Wash Common Councillor Tony Vickers tells the story of his involvement with cycling in Newbury, and why it's more important than ever that we make West Berkshire cycle-friendly.
"When Martha and I moved into our Craven Road (central Newbury) home in 1987, it was largely to enable us to minimise the need to use our car. I’d been posted by the Army to the MOD in London and Martha was resuming her career as a health visitor, which was to be interrupted again when I was posted to Hong Kong in 1991, leaving her (a district councillor before me) to follow, with our youngest son then at St Barts.
Returning in 1995, I campaigned and won the rural ward of Kintbury by biking down every lane and up every driveway to meet voters and deliver Focus to places where it had never been seen. Meanwhile Martha became known all over Newbury as the health visitor on a bike – covering Eastfields surgery this saved time as she didn’t need to hunt for precious parking spaces. Pre-bypass Newbury was also a nightmare to drive around.
In 2002, it was our own Lib Dem run West Berkshire Council threatening to ban cyclists from Northbrook Street that forced us to set up the cycling campaign group Spokes, with David Rendel as its President. We won over our colleagues on the Council and began the long haul towards a more cycle friendly Newbury. In 2005, the by then Tory-run District Council won praise for being one of the most improved Highway Authorities for cycling – albeit from a very low start.
We’ve always tried to put over the message that getting Newbury people out of their cars and onto bikes for short journeys benefits those who live in the more rural parts of our District as much as town dwellers, because it frees up road space. Each bike occupies 1/3 of the space taken by a car and weighs 1/20th – so the shift to cycling means we need to spend less on building and maintaining roads.
At long last, Boris “the bike” Johnson seems to have got Whitehall singing from the Lib Dem song-sheet on cycling. One of the few good news stories in this disastrous Covid-19 affected world we live in is the change in travel habits for short journeys. Although far fewer journeys overall are being made (for many reasons) a much higher proportion of local ones are ‘active’, healthy and climate friendly.
Late last month, a new Cycle Infrastructure Design became mandatory for all new highways schemes and planning applications, complementing the policy announced in 2017 that all Highway Authorities must have a Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plan (LCWIP). It replaces DfT policy from 2008 and catches up with standards of design that Boris implemented for London in 2010 and the Welsh Assembly adopted in 2014.
I led the Lib Dems’ fight (lost in 2012) to stop Sandleford Park in South Newbury being made a strategic housing site for up to 2000 new homes in the District Local Plan, largely by pointing out that it lies over 50m above the Kennet Valley and would not encourage cycling to work. After losing my Council seat in 2015, I carried on with my Spokes ‘hat’ fighting the plans, citing the 2014 Welsh Government design guidance.
One of my shorter contributions to the Sandleford debate was an email to the officer who now heads the Environment & Transport Department asking him to press for the site’s main access point on Monks Lane to be made a light-controlled junction and not a roundabout. Yet in their June 2020 new outline planning application, Bloor Homes are still showing this to be a roundabout!
In a Newbury Vision conference in the Corn Exchange in about 2006, a conservative sounding voice at the back lampooned Spokes for seeming to want us to revert to a ‘pony and trap’ transport age. So it is very pleasing to see that politicians are now competing to be the most modern yet cycle friendly. It is great to see a Tory Minister writing, as Chris Heaton-Harris MP (Minister of State with responsibility for walking and cycling) does in his Foreword to LTN1/20: “Cycling … must no longer be treated as marginal, or an afterthought … as mainly part of the leisure industry, but as a means of everyday transport.”
As Liberal Democrats, we should see cycling as democratising. It takes us out of a private metal bubble and closer to nature and one another. We can stop and start when we like without wasting time and money. It is for rich and poor – and benefits all of society in many ways: saving costs in the health service; freeing parents from the school run; building confident and healthy children. Our 2017 Manifesto promised we would … “design towns and cities as safe and attractive walking spaces and implement the recommendations of the Get Britain Cycling report”. We went further in 2019: promising we’d spend 10% of the transport budget on transport, when it was only 1.5% in 2018.
This is not a fanciful target. Actual spending on cycling under the Coalition and subsequent Conservative governments had risen from just £2 per person in 2010 to nearly £6 in 2017.
Caroline Pigeon (London Assembly Lib Dem Transport Chair) says: “Most progressive policies and initiatives around the country have come from councils and regional bodies taking the lead. They have happened despite, not because of, central government.”
West Berkshire faces very different transport problems to London but in Newbury & Thatcham there is very real potential for modal shift, building on a comprehensive Cycling Audit I coordinated for Spokes in 2016 and the resulting Active Travel Strategy. We will have a LCWIP covering these urban areas by this time next year and there already is one for the Reading suburbs in West Berkshire.
Spokes now has several Council officers among its committee and actively partnering the Council’s Cycle Forum that first met in 2005 and still meets several times a year to drive forward cycling initiatives. It still has a Lib Dem councillor (Stuart Gourley of Speen) as its Highways Officer to comment on proposed developments and highway schemes.
If ever there is to be a Sandleford Park development on the scale envisaged by the Planning Authority in 2012, I trust Lib Dems will ensure that it fully adopts the principles of Active Travel.
Please send me your comments about cycling and ‘active travel’ generally. As Lib Dem Transport & Planning Spokesperson on West Berkshire Council, I’d like to hear your views. As a Wash Common Ward councillor, obviously my ‘focus’ is Sandleford – but all transport schemes and planning applications need to take account of emerging policy.
Cllr Tony Vickers