Minister announces consultation on motor sport use of roads and it could benefit cycle races, too

Michael Penning, the Under Secretary of State for Roads and Road Safety, announced in parliament that he’s launching a public consultation on the use of roads for motor sport. The use of public highways for motor sport has been blocked since 1928. While he didn’t mention cycling in his parliamentary answer, the consultation process could result in benefits for organisers of cycle races, who cannot currently stage races on public roads without informing the police, and not all police forces are in favour of cycle races.

Cycle racing on public roads is permitted under the Road Traffic Act (Cycle Racing on Highways Regulations 1960, amended 1980 & 1995) provided that certain conditions are fulfilled, one of which is that notice is given to the police who, if they agree, monitor events to ensure that safety is maintained for both the participants and other road users. Such policing costs, and has been getting more expensive year by year.

Technically, cycle racing on public roads does not excuse racers from adhering to the Highway Code or obeying the requirements of Road Traffic legislation: so, no going through red lights.

It’s these sort of restrictions that also hampers motor racing on British roads (cynics would say motor racing is already endemic on british roads). The Motor Sports Association has lobbied for many years to relax the rules on racing on roads. And last year British Cycling launched its ‘Keep Cycