19 November 2013

Has local government in London left cycling in the wrong lane?

A couple of months ago I wrote to the Crown Estate about its bike-unfriendly redevelopment of London’s Haymarket area, and was rather surprised when their London team offered to meet me and set out Crown’s cycling credentials. I was encouraged to see the company's new Central London developments have fabulous facilities for bike commuters, with showers, lockers, and ramps that allow you to ride straight into the basement parking space.

The past decade has seen an explosion in two-wheeled travel across the capital, while car use has declined. Recent data shows that cyclists make up to two thirds of traffic on certain parts of London’s roads. This is hardly unexpected, given the cost of tube travel and packed conditions. So Crown knows that letting its buildings means accommodating the rocketing numbers of people who ride to work.

But, as we discussed the Haymarket redevelopment over coffee, I realised that the challenge facing Crown is that while car use is falling, budget freezes mean parking revenue has become much more important to the balance sheets of London’s inner city authorities. This is problematic for new cycling infrastructure, as installing bike lanes comes at the expense of income-generating street parking.

Catering for cars might superficially help local authorities’ coffers, but a string of studies have shown that bike lanes, locking points, etc. give huge boosts to local businesses: New York City’s recent flagship bike lane on 8th and 9th Avenues led to local shops enjoying a 49% increase in sales. Saving the £1,216 cost of a Zone 2 annual travelcard frees up money to spend in the local economy, and gets people off our overcrowded tubes and trains during rush hour.

None of this washes with Westminster City Council (Crown’s local authority counterpart). The council would be hauled in front of the Competition Commission if its parking business model was the product of anything other than geography – incidentally only a third of Westminster’s households have access to a car. Sadly, as things stand, it’s difficult enough trying to find somewhere to lock up a bike before going shopping in the West End, wasting valuable time that could be spent in the shops and cafes that pay the council’s rates.

The recent spate of cyclist deaths on London’s roads is, obviously, terrible news. But I fear that the cycle lobby’s focus on fixing the Mayor’s flagship Cycle Superhighways misses a deeper problem: how we get the various tiers of local government to confront the sustained change in our transport use. The private sector manifestly gets where the market is at, as was clear when I saw Crown’s magnificent cycling facilities. Unfortunately, our politicians are stuck making rational decisions based on the perverse incentives of the city’s disjointed government structure. With London’s population gaining an extra 600,000 by 2020, this muddled approach is clearly unsustainable. Bold decisions are required.

First published by Coffee House on November 19th, 2013

8 November 2013

Let’s celebrate 20 years of rail privatisation

Being a Guardian-reading Tory can be rather trying. I switched to the Grauniad a decade back for the paper's superlative arts coverage – I'm a photographer by trade – but also because as a Tory the political slant is like having a cold shower every morning. Reading it over toast and coffee means I'm fired up and know what the enemy is thinking. One of my friends (a government whip under Blair) does the exact thing in reverse, and wouldn't start the day until he'd worked his way through the Telegraph.

But every so often there are times when Toynbee et al become a bit much. This week marks the 20th anniversary of railway privatisation, which the the paper commemorated with a hatchet piece, the essence of which is summed up by the tirade that the 'supposed free-marketeers are gleefully happy about state ownership of British assets, as long as it's somebody else's state that's doing it'. This view – and wider yearning for British Rail – pervades our society, including many of those firmly in of the centre-right. I've even heard senior people in our party mumble that perhaps it was a privatisation too far.

And hankering after BR misses the essence of why we as Conservatives believe that the market, privatisation, competition – call it what you will – is the best way to serve the public need. The issue isn't about who owns the company delivering our rail services (or telephones, electricity, etc.) but ensuring that you and I get a better service as a result of companies in competition with each other.

In the case of our rail network this means franchise operators knowing that if they don't perform they will lose their business at the end of their contract. Yes, we know that the Department for Transport has issues with administering this process, but consider this: for the first time since 1948 the railways now return money to the taxpayer, rather than depending on massive subsidies that successive governments have tried to reduce. Profit isn't filthy, as faux revolutionary Russell Brand would have you believe, it's bloody great because Britain's railways are now running efficiently – and competition from operators across Europe has driven this. Besides, British firms like Go Ahead and Stagecoach have operations abroad. The foreign ownership thing goes both ways.

Perhaps the best example of how the markets work is the demise of Britain's locomotive manufacturing industry. We don't have many train builders left over here, and when our wonderful old InterCity125s were recently renovated the new engines were sourced from MTU, a company based in Friedrichshafen that built Zeppelin motors in World War One. Almost enough to make you think that Brunel would be turning in his grave, until you realise that German MTU was acquired by British Rolls-Royce two years ago. What the Guardian would make of that I don't know.

“Ahh, but train tickets are exorbitant!” comes the protest. I did some research into this, and found a piece* by Barry Doe – the leading commentator on UK ticket prices – which points out that despite all the recent coverage of ticket price increases most franchises have either frozen or reduced their season ticket prices in real terms since 1995. And in that time the cost of the single that I buy from Southern when I go down to visit Dad in Sussex has actually fallen – in real terms – by 7%.

Of course with wage stagnation and rising commodity prices travel is still expensive, and some of the franchises have yet to bring costs down (SouthEastern season tickets have seen a 25% price increase) but the situation isn't quite what the headlines would have you believe. Not bad going for a system that many of us are happy to criticise at will.

* Doe's 'Fare Dealer' article appeared in Rail 731 – not available online, sadly

First published by Platform 10 on November 8th, 2013

6 November 2013

The Camino offers an insight into the European debate

The Camino de Santiago is the historic pilgrimage route across northern Spain, and as a cultural melting pot it had the recent misfortune of being dramatised as a ghastly film, packed with characters you’d normally walk a long way to escape.

Fortunately the reality is much better, and when I walked the 650 miles from Lourdes to Finisterre this summer the sole person I consciously avoided was an American college kid who sauntered along singing at the top of his voice while emitting a powerful body odour. That he was dressed only in boxer shorts with feathers in his dreadlocks didn’t help matters.

Nonetheless it’s the people who make the Camino a lifetime experience, and offering some wonderful insights into the differences in mentalities across Europe and further afield. I spent the first week plodding across the Pyrenean foothills in endless rain, without seeing a single soul walking west. Company came in the form of random encounters with the locals, particularly around meals. A priest from India at the B├ętharram Monastery wanted to talk about the great batsmen his country had produced as we drank broth seated on the long benches of the refectory, with the other monks completely confused until we moved on rugby. And the waiter at one of the bistros who resignedly acknowledged that the French way of life was doomed, which seemed pretty reasonable given that most shops seemed only to be open for a couple of hours in the morning, and with local farms still almost pre-industrial in their miniature form.

On the morning of my third day the butcher in Arundy attached a large scallop shell (the traditional symbol of pilgrims en route to Santiago) to my pack, and from then onwards every boulangerie was a chance to warm up and talk to the intrigued locals, although saying I was walking to Santiago felt fraudulent given that Galicia was still a fair few mountain ranges – and 1000km – away.

So making it to the popular starting point of St. Jean Pied-de-Port after a week on the road was a bit of a relief. Passing through the town’s fortified Porte St. Jacques I was met by a cacophony of languages, frenzied unwrapping of new equipment and nervous anticipation of the first major challenge of the main Camino: following Napoleon’s steep route over the Pyrenees. The sharp early morning climb wasn’t brutal enough to stop the wild hand gestures and emotional outpourings of the girl from California. Nor did it stifle conversation with the chain-smoking chap from Stuttgart, who didn’t understand that a ‘C’ in GCSE German meant my grasp of his language was limited to menus and the occasional war film, and constructing sentences with ‘potato salad’ and ‘hands up’ didn’t seem conducive to the spirit of the walk, or European harmony.

The route itself is inherently cultural rather than deeply scenic, but that’s part of the joy of traversing a large country – you take the rough with the smooth. The back streets of Spain’s isolated villages revealed some of the Iberian Peninsula’s desperate poverty, interspersed with stonkingly beautiful towns: medieval Viana, where Cesare Borgia is buried, was particularly pretty. Dormitories ranged from charmless municipal accommodation to the isolated medieval pilgrims’ hostels where Mass was celebrated by candlelight. And of course the mountains of Galicia were spectacular, more than making up for the afternoon spent walking past Burgos airport and endless kilometres trudging along roadside footpaths.

Hours of conversation with my fellow pilgrims (very few of them British) as we passed though countless settlements also hammered home some important cultural differences. Dutch incredulity at Spain’s lavish yet half-built motorways that intersected our route. The abundance of hairdressers in the smallest of French villages, and American bewilderment at poor European service. The spectacular mountain settlement of La Faba that was run by a German confraternity, where for the first time in weeks I enjoyed a clean shower that worked, with immaculate bunks and a laundry service, my thanks for which were met with a blank “What else did you expect? We are German!”

There were – of course – frequent sightings of flagpoles flying the gold stars of the European Union. I pointed out to my Spanish companion that this enthusiasm would be unthinkable in England, much to his surprise. “Really?” he asked. “Surely we’re all brothers? Aren’t you proud of Europe in the UK?” I felt awful breaking it to him that back in Blighty the EU is seen as a cousin at best – the sort you hear very little from during the year, before agonising about deleting from the family Christmas card list.

First published by Egremont on November 6th, 2013. Read the daily blog I wrote while walking the Camino at matthewsoccasionaladventures.blogspot.co.uk