Cycling Scandal EPILOGUE – How Cockups happen. Do they need to?


No Helmet! Hiring a Bicycle? Take very great care

My writing here is no longer a campaign against cycle lanes and red lines on Gosforth High Street in Newcastle. Hopefully the City Council has shelved its plans. It is not about John Dobson Street in Newcastle. There it is too late. The damage has been done. The Times today headlines its report “Bus lane camera nets £6,000 a day.” The cycle lane alongside it is known locally as “Skateboard alley”. For others, where the folie de grandeur continues, this may not be too late.

It is about cockups generally – how they happen, how they continue even after they are visible for all to see.

In my lifetime, I have witnessed three huge cockups at close quarters one, this one, cycle lanes regardless of the health and safety of cyclists, one the closure of over 100 special schools, some of them very good ones, very damaging for many children with special education needs, and the third “killer foam” with “safe foam” required prematurely before it was safe. Only the last has had a successful conclusion, with good lobbying a part of it. In the other two, the law of highly undesirable, as well as unexpected consequences.

In these two last posts I shall explore who was really responsible..


I have been telling you a horror story over the last 24 posts

Cycle lanes in narrow busy city streets killing or injuring cyclists amid polluted, toxic, carcinogenic fumes, burdening the NHS. Cycle lanes either too narrow for rush hour cyclists and empty the rest of the day or cycle lanes with scarcely any cyclists at all. Intermittent cycle lanes starting nowhere, leading nowhere, in towns and cities, by lakes and dales. Cycle lanes making narrow, twisty roads even narrower, compounding congestion, slowing traffic. Cyclists themselves often writing their own half page Highway Code.

In the 100+ page dossier that I gave to Bindmans LLP where, to my consternation,  their Advice said that the case for judicial review was “unarguable” and “bound to fail”: “The Times recently reported a 43% increase in serious injuries to cyclists in UK in last ten years. The BBC recently reported 22,988 accidents including 80 deaths for cyclists in London in last 5 years with a £m of being spent on known accident blackspots that accounted for only 391 of them.” In Bristol, Britain’s First Cycling City, injuries up over 60% in recent years.

Today’s Times reports under “Air Pollution creates drug-resident drugs” the following: “Tiny particles found in air pollution can significantly worsen infections and make them harder to treat with anti-biotics.” As if our NHS didn’t have enough on their hands.

New continuous, segregated cycle lanes with Zero Vision for accidents full of health seeking, pleasure seeking cyclists. Not easy to find.

At the root of this a policy promoted by Nick Clegg, when deputy PM to “Double number of cyclists by 2020.”

I have been telling you who has designed these cycle lanes round the whole of the UK? Sustrans, the Cycling Charity and Cycling Lobby highly paid to do so. Who killed off complaints about them? The Local Government Ombudsman and the Legal Ombudsman. Who was complicit in that? Bindmans LLP.

That is what my story in 24 posts has been about.

All three had the same characteristics.

  • ·        An over powerful lobby taking over the system.
  • ·        Populist politicians
  • ·        The media demanding quick fix solutions
  • ·        Casualties
    • The higher echelons of the civil service not knowing what they did not know, not seeing any need to know
    •  In the first two cockups, the suppression of dissent and complaint; mine,  others’ too.

I do not criticise lobbying; there will always be lobbyists. They are needed. There are tens of thousands of them. The world is a complex place. The Legislature and the Executive cannot be expected to know its complexities. Lobbyists tell them.

I criticise bad lobbying. The lobbyists peddling, to their own selfish interest to the unfair disadvantage of others, their costly dogmas – the multinational companies that lobby in Brussels against the interests of SMEs – the political lobbyists that are OTT, pursuing their own hobby-cycle, to coin a phrase – the lobbyists who assert their “equal rights”, when others have their rights too, that they deny or pre-empt.

I ask two questions. First, why do bad lobbyists get away with it?  Secondly, in my next post, why are they allowed to continue to do so?

An explosion of cycle numbers in London with increasing numbers killed and injured gave Sustrans its opportunity.

National Stats record that 77,330 people cycled to work in London in 2001. They grew in number to 155,289 in 2011. Inflated property prices – twice that elsewhere. For many in London this makes cycling to work the only cost effective way of getting there. Replicating Copenhagen and Amsterdam in the UK so obvious. Combating obesity, so urgent. Saving the Planet so vital.

So, save lives in London. Promote cycling round the country. Give the job to the experts. Pay them to do it. Pay local authorities to buy in their services. Ah yes, but…

The top echelons of the civil service failed to check out Sustrans’ vision.

  • ·         No market research to see whether one motorist in five would change their car for a bicycle for all their local journeys if only there were cycle lanes for them to ride on?
  • ·        No health and safety checks for cyclists in relation to known pollution with toxic, carcinogenic fumes in town and city centres; congestion made worse by slowing traffic down to 20mps, as Sustrans wanted; pollution made worse by more cyclists increasing the congestion.
  • ·        No health and safety checks for cyclists hiring bikes without wearing helmets?
  • ·        No health and safety checks for more cyclists riding in narrow, hedge lined country lanes

Only an assumption that what was right for London was right everywhere else? Not a proven success in London anyway if you get landed in a gridlock.

