George Osborne’s ‘sweetener’ in last week’s budget, the sugar tax, was one of the few times in political history that a tax has been introduced to directly fund a specific government scheme. The announcement could be a game-changer for how cycling infrastructure is funded, writes British Cycling’s campaigns manager Martin Key.
There is no doubt that the sugar tax was one of the stand-out PR announcements that the chancellor made in his latest budget. Taking the idea of levying a tax on one of the major contributing factors to childhood obesity and using the funds to try to tackle it was a revelation and a logic that could easily be applied to cycling infrastructure investment.
The funds raised by the sugar tax will go to schools to be used to top-up the school sport premium, extend the school day and for breakfast clubs.
It is estimated that £520m will flow from the sugar tax. This figure just happens to be fractionally under £10 per head, the amount recommended by cycling advocates for a national investment strategy. Not much when you think that obesity is costing the nation £26 billion every year and air pollution killing 29,000 people per year.
A meaningful cycling investment strategy will begin to tackle these problems and more. However, this logic has sadly not stopped a situation where funding for cycling infrastructure is set to decrease over the coming years.
The tax was a surprising move from a Conservative chancellor but he has a history of this practice. Last year Osborne established a clear link from the money raised from Vehicles Excise Duty (£6 billion per annum) to fund improvements to the strategic road network.
The HGV Levy is another new tax with the aim of ensuring that foreign vehicles pay for the upkeep of roads. HGVs cause the most damage to our roads and junctions due to their size and mass. They also run on diesel so emit high levels of harmful particulates like NO2. HGVs are also involved in over half of cycling fatalities in London and 20% nationwide, despite making up less than 5% of traffic.
It could be argued that a link could be made between the £2 billion raised from HGV VED funds and the HGV Levy to use the funds to help mitigate the danger caused to cyclists from HGVs. The money would help deliver high class cycling networks to increase levels of cycling, keeping people safer and cutting congestion.
This practice already happens in Europe. In Germany there is a clear link between fuel duty and funding local transport, including cycling. The country’s national cycling strategy is in place to increase cycling levels beyond the 10% of journeys it is today and the funds raised from fuel duty means local authorities have access to €1.68 billion per year. Britain’s cycling campaign groups are asking for just a fraction of this amount.
British Cycling's recent YouGov poll showed significant public support for building cycle tracks on main roads, including from motorists. All that is missing is the funds to make this happen. 20p a week is all it would cost each of us to meet the recommended minimum of £10 per person per year to set us on the path that Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands started in the 1970s. How much would you pay? The Dutch spend around 55p a week – surely even that’s possible?
British Cycling will be asking the chancellor to consider creative ways of funding cycling – modelled on what has been done for the sugar tax. The only question is which tax pot to use to raise the cash – as cycling has the power to alleviate many of society’s problems, Osborne might be stumped for choice.