The need to do something now (or not): cycling safety and energy prices

In politics, issues regularly arise, often whipped up by the media, upon which voters are presented as demanding action. In these cases there is a tension between the urgency to “do something now”, to have something “announceable” that shows the Government or other group is acting on people’s concerns, and the need for long-term solutions to the problem.

On Monday and Tuesday, for example, the House of Commons Transport Select Committee is holding hearings into cycling safety. It’s a hot topic, after six cyclists died on London’s roads in the space of two weeks. It has led to a significant amount of political attention, not least as London’s Mayor Boris Johnson made cycling a priority during his election campaigns. The Committee will hear a lot of different groups arguing for different solutions. On the one hand, some campaigners demand segregated cycle lanes and on the other, people are calling for more safety measures such as turning alarms to be installed on HGVs and other big vehicles.

MPs on the Committee will thus be faced with the choice to do something now, which would be something like truck turning alarms, or do something that solves the underlying problems with the UK’s infrastructure. In the Netherlands, segregated cycle lanes are an integral part of its Sustainable Safety approach to road infrastructure. These reduce the possibilities for accidents by separating vulnerable road users from vehicles that can seriously injure them in an accident. This will take years to be introduced step-by-step in the UK, one section of road at a time. It’s a fundamental change but also one of the few ways to reduce accidents in the long-term. With the effects not seen for many years, MPs may be tempted to opt for HGV turning alarms as that is more concrete and sounds like they’re taken action – despite the fact that they’re unproven and not used in countries with the best safety records for cyclists, such as the Netherlands.

Another example of this tension between action now or action over the long-term is energy bills. The UK’s per unit price for gas and electricity is lower than the European average but our housing stock is one of the worst: draughty and leaky. The Government has tried to tackle this through the Energy Company Obligation (ECO) and the Green Deal, which allows homeowners and businesses to insulate their housing without upfront costs. That’s the long-term solution to high energy bills: reduce the amount we need to heat and light our houses.

However, when the energy companies announced price rises of up to 9% – well above inflation – there was outrage. The Government then felt forced to “do something now”. Rather than making the Green Deal more attractive with lower interest rates or another way to encourage insulation, it announced changes to reduce the cost of green levies like ECO from January. These changes are equivalent to £50 per year (or less than 4%) off the average fuel bill, which stands at around £1,315 for dual-fuel. While this sounds like the Government is taking action, in practice it means that the previously announced rises in bills will simply be lower than originally thought – but bills are still going up.

While in these situations temporary reprieve may be gotten from “doing something now”, failing to tackle the underlying problem can result in the same issue blowing up again in six, twelve, twenty-four months’ time and the Government or group looking like they failed the first time round. So there can be a price to be pay in the long-term for a gain in the short-term. But with us voters demanding immediate action, we don’t make it easy for them to resist that short-term gain.

Henk van Klaveren