HC Deb 02 July 2003 vol 408 cc97-104WH

11 am

Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of the need for a national walking strategy. I should declare that I am a vice-president of the Ramblers Association, although I get no particular benefit from that.

I want to have a whinge. I almost said a quiet moan, but actually I want a noisy moan. I want to press the Government on why they feel ashamed about walking. More than 12 months ago, there was a document in the Department for Transport setting out a national walking strategy, but for some reason—whether Ministers were worried that they might be known as the Minister for silly walks or whether the Government were worried that they would be seen as a nanny state if they promoted walking—the Government sat on it. Now, the document is back as a consultation document: "On the move: by foot". The Government have not had the courage to take things forward.

I realise that I am being a little unfair on the new Minister. He has been in the job for two weeks and we cannot expect him to have a grip on the issue. When I saw him this morning tucking into two eggs and some rashers of bacon, I thought that perhaps he was the Minister who would get a grip on walking and make it a success story, rather than a problem story, for the Government.

Let us be clear. The statistics suggest that people in this country are walking less and less. I have some doubts about the statistics, but they certainly do not show that people are walking more than they did in recent years. My doubt about the statistics is that people are asked to indicate how they travel. If someone goes to the supermarket, drives a short distance in the car and then walks right across the car park, round the aisles of the supermarket, back across the car park to the car and drives back home, that counts as a driving trip, even though the distance covered by walking may be greater than that covered by driving.

Even if we were to get rather better statistics, they would not show that people in this country are walking more. If the decline is not proven, we know, at least, that we have not reversed the trend. We need to be quite clear that if people walk less and less, they will be born with wheels, rather than feet. The situation is tragic. We have known for so long that encouraging people to walk is good for them.

What have the Government done? They have had a good document on walking in a pigeonhole somewhere in the Department for 12 months. On Monday, almost by stealth, they put out another consultation document: "On the move: by foot". Where was the publicity? I understand the difficulties for Transport Ministers. If they talk about airports, there are at least two opinions. If they talk about railways, it is not a particularly good news story. Traffic congestion is not a particularly good story. However, the Government have a good story to tell about walking, if they want to tell it. Why did the Secretary of State not launch the document? Why did Ministers not make a great deal of effort? The current document is somewhat feeble, but the document on which it was based would have made a significant difference. It was a document that the Government could have been proud of.

Why has it taken so long to produce this little mouse of a document? Surely in the past 12 months, instead of sitting on it, the Government could have introduced something positive. What about a little bit of money? I realise that it is difficult to find money for transport, and in many ways the whole point of the walking document is that we do not need particularly huge amounts of money. We need to ensure that the money being spent by local authorities is spent in a way that serves the primary purpose and encourages walking. It is particularly worrying that there has not been an effort to persuade local authorities to spend more money to make walking more attractive.

A national walking board would allow us to set standards of good practice throughout the country. Some local authorities have a good story to tell—some of them are mentioned in the document—about making walking attractive. What about a national website that shows what good practice could be? "Talking Walking", the sixth national walking conference, is being held on Friday. I can understand why the Minister cannot go to the conference, but someone from the Department could have gone and sent the clear message that the Government believe that walking is a good idea.

Why is walking a good idea? First, it is fundamental to improving the health of the nation. It is crazy to spend large amounts of money on the national health service to remedy the problems of heart conditions and the like, when we could make a big reduction in the number of people suffering from such problems by encouraging them to walk for 10 or 15 minutes a day. Certainly, two periods of walking of 10 to 15 minutes a day make a significant improvement to people's health. That would be good value for money. One of the achievements of the Government has been to ensure that money that was being spent on problems such as unemployment has been saved to be spent on positive things. Why is the Department for Transport not doing the same thing? If it spends a bit more money on walking, it will improve people's health and reduce the bill to the NHS.

The Government should be hailing how enjoyable walking is, in the countryside and the urban setting. One can leave this building and walk around the streets of Westminster, as many MPs do, and there are some fantastic buildings to look at. The paving and the views make it an attractive environment to walk in. It gives people a sense of place, and it lifts their spirits, provided that when they are walking around they do not have to dodge traffic, and their safety is not at risk.

