Transport minister John Spellar gave an unplanned keynote speech at today's Cycling Forum for England, the second such meeting of all the important individuals and organisations involved in UK cycling. He said a joined-up approach to cycling is long overdue and welcomed the positive initiatives originating from the National Cycling Strategy Board for England.

Cycling Forum for England urges action, not yet more hot-air

Should a terrorist group – the paramilitary wing of the RAC, for instance – have today bombed the basement of Great Minster House, one of the Department of Transport’s offices in London, it would have successfully wiped out the cream of British cycle advocacy.

Everybody who was anybody in cycle advocacy was there. From towering giants John Grimshaw of Sustrans, key DfT civil servant Fred Offen and bike-and-rail journalist Christian Wolmar, to those closer to the ground such as York University academic and English Regions Cycling Development team member Dr. Paul Rosen, Transport 2000’s Lyn Sloman, and the ACT’s public affairs director Andy Shrimpton.

Chairing the meeting was CTC director Kevin Mayne who, notably, does not have a seat on the National Cycling Strategy Board (and there’s no representative from British Cycling either, something British Cycling’s Peter King raised as a point of concern later in the day).

Mayne had kicked off the meeting by asking delegates with cellphones to switch them off or forfeit a fiver to the CTC’s Cyclists’ Defence Fund. This fund was £5 richer by the end of the day thanks to the ringtone emanating from the suit pocket of ever-dapper Olly Hatch, the CPAG lynchpin.

The Cycling Forum was split between a talking heads session before lunch (kept to schedule by a ruthless Mayne) and breakouts after lunch, including two very well attended workshops on the DfT’s £60k marketing cycling project.

At midday, a talk by the DfT’s David Padfield was punctuated by the unannounced arrival of one of his bosses, minister for transport John Spellar MP, hot-footing it (in a ministerial limousine) from a rail bill discussion at the Palace of Westminster.

Mayne called on Spellar to give a speech. Noteless, he put the case for cycling with some of the most positive noises to have come from a transport minister since perhaps the days of bicycling baronet Sir George Young, the Conservative peer responsible for – disastrously – pushing through rail privatisation in the last administration.

Spellar went out of his way to praise the work of Steven Norris, chair of the National Cycling Strategy Board, "despite the fact he’s the Tory candidate for London mayor."

Norris – bearded as he left the morning session by transport consultant Dave Holladay, yet another of cycling’s seven footers – was on fine form on the day and was able to nimbly deflect difficult questions from the floor with a silky panache that, despite his oft-repeated abhorance of Lycra, makes him a perfect frontman for cycling. He’s a politican’s politician: a former transport minister who is aiming to get himself into a more elevated position and thereby abolish the ken-gestion charge.

Norris could be warming to London’s £5 tax on car use, though. He agreed that it was a ‘good thing’ for cycling, but urged London’s local authorities to square the circle by placing Sheffield stands at key locations in order to persuade motorists to switch to bikes.

When pressed by cycle helmet skeptic John Franklin, Norris repeated his famous assertion that blobs of polystyrene and plastic will never be welcome on his head. He stressed that this was his personal point of view only and that the Board was formulating an official helmet stance for dissemination soon (it will be a we-recommend-helmet-use-but-it’s-up-to-the-individual position, of course).

David Rendell MP of the 85-strong All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group had been the one to stir up this particular hornet’s nest, stating that "the government is moving towards helmet compulsion."

This drew dark murmurings of dissent from the audience, especially from the anti-helmet hot-heads at the back, stinging Rendell into agreeing that helmet compulsion was "controversial."

But he continued that "the evidence is all there. We should heed the advice of BHIT." [‘Be-Hit’ is the DfT seed-funded British Helmet Inititive Trust, the non-cycling director of which believes ministers to be "wimps" for not so far countenancing compulsion].

Later, agreeing that it was "an emotive issue," the DfT’s Padfield flatly denied Rendell’s claim: "It is my understanding that ministers have not decided to move towards helmet compulsion. Nothing’s ruled out, but nothing’s ruled in, either."

However, he revealed that the DfT pro-helmet campaign, due to be launched in April, and previewed on this site, is to be aimed at encouraging adolescent boys to don helmets, the biggest user-group at risk of head injury, he said.

Of all the morning’s speeches, none were delivered with more passion, or more verve, than that given by Ken Spence, the road safety and cycle training coordinator on the English Regions Cycling Development Team, a former cycle training advocate in York.

"Cycling’s not dangerous," he stressed.

"We don’t have a cycling safety problem, we have a drivers-hitting-cyclists problem."

Increasing cycle use by reducing traffic speeds benefits cyclists but it also benefits motorists, said Spence.

"Slower speeds are safer for drivers too. And there are obvious benefits for children. Kids are in the street environment. We should be more responsible adults and protect these children with traffic calming measures."

Such measures are part of the cycling success of Dutch cities such as Groningen, where cycle use dwarfs the cycle use in even the most pro-bike of English cities.

"We have a fantastic opportunity to build a Groningen [in the UK]," said Steve Norris, referring to the National Cycling Strategy Board’s plans for less hot air, and more action. The NCSB wants to use DfT funding to create one or more ‘model cycling projects’, which is envisaged to be the wholesale adoption of pro-cycling measures in a town or collection of towns, and which would act as a demonstration to local authorities nationwide that cycle use can be increased, given political will, engineering nous and joined-up thinking.

One other headline initiative from today’s meeting was the implementation of cycle training schemes to nationally recognised standards.

This story, and more, will be covered in greater detail in Cycling Forum articles to be published over the next few days.

PIC ABOVE: Raleigh chairman Philip Darnton leads one of the marketing cycling breakout sessions.

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