Chi Onwurah MP’s speech at Newcycling’s 2017 AGM


Photo credit: Peter Wesolowski

“Thank you for the introduction and sorry I was late, delays on the metro, at Jarrow. On Thursday, the day before yesterday, I asked the Undersecretary of State for Transport, I said to him on Saturday I’m going to speak at the Newcastle Cycling Campaign Annual General Meeting, what can I tell the people there about what the government are doing to bring the benefits of cycling to everyone when studies show that the average cyclist is male, white, middle class, under 40, and clad in lycra. Andrew Jones replied “The honourable lady is absolutely right, cycling needs to broaden its range. Part of the plan we will announce shortly, will be to help local authorities to set up their own Local Cycling and Walking Investment Plans, which will include broadening the range of potential cyclists.”


What I didn’t say in that question, because you’re only allowed a certain amount of time and it is not about yourself, is that I’m a returning cyclist and I use the present continuous tense. After 20 years of not cycling – when I lived in Paris I cycled – I went back to the bike, about three years ago, I started with the help of Newcycling. I have to say that I’m very grateful to NewCycling for their help in terms of making it feel safer. I’ll talk a bit more about that later. Also with the help of Marion Talbot who gave me a huge amount of personal support and advice.

I do have a different perspective since I took up cycling again. It’s great, when I arrive at constituency events, on my cycle, like I went door knocking last week end on a cycle. People are both very pleased and very surprised that I am on a bike. They think they must have been some kind of mistake. And I think that is representative of the challenge; people are pleased that they have got an MP who cycles now and then but they are also surprised because it is a rarity. And the issue about the diversity of cycling, I caught some of the debate you were having about the campaign and the issue about the diversity of cycling and cyclists. I got my cycling proficiency badge aged 10 at Hillsview Primary School in North Kenton where we had a cycling test there. That was at a time when cycling was seen as freedom for the working class, as mobility for the working class. I have an older friend of my mum who is now 90, she was a great cyclist in the forties, that was part of the ability to be in control of your own transport, destiny and that has changed significantly over the decades and I think what we really need to do, what I’d really want to do, is to bring that back.

Photo Credit: Paul Adams

I call myself a part time cyclist. As a part time cyclist, I’m really aware of the benefits that I receive, in terms of health, the benefits the city has got in terms of health and time, often getting to and from different events and the benefits the city receives, me now getting out of my 1991 Saab car (very old in terms of its engine), and the economic benefits to the city of having a centre and an environment which is welcoming and supportive of cyclists and pedestrians because people feel safer for themselves and with their children, the environment looks better, you haven’t got lots and lots of lines of traffic. The works that have been done in Fenham really shows that.

But I’m also aware of the challenges. I was in Gateshead for a meeting, that’s where I came from. I didn’t cycle, I’d have liked to cycle, much easier given the delays with the metro but the lack of a decent cycle route across the Tyne without going via the Millennium Bridge and the lack of a decent cycle route in the city centre, I have only just started cycling through the city North of Monument up to the Civic Centre, since John Dobson Street cycleway was created, so we clearly have challenges in the city but the city is doing a lot. I know we have got the highest percentage of councillors supporting the cycling strategy but we have a long way to go to see a real revolution. And, also, I see the cycling revolution as part of a broader revolution around sustainability, around built environment and around the empowerment of citizens in our cities and across our country but particularly in our cities.

We have a long way to go. Newcastle is one of the Core Cities which gets funding together with other cities such as Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds etc and that boosts the national average of cycling funding per head but it’s only £1.50 on average and there are certain areas across the country where it is just £1 or less. The government’s Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy is a year overdue and we have been waiting for a number of years now. Without any vision for the future of our country as a cycling nation I do think that it is a big challenge for a city like Newcastle to be forward looking in implementing it.

And also to overcome some of the community challenges. I was at the Blue House roundabout meeting I organised in August after we first had the proposals. There were challenges there in that so many people felt, when cycling was mentioned, that it was about getting people to cycle, forcing people to cycle, forcing people to give up their car. It’s great for me now that I don’t have to get my car out for short journeys, that I feel confident to be able to make those journeys. It’s been a huge benefit to me but it’s not what got me to start cycling and I think, if you can suggest things that I can do to make that more possible, but I think we need to support and encourage people to feel more confident and safer in cycling, which I know is some of the work you are looking at.

The government’s strategy is very much about infrastructure and we also need to be looking at behaviour and values, the sort of values that are more cycling friendly and more cycling supportive. Ultimately it is about people and communities feeling safer, stronger and more empowered in more sustainable neighbourhoods. I’m quite clear that we cannot go on with the level of growth in car use. We want our cities to reflect people and not to be built around cars. We need to support the psychological wellbeing of people by having environments which are welcoming rather than imposing.

I’m a huge supportive of NewCycling’s aims, I’d really like to work more closely with you and more effectively with you in getting those implemented. We have a lot of work to do with the government. They talk a lot the good talk but in terms of delivery we have got a long way to go. And I’d like to see kids cycling and learning how to cycle in their schools again, why did that stop? Very happy to take questions now.”