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Big Cycling Debate sees parties go head-to-head over post-election plans

Transport minister Robert Goodwill, Labour's Lilian Greenwood and Lib Dem Julian Huppert put their parties' cases...

Politicians from the three main parties yesterday set out their plans for cycling following May’s general election. The Liberal Democrats emerged as the party most engaged with the issues and the only one prepared to commit to a minimum level of spend – unsurprisingly, given they were represented by Dr Julian Huppert, MP for Cambridge and co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group.

The Big Cycling Debate, organised by the UK Cycling Alliance and chaired by the broadcaster John Humphreys, pitched Dr Huppert against Conservative MP and cycling minister Robert Goodwill, and one of Labour shadow transport ministers, Lilian Greenwood.

Held at the News Limited building next to the Shard at London Bridge, it took place just hours after deputy prime minister Nick Clegg had announced the allocation between eight cities of £114 million under the Cycle City Ambition initiative.

That gave both Mr Goodwill and Dr Huppert a chance to score points - the former as a member of the Coalition Government, the latter as a Lib Dem MP.

Each participant was given five minutes to put across their party’s position, with Mr Goodwill starting by claiming that the government had increased funding for cycling in England to £2 per head to £6 per head.

The minister said the government’s ambition was for Britain to become a cycling nation similar to Denmark or the Netherlands and that with the Cycle City Ambition programme “we’ve proven that letting cities lead the way [on cycling] is a model that works.”

He added: “I won’t be satisfied until we have hit the same level of funding everywhere in the country,” although he described his wish for it to reach £10 per person annually, as sought by the APPCG’s 2013 report, Get Britain Cycling, as an “aspiration” rather than concrete policy, and one that was also dependent on local authorities.

Ms Greenwood, who is shadow rail minister – by coincidence her counterpart for cycling, Richard Burden, had to cancel his scheduled appearance at the debate due to being stuck on a train – said her party couldn’t commit to a minimum £10 per head annual spend on cycling.

However, she did say that it wanted to put an end to “stop-start “ funding, and that her party wanted “certainty” over future long-term funding in cycling, which she added would be moved to “the mainstream of transport policy.”

She added that her party wanted to tackle barriers to cycling such as lack of infrastructure and road safety issues, and that it would also promote a cross-departmental approach, with cycling also being part of its health strategy.

Dr Huppert confirmed that the Lib Dems would include a pledge to spend that £10 minimum per person on cycling each year in its general election manifesto, with the goal of increasing it eventually to £20.

He said that the party was committed to providing safe infrastructure as well as ensuring the justice system dealt fairly with cases where cyclists are the victims, and that its plans would be financed by taking money from some planned major road schemes.

The debate took place before a packed audience many of the UK’s leading cycle campaigners and a big media presence not just from the specialised press but also national print and broadcast outlets, a clear sign of how the issue of cycling has risen up the political agenda in recent years.

In part, that is due to the Cities Fit For Cycling campaign launched by The Times newspaper a little over three years ago after its journalist Mary Bowers sustained life-changing injuries when she was crushed by a lorry as she rode to work at its former offices in Wapping.

In a presentation room overlooking the River Thames and City of London in the building that now houses the newspaper, the three politicians also fielded questions from the floor.

Chris Boardman, policy adviser at British Cycling, asked them whether their parties would commit to setting aside a set percentage of the transport budget aside for cycling to make it “a viable form of transport viable for normal people in normal clothes?” None would.

Other questions included ones relating to how to make rural roads safer for cyclists, and whether there should be a national 20 mile an hour default speed limit in urban areas.

While Ms Greenwood and Mr Huppert agreed it should be encouraged, Mr Goodwill said the government would leave it to local authorities to decide and not try to impose guidance on them from above.

Concluding the debate, Humphrys asked the three politicians what they would do if they found themselves secretary of state for transport the morning after the general election.

Dr Huppert spoke of producing a programme and funding it, Ms Greenwood spoke of fostering cross-departmental co-operation, and Mr Goodwill confidently said he would call the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ask him if we can still have money.

It was a perfect set-up for Humphrys, who had the last word – and the audience in laughter – as he asked the minister: “And what do you think Ed Balls will tell you?”

Simon has been news editor at since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.

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