Not only is walking good for individuals' health, and enjoyable, but it makes a significant difference to the environment. The more people walk, the less they need to use their motor cars, or even public transport, which reduces emissions and the problems of global warming. It is a clear environmental plus for the Government.

That takes us to the question of social cohesion. It is sad that in many places one sees only the odd person walking, which does not give one that sense of community. If one walks out of the house to the local shops, one is more likely to communicate with neighbours, even if it is just a nod to them. That gives people the feeling that they belong to a community. It is a social action, as opposed to getting into a car—a cocoon in which people travel individually.

We know that the more people walk, the safer the streets become, because crime tends not to occur if there are lots of people, or witnesses, about. It makes sense to encourage people to walk. It makes the environment more attractive and safer.

The key question is why the Government do not have more enthusiasm for walking. Why are they not getting on with the promise they made to the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and the Regions in 2001 that there would be a national walking strategy? It is amazing that more than two years later the Government are still asking questions. The questions in the document are nice, but we already know the answers. We need courage and boldness from the Minister to stop consulting and take action. We need clear guidance for local authorities on what good practice is. There are some examples of that in the document. However, one need only leave this building to see appalling examples of walkers being almost herded into cattle pens, and of zigzag crossings where pedestrians can only cross half the road because priority has been given to the motorist and not the walker. The motorist travels quicker, so why not give priority to the group of people who move slowest: the walkers. That makes common sense.

There is the question of road surfaces. In most local authorities, money tends to be put into keeping roads, not footpaths, in a good state of repair. I have the crazy situation where constituents demand that a road be improved and made smoother and that potholes are filled in, and a week later they are asking for traffic-calming measures. It would be much better to spend that money on making footpaths attractive for people to walk on.

There are also planning issues. The Government have a good record, and the Deputy Prime Minister has worked hard to get across the concept of regenerating city centres. I approve of all of that. However, a key to that must be to encourage people to walk from their homes to their places of work and leisure. That means that more town centres must give priority to walking. I was once told that if Trafalgar square were pedestrianised, it would cause chaos. As far as I can see, it caused a lot of difficulties while the work was being done, but has produced an attractive space where people can walk. My only disappointment is that the whole of Whitehall was not turned into a pedestrian area. That might have encouraged the Prime Minister and other Ministers to walk across to the House, rather than shoot across in vehicles that do not get there any quicker.

My hon. Friend the Minister should be talking to other Ministers. In Stockport, walking is being put on prescription, so to speak, because it is clear that walking is good for people's health. If a doctor, rather than a Minister or an MP, tells them to do it, people take more notice on the whole. We must get the message across that walking is good for people. I ask the Minister to make walking his crusade. He has an opportunity in a difficult Department to come up with some wins. I do not expect him to stroll down from Harrow into the centre of London, but I should like to see him walking around—coming out of his Department to champion walking.

Finally, I want the Minister to give a short message to the "Talking Walking" conference—the sixth national conference. He should say something to allay the disappointment resulting from this document, make it clear that the Government take walking seriously and think it plays a part in our transport strategy, and also make it clear that very soon a national walking strategy will be in place.

11.14 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tony McNulty)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) on securing the debate, not least on the day when Trafalgar square has finally been opened in all its pedestrianised glory. While it is still in my mind, I should like first to respond to my hon. Friend's last point: I will try to ensure that I, or another Minister, will get a message to the conference on Friday to show our support for this endeavour.

I have to say that I have known my hon. Friend for a long time, and I have never heard him whinge or moan. When we are talking about the supposed lack of progress, or otherwise, on a particular policy, that would be a clear and legitimate reason for complaint, but I have not heard any whingeing or moaning. I denounce as silly those people who see this debate or any serious discussion about walking as some latter-day manifestation of John Cleese and the ministry for silly walks, because walking as a key means of transport is an important subject. Therefore, to those who say that it is Pythonesque, I say that such a comment says far more about them and their stupidity than it does about a very important matter.

I would gently part company with my hon. Friend on the comment that the Department for Transport sat on the document for 12 months while nothing much happened. The Government are wedded and committed to a comprehensive walking strategy but want that strategy to be, precisely as I said, comprehensive. The document may have been with the Department, but to do the job properly and achieve a detailed walking strategy, the work by its very nature must cross Departments. That is what has happened in the past 12 months.