They never factored in the human fallibility of lorry drivers, car drivers and the cyclists themselves. “The Fly in the Ointment – if you don’t see it, you can’t swat it.” as I keep saying.

The Civil Service should have warned the politicians. I don’t blame Newcastle. They only did what they were encouraged to do. What they were paid to do. I blame those in London who thought they knew what was best, but wasn’t and isn’t.


The story here is contained in Death of a Nightingale, the play, the book, and my website.

Read the Programme Notes for my play and read how small group of ideologues wanting to homogenise all children in one-size-fits all schools hijacked special educational needs policies.

The Whitehall, especially the Treasury, should have urged the Labour Government of the day not to nod through Commons an amendment to the Education Act passed in the Lords that was opposed at the time by the NUT and disability organisations.

On my website I flag up the shortcomings of Whitehall in all this, notably “the fly in the ointment, If you can’ see it you can’t squat it” not factoring human fallibility.

  • ·        No-one costed the policy.
  • ·        No-one anticipated that it would be necessary to recruit over 100,000 non-teaching classroom assistants to help mainstream teachers cope. Mainstream education is now highly dependent on them. Times Ed 24 February reports “as numbers of children with SEND rocket in mainstream schools and teachers are stretched owing to huge shortages and funding we need TAs to be as effective as possible.” They now number 263,000. They still have no job description and no accreditation. One-to-one teaching is very much more expensive that education in a special school.
  • ·        No-one anticipated that bullying would be a chronic problem blighting the lives of eight out of ten children with special needs, with bullying more worrying to parents than drugs and child abuse.
  • ·        No-one allowed for human fallibility denying children the specialist teaching and caring skills that had been available in special schools.

The senior echelons of the Civil Service should have warned the politicians. The real irony here. The House of Lords supposed to correct errors could originate them.


Now let me tell you how the Civil Service mishandled “Killer Foam”.

Today, when you go to buy a new sofa you will have the reassurance that it won’t burn. A cigarette won’t set it alight. The foam is not “Killer Foam”, and there will be a little label confirming that.

Quite a few years ago, I was chairman of the Merchandise Committee of the National Association of Retail Furnishers NARF when the flammability of furniture was a great political issue. Children burnt to death of house fires. The fire services, very upset, bring out the corpses. Then a great fire in a Woolworths Store in Manchester. Toxic smoke killed many people.

Suddenly a foam manufacturer told the Minister, Sally Oppenheim, that they had found a foam that didn’t burn. “Come and see for yourself”. She did. They applied a flame thrower to their foam and, abracadabra, it didn’t burn. A populist politician – most politicians are populist if they can get away with it, not just Donald Trump – immediately banned “Killer Foam”.

Retailers had still had large stocks and the public had to buy it until the new safe foam could find its way on to the market.

That’s life, you may be thinking. That’s as it should have been.

But they hadn’t cracked the problem!

You could turn a flamethrower on a mound of wax and it wouldn’t burn. A candle needs a wick. Here the cover is the wick. To make the foam safe the cover had to be fire retardant as well. And, in practical terms, some more bad news. The new foam with its fire -retardant additive was hard to sit on and difficult to shape. Whitehall should have checked all this out.

If ever there was a case for lobbying this was it. I still don’t know whether UK manufacturers tried and failed to lobby – not easy when the media was crying out for a solution. I do know that Government acted precipitately, amateurishly, with “an inability to think clearly about whether a proposition being put forward actually corresponded with the facts”. I put these words in quotes because they come from Oliver Letwin, former Minister, quoted in the Times on 24 January in his evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee on the shortcomings of the Civil Service.

Dave Penman, general secretary of FDA, representing 18,000 senior civil servants by way of answer to Oliver Letwin said “What is surprising about Oliver Letwin’s comments is that for a supposedly intelligent man, he fails to see any correlation between the actions of his government and the problems he says he encountered.” He laments cuts in staff numbers and pay freezes. He went on to say “But what is also clear is that his perspective is that of a Whitehall bound Minister, who fails to understand why leadership and management skills are valued and rewarded in an organisation of 350,000 staff delivering complex public services.”

In the light of the above isn’t’ this, to coin a phrase, the pot calling the kettle empty?

Here, at least, the story has a happy ending.

In this situation, NARF lobbied successfully. The Civil Service was receptive. The Government had produced a statutory order to be nodded through Parliament requiring a warning label – a flame symbol – on all upholstered furniture. It was not informative. It was alarmist. My Trade Association said it had not been consulted. The Order was withdrawn to give us an opportunity to submit alternative designs. We found a talented graphic designer in Carlisle. You will see today a different label.

Lobbying worked!

The problem is not fundamentally the lobby. There will always be people with a quick fix solution wanting to solve a complex problem with a soundbite or a TWEET.

The challenge today – on both sides of the Atlantic – is to have a system competent enough to head off the cock-ups before they occur and allow complaints to be an early warning system not suppressing them. More of that happens next time.

Here, very simply, if the coat doesn’t fit, don’t blame the coat. Blame the tailor.

My next post. My last. When the dog does its business on your living room carpet…. I will re-introduce you to my Mandarin, Sir Humphrey Plumbton, and I will tell you why I think that the solicitors in Bindmans LLP missed the Omnibus to Clapham.




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