CTC, British Cycling, the Bicycle Association and other cycle organisations attended a meeting in parliament yesterday with Mike Penning, the MP for Hemel Hempstead, and a junior minister in the Department for Transport. He has responsibility for roads, road safety, and deregulation.
The meeting was organised by the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group and chaired by Cambridge MP Julian Huppert. Penning arrived at the meeting early and joked to Huppert that he was going to "get crucified" by cyclists but that he wasn’t afraid of that because "once you’ve been crucified once, you don’t mind it so much."
Penning started his talk by complaining about cyclists who ran red lights, saying he had counted the number of cyclists riding reds, from his car, earlier that morning. He stopped counting when the number got suitably high enough, he said.
However, he noted the health, environmental and traffic-reducing benefits of cycling, and the importance of giving people the choice to be able to cycle. He said he recognised the need to remove the hindrances to cycling.
He talked about his role as “minister for roads and motoring”, making sure as much traffic as possible can use the roads, “sweating these assets” ensuring that lorries can reach their destinations, and acknowledged that this was potentially in conflict with his role as road safety minister.
He then asked for questions. His answers were often tangential and from personal experience rather than following official policy guidance from the Department for Transport. Unbidden, he mentioned "the war on the motorists" a number of times.
On the sticky issue of ‘road tax’, Penning knew to call it VED but he then said roads were paid for by: "Tax. Fuel duty and VED…Yes, it’s hypothecation but a percentage of it does come back in. I stand by [that]…I want to protect cyclists as much as possible but at the same time I also passionately believe the motorist in this country does pay for an awful lot of the service on the road."
Martin Gibbs of British Cycling asked Penning to confirm whether DfT had assessed cyclists’ safety in deciding to go ahead with the longer lorries trial, and that they had better turning circles. Penning insisted that DfT had done the assessment, and that there was no doubt that the longer lorries had “much better” turning circles. Roger Geffen of the CTC challenged Penning on this, saying he had written to him asking him for evidence to support both these claims and that the reply had been about turning circles and which was based on his own experience. Geffen said he had provided no answer to the question about cyclists safety being assessed, but that he had subsequently answered another written parliamentary questions saying that the Environmental Impact Assessment had not included an assessment of the safety of individual modes of travel. Penning conceded that the answer on whether the impact assessment specifically looked at cyclists’ safety was: “Not to my knowledge.”
Kate Carpenter of the Chartered Institution of Highways & Transportation asked whether any roadspace would reallocated for cycling. Penning replied by asking whether cyclists should be allowed to ride on pavements, adding “it’s a debate to be had." He then wondered aloud whether this would then force cyclists off the road, saying only that this was a really tough question, and adding that it would be almost impossible for the police to enforce.
Lord Hoffman, a former law lord, tackled Penning on the issue of red light jumping. He said he himself had cycled through pedestrian red lights at quiet times of the night when there were no pedestrians. He said that he could have got off and walked through, but asked whether it wouldn’t be better to amend the law so that cyclists could regard a red light as effectively being like a flashing amber light? Mike Penning said he couldn’t condone the Lord’s law-breaking, and insisted that red meant red.
On a positive note, on road safety matters, Penning said the technology was available to catch motorists driving while talking on mobile phones but that use of these cameras to catch such law-breaking was not yet countenanced.
When asked what he would do to protect cyclists on trunk roads – a cyclist had been killed on the A19 the day before – Penning stressed that cyclists ought to be more visible and wandered off into an example of his well-lit daughter, cycling while at university in Cambridge, compared to her flat mates who did not dress up like Christmas trees.
He also said cyclist safety would be improved by the painting of retroreflective white lines on roads. He didn’t enlarge on how this would help cyclists (in fact, such ‘safety’ measures often lead to faster car speeds and more danger for all).
"Ending the myth of ‘road tax’ won’t be a process that will be concluded overnight; but if the Minister for Roads himself insists on perpetuating it, that does not bode well for the message filtering down any time soon to those motorists who share his erroneous opinion."
A 42-minute tape of the meeting – as well as a short extract of just the VED comments – can be found here.