My hon. Friend will know that more than 700 people attended 11 seminars on the matter between June and November last year. Those meetings inform much of what is in the discussion paper "On the move: by foot", which is not feeble or a mouse of a document. That is what has been happening to develop the specifics of the strategy, but he will know—I certainly do, not least because I was parry to much of it in a previous incarnation—that much has gone on across Departments to set the groundwork for proper development and improvement of the lot of pedestrians and walkers. One thinks particularly of the Government's liveability agenda, with which I had much to do in my previous position.

There have been discussions with the Department of Health on objectives for improving health, preventing disease and increasing physical activity among disadvantaged groups; with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Home Office to ensure measures to improve personal security; and with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which has developed policies to improve the quality of urban walking routes for tourists and to promote Britain as a destination for those who enjoy walking. In addition, the Departments for Education and Skills and for Transport have been working to improve the safety and sociability of journeys to school, many of which should be by foot rather than by road, thereby cutting out congestion caused by the school run. My hon. Friend was entirely right to mention urban regeneration, social inclusion and other dimensions of the subject.

We believe that issuing a single document that addresses current barriers to walking and sets out all the relevant policies and initiatives to help to get them over will greatly assist all those who seek to improve the quality of the local environment and to promote a greater willingness to walk more. We want to ensure that the walking strategy that emerges fully reflects much of the cross-governmental work, not least the ODPM's liveability agenda. The discussion paper complements many of the aims and initiatives of that agenda, and people travelling on foot will benefit from the substantial funding that the Government have committed to improving the quality of local communities and public spaces Surely, it is not sufficient to exhort and encourage people to walk more often if they have to walk through battle zones or areas that are entirely pedestrian-unfriendly, whether urban or rural.

My hon. Friend asked about a national walking target—or perhaps he did not, but I shall discuss it anyway. There are two reasons why the Government remain of the opinion that there is no need to adopt national targets. First, we consider it difficult to relate them to everyday life—for example, walking 250 miles per person per year. Secondly, our aim is to improve conditions. We want people to decide for themselves whether to take advantage of the improvements. As was underlined by much of what my hon. Friend said, at present people do not have that choice. We must address the problems if an area is a battleground, if it is a real hardship simply to walk to the local shops or school or if physical barriers put people off walking.

We are finalising arrangements with Transport for London, the London Walking Forum, Living Streets and the Centre for Alternative and Sustainable Transport to fund and develop the partnership website for walking, which will provide comprehensive information on walking, including news on publications, conferences and training, good practice, job opportunities, and a forum for advice and an exchange of views. It will target mainly practitioners but also provide a valuable resource for the public.

Andrew Bennett


Mr. McNulty

Imminently, I am told, or very shortly. We would prefer to see how the website evolves before making a commitment to national or regional forums. My predecessors met representatives of the walking lobby at regular intervals to discuss this and other matters and I am more than happy to continue to do so.

On funding, the substantial increase in investment made available to local authorities through the Government's 10-year plan will enable a major expansion of schemes to make conditions easier and safer for pedestrians. All local traffic authorities have been asked to develop a local walking strategy as part of their local transport plans, which should identify gaps in the local infrastructure and improvements needed in footway networks.

In the first LTP annual progress reports, many authorities identified progress on providing more pedestrian routes and improving safety and integration with other transport modes. Over the five-year period of the first LTPs, local authorities estimate they will deliver 650 km of improved footways, walking routes and pedestrianisation schemes, and 91 km of new footways or footway improvements were established by local authorities in 2000-01. I am keen to ensure that what local authorities say they will deliver by means of the local transport plans is actually put in place. I am equally keen to work with colleagues across the Government to ensure the integration of the other elements that feed into the process. It does not always mean a lot of money, as my hon. Friend suggested, but care and thought, for example about the design of street furniture, traffic signage and so on, to improve conditions and fundamentals such as the friendliness of walking in urban streets and townscapes.

