Thursday, 16 June 2011

Conflicts of interest and conflicts of policy

Recently I spoke to someone who I thought might be in the LCC. The person in question confirmed that they had been in the LCC, but, since they were now working as a transport planner for a London borough, had left, as it could be construed as a "conflict of interest". I have been turning this small point over in my mind. The borough in question has a policy to increase cycling. Explicitly, it's in their transport plan. LCC's objective is to increase cycling. So how can there be a conflict of interest? Where can the conflict arise? Would it be a "conflict of interest" for a local authority transport planner to be a member of the AA, or of the CTC, or of Living Streets, the pedestrians' lobby group, or a public transport users' group, or, indeed, a local residents' association? If a transport planner is working for a council that is actually trying to make things better for cyclists and boost cycling, doesn't it positively make sense for them to be in an organisation where they will get a better idea of what cyclists are saying and demanding? Does it necessarily alter their professional objectivity and independence? They could, after all, be reading all the cycling blogs, like this one, which nobody would know they were doing, and which, in general, reflect more strident views than LCC does. There is something odd about this, but I can't quite pin it down.

Quite disconnectedly, I came across a section of The Guardian for Wednesday (I didn't buy it). This is 4  broadsheet pages devoted to the question of "What can the UK do about growing traffic congestion?" "Produced in association with TomTom" (suppliers of traffic information/satnav systems), and containing a half-page ad for them, plus numerous mentions in the text, this supplement contained not one mention of cycling or walking, and few of public transport. Surprise, surprise, the methods of dealing with congestion that were being focussed on were, apart from the suggestion of road pricing, all concerned with high-tech traffic information management  using the kind of technology TomTom supplies. And the focus of the road-pricing discussions were not really on reducing motor traffic, but rather, on using pricing as a mechanism to distribute it more efficiently.

In this supplement is a column written by Conservative transport minister Mike Penning. He writes:
The government recognises the importance of addressing the environmental impact of road use. But, rather than drive the motorist out of the car, we want to drive the carbon out of the car. We are making that areality with measures to support the purchase and use of ultra-low carbon vehicles, like our Plug-in Car grant and Plugged-in Places scheme.
So, there you have it. The government does not have a policy to "drive the motorist out of the car". Which I presume means they have no policy to reduce car use. It doesn't mean they have a policy to increase car use, or to allow car use to increase, but one would have to ask the minister about that. Clearly no policy to reduce car use, only to de-carbonise the car. I am sure I don't have to explain to anybody who knows any science at all what the problem is here: that, if he is talking about electric vehicles, as he seems to be, the carbon issue is not dealt with, but merely transferred back to the power station stage. So unless a huge increase in nuclear generation is being proposed, and I haven't heard the government saying that since Fukushima, how does this help with CO2? It doesn't, but nevertheless the we are heading for a huge expenditure (I don't use the word investment) in on-street electric vehicle charging points: money that could have been used to provide safe cycle infrastructure.

Penning's background, according to Wikipedia, is in the army, as a firefighter, in business, and in political journalism. So not a scientist, then. He was in the past associated with the far-right anti-EU Tories who had the whip taken away by John Major. So, also, not a person likely to be influenced by how they sort transport in continental Europe.

I have long believed it a serious problem with Britain's democracy in this science and technology dominated world, where a fair level of scientific understanding is necessary to appreciate many of the most important issues, pre-eminently, global warming, that so many of our MPs are drawn from the professions of the law and journalism, and so few are scientists or have degree-level scientific training. Anyway, whenever you hear this government make any pronouncements on the environment, transport, cycling, or walking, bear this key fact in mind: they have no policy to reduce car use.

Conflicts of interest, conflicts of policy. As Enrique Peñalosa, former Mayor of Bogotá, said in a talk recently in London,  "Choosing between a city friendly to people or a city friendly to cars is a conflict". Perhaps what's wrong in the case of the person who feels there is a conflict between membership of a cycling organisation and being a publicly-employed transport planner, is that it really is a conflict, because the government really doesn't believe in reducing the role of the car in our country – and that leaves no room increasing the role of the bike.

1 comment:

  1. Politicians of all parties seem to be paralysed by fear of offending the motorist. They are not afraid of telling John Smith "I'm sorry Mr Smith, but we can't make your residential street safe for your kids to play in because that would require blocking through traffic/we can't make your walk from the station to the office safer and more pleasant and quicker because we can't slow down traffic with speed limits, or make them wait longer at the lights/you're just going to have to put up with that asthma because we can't do anything about the PM10s and NOX being churned out along that road/we can't give you alternatives like cycling because we can't tell car users that they need to find alternative ways of travel or not travel at all so we can make more room for you (tick whichever applies)". But they ARE afraid of telling John Smith "Sorry Mr Smith but you're going to have to stop using that rat-run to work because there are kids playing down there/you need to slow down, and wait longer at the traffic lights, so that pedestrians can move about safely and conveniently on this city street/you're going to have to buy a smaller car to cut emissions/you're going to have to find an alternative mode of transport because we need to make space for more useful/more efficient use of road space". Of course the two John Smiths are the same person. Can they not say "you know how it is, but just as you affect other kids/pedestrians etc, other drivers affect your kids/you"? It sounds like a no-brainer but of course it is not the Smith of this world that they are really worried about, it is the Fords, and Vauxhalls, and Renaults etc they are afraid oif offending, because they have money, and clout, and big advertising and lobbying budgets. One day we will have that watershed moment which came with Big Tobacco, and people simply can't hide the damage any longer, but until then we are going to get fed eye-catching techno-babble crap about electric cars which don't pollute your street because it is some other poor sod who lives next to the nuclear reactor or the big coal-burner, and anyway if he lives there he must be poor so he doesn't count, but don't now and almost certainly never will compete with the internal combustion engine on power, speed and most of all on range.

    Personally, I think we should be fighting against electric car privileges like plug-in car parking, subsidies and reduced VED/congestion charge, just as much as we fight for more cycle provision.