Copyright Sir George Young Bt. 2015