We will work closely with the Department of Health. The discussion paper emphasises the benefits of regular walking for improving personal health and fitness. Evidence of its effectiveness in improving general health and preventing disease is compelling, as my hon. Friend said. Walking is the easiest way to meet the recommended half hour of exercise each day. Last year, the Department supported a series of regional seminars for transport and health professionals on the health and environmental benefits of walking. As an aside, I say that eggs and bacon are part of the Atkins diet, which is working very well for me. All I need to do now is to take exercise too and I shall be the fitter for it.

In respect of road safety and traffic management, walking close to fast traffic can be a frightening and unpleasant experience as well as being potentially dangerous. Many of the measures that are needed to improve the quality and convenience of the walking environment should also have a positive effect on improving safety. Conversely, in order to get more people walking, roads and footways must be made safer and more welcoming.

It is a constant battle, but we must recognise that there should be a better balance between the needs of pedestrians and those of vehicles, which the future design, construction and management of roads must reflect. We plan revised guidance on measures such as reduced traffic flows, lower driving speeds and road space allocation, which can all play a part in improving conditions for pedestrians. Our discussion paper seeks views on what works and what does not.

My hon. Friend may well be right to say that the answers to much of what is in the document are apparent. However, we need to discuss matters one more time with key groups and individuals to ensure that we have things right and that our role at the Department for Transport dovetails with the extensive work being done by Departments across the piece.

Andrew Bennett

I am not very happy about the extra consultation. When will it be over? When will a national walking strategy be published?

Mr. McNulty

I cannot give my hon. Friend specific dates, but given where it starts from, the previous documents and the work done throughout Government in the past year, I hope that this round of consultation will be swift and that a better and more comprehensive strategy will emerge more quickly because of it. If, subsequent to this debate, I can respond with greater clarity, I shall write to him.

My hon. Friend made an important point about land-use planning and the planning system, which I spent much time dealing with last year. Our discussion paper emphasises the importance of good planning and urban design. It takes account of the latest policy developments.

Planning policy guidance note 13 on transport seeks to ensure that new developments and basic facilities are within easy walking distance, and that development patterns encourage walking. PPG6 on town centres and retail developments advises on the location of retail and leisure facilities, and workplaces in town centres. PPG3 on housing gives guidance on increasing housing density, so that access to shops and other services is easier. Those guidance notes are being reviewed in detail by the ODPM.

Over the past four months since the publication of "Sustainable Communities: Building for the Future" on 5 February, we have increased the profile of public realm, public space and liveability. They are crucial to enhancing the conditions in which pedestrians and walkers must operate. We are aware that successful and sustainable communities are those that are characterised by clean, safe, attractive streets, parks and open spaces—areas where people want to live, work, play and walk. My hon. Friend will know that the ODPM has committed £201 million over three years to improve the quality of parks and public spaces. That will include a new liveability fund to replace some of the resources that local authorities have lost over the past few years, details of which are in the "Living Places" report that the ODPM published last November.

Several schemes under the public space and liveability heading are of real concern to those interested in walking.

Following on from my hon. Friend's exhortation about speaking to other Ministers, there is an intergovernmental group on public spaces, as part of the living places initiative. It broadly encompasses many themes in respect of public realm parks and open spaces and will recapture much of the urban realm for those who want to walk. The group meets for the first time on Monday. It will draw in a range of different Departments to which he alluded. There are some excellent schemes in the liveability pot, not least a new unit, CABE Space—the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment—which will deal specifically with the public realm and environmental issues. It was launched on 12 May—by me, I hasten to add.

The sum of £30 million has been committed to a community enablers scheme entitled "Living Spaces". It was launched on 29 May—again by me, but in a previous incarnation. Groups such as the friends of parks and open spaces can place bids from £1,000 to £100,00 to regenerate, recapture and reinvigorate public spaces. That is important for walkers because, given its present state, the public realm—a cemetery, a space of some description or a park—may inhibit walkers. We are keen to see how the "Living Spaces" programme unfolds. It will be headed by Groundwork and the ODPM. It will mean that many of the pedestrian walkways that are currently degraded will be brought back into the public realm, and thus back into use by walkers.

We are serious about developing a walking strategy. As I have outlined, we want it to he key and central to all that we do. I hope that people take the discussion paper and the truncated consultation period seriously, so that we can all work together in partnership to ensure a walking strategy that is needed and desired for the betterment in health of everyone in the country.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.

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