Dr Julian Lewis: I begin with a tribute and a confession. The tribute is to the Minister [Robert Goodwill]. He has been exceptionally patient and lived up to every syllable of his surname in the way he has considered the problems that we in the New Forest have had recently with a particular aspect of cycling – namely the mass cycling events or ‘sportives’ – and I wish to say a few words about that in my contribution to the debate. The confession is that the last time I cycled regularly was in Oxford in 1975. That was the year that I discovered the joys of motorised two-wheel transport and bought my first motor-scooter, as it was then, powered at 50 cc. To this day, I am proud to say that I still use two wheels, but they are now powered by 750 cc, so I get all the exhilaration without having to invest the effort. My admiration, therefore, is unbounded for those who do invest effort in cycling. Not only is cycling part and parcel of an excellent life and health scheme, it is also part and parcel – indeed, it is integral – to the public profile of the New Forest.
I do not know about you, Madam Deputy Speaker, but when I think of the lovely New Forest I immediately think of activities such as horse-riding, walking, rambling, bird-watching, camping and, yes, cycling. It is therefore sad that in recent months, a major problem has arisen in relation to cycling in the New Forest. It is not, however, an insoluble problem, and I hope that with Good-will – in both senses of the word – we will soon be able to solve it.
The problem is this. We have had mass cycling events in the New Forest for many years, and they caused no difficulties whatsoever when the numbers concerned were in the order of 500 or 600 participants – that is quite a lot when thinking about rural roads. We all know that specific laws and regulations deal with competitive cycling on the public highways, but the loophole arises in mass cycling events in the New Forest – or sportives as they are known – because people are competing not against each other but against themselves. They are seeking at all times to better the speed and time with which they complete quite lengthy cycle rides in the New Forest, and that brings obvious dangers and disadvantages to other road users and to the livestock of the New Forest. It may come as a surprise to hon. Members to know that in the New Forest, ponies, donkeys and cattle have the right of way on public roads, and motorists and cyclists do not. Therefore unless these major events are regulated – hopefully with a very light touch – there are obvious dangers of clashes, accidents and the generation of ill-feeling. It is about that generation of ill-feeling that I wish to inform the House.
In my hand I have the front page of the 23 August edition of the Lymington Times, and the main story is headlined: “Anti-cycling concern leads NPA” – the New Forest National Park Authority – “to scrap Forest ‘Boris-bikes’.” A scheme would have brought docking stations for about 250 extra bikes into the New Forest, and funding was available with the blessing of the Government. However, such is the antipathy and poisoning of the well – caused by the clashes over those mass cycling events (some of which have had up to 3,000 participants and been spread over two days) – that in the end the NPA decided not to take up the money for that purpose. It has had to come up with alternative cycling-related schemes that do not actually have the benefit of bringing more cyclists on to the road.
Ian Austin: Who else does the hon. Gentleman think should be prevented from coming to the New Forest: the people who want to walk around the New Forest or to run along its roads, or is it just cyclists that he thinks should be regulated off the roads of the New Forest?
Dr Lewis: I am very sorry that I have been making my message come across so obscurely. No-one is talking about anyone being regulated off the roads. On the contrary, we want them to be regulated on the roads. That is precisely the demand the communities in the New Forest are making, because the New Forest is a living, working forest. It is not a theme park.
Ian Austin rose –
Dr Lewis: Let me answer the hon. Gentleman’s first intervention before I let him have a second.
With goodwill and with co-operation and arrangements that relate to three things this problem could be solved. The sensible arrangements are: that the local authority should have the power to determine the frequency of these events; that it should have the right to limit the total numbers participating in the events; and that the participants should wear some form of identification, probably numbering, so that where there are mass events and incidents occur – let us be frank about this, sometimes incidents of an aggressive nature do occur – then there can be no question about misidentification.
Dr Huppert: I wonder if I can bring the hon. Gentleman back to the very exciting New Forest cycle hire scheme. As I understand it, more of the responses to the public consultation from people living within the forest were in favour of the scheme than against it. Does he agree that it is a rather perverse decision from the authority to listen to the public, hear that they support it and then decide that they cannot go ahead with it?
Dr Lewis: The hon. Gentleman illustrates the point I am making. I do not want to second-guess the decision of the National Park Authority for the simple reason that I did not involve myself in that debate and I only read about it afterwards. Frankly, I do not have enough information to make a judgment on whether I sympathise or not. However, what I certainly think – I hope he would agree – is that it is really unfortunate that the attitude towards cycling in general by the representatives of the National Park and the community in the New Forest has been so damaged by this dispute over mass cycling events that cycling is getting a bad name.
To conclude, I simply say that we look to the Minister to try to have some reserve regulatory powers in place, hopefully seldom having to be relied upon, to ensure that where there is a danger of a clash – as has happened on one occasion, between the New Forest drift, when the ponies have to be moved across the forest, and a mass cycling event – and where there is a question-mark over perhaps two major cycling events being scheduled for the same day, or where there is too much bunching of events one after another rather than being spread at reasonable intervals, just as there is light-touch regulation for racing events on the public highway, we believe there should be some powers in reserve so that cycling can regain its popular reputation. In this way, the New Forest and cycling will once again be bracketed together harmoniously, rather than as a source of dissonance and friction.