If last week’s claim from the Department for Transport (DfT) that insurance companies could offer discounts to drivers and motorcyclists who have passed Bikeability training had the impression of something out of Yes, Minister or The Thick of It – thought up in a hurry to grab a few headlines – that’s because it probably was.
To be fair to the DfT, it did largely work, with both the Guardian, Drivers who pass cycle training scheme could get cheaper insurance, and the BBC, Cycling awareness plan could lead to cheaper insurance for drivers, falling for it, to name and shame but two.
At the bottom of the BBC story came the sting in the far-fetched tale: it was never going to fly.
A spokesperson for the Association of British Insurers says: 'We are unaware of this proposal. There have been no discussions between the ABI and the government on any proposals around motor insurance premiums and its Bikeability scheme.’
Twisting the knife, the ABI added: ‘Insurers support improved road safety, but in 2017 less than 0.1% of motor claims involved cyclists, so it is hard to see how this could have any meaningful impact on premiums.’
An e-cargo bike
On the subject of announcements cooked up to get a headline with no prospect of any meaningful impact, there was the one about £2m to support the uptake of e-cargo bikes.
As Transport Network noted at the time, the announcement was made as part of September’s international Zero Emission Vehicle Summit, hosted by the prime minister, but included no details of how the cash will be distributed or how it would achieve its goal of ‘encouraging electric delivery bikes on to our city streets’.
It took a further month for the DfT to clarify that the cash would contribute 20% of the purchase price of new e-cargo bikes, up to a maximum of £1,000 per bike. If they knew this at the time, why didn’t they just say so?
While some headline-grabbing announcements can seem frivolous, others cover weightier matters, some literally concerning life and death. In 2016, the DfT was happy to announce a headline figure of £175m for the Safer Roads Fund but it has been less keen to say what has happened to the £75m left over when the schemes it was meant to fund came in at only £100m
The DfT has also got itself tied up in knots recently over the major road network, with the transport secretary himself muddying the waters through what seems to be a classic desire to make a big announcement at party conference time.
In early October, Mr Grayling said: 'We’re also upgrading the major road network – the next tier down of roads which play such an important part in good regional connections. I can announce the details of the first five schemes which will now start in development.’
And indeed he did. The problem is that the Government had not – and still has not – published the definitive account of what the network would consist of, which somewhat diminishes its 'coherent network' image.
While Yes, Minister gave the world the archetype of civil service manipulation in Sir Humphrey, the Thick of It allowed us to spare some sympathy for the poor civil servants who have to follow behind the ministerial 'announcements'.
It was left to the DfT's director of roads to explain that the department had taken a few old schemes that were by common agreement on the major road network out of the drawer to get things moving.
The official then went on to explain that this was entirely the wrong approach, both for local authorities putting in bids and the DfT itself.
He did however explain that a full announcement on the network was delayed by being stuck in a traffic jam on the grid of government announcements. You can write your own headlines for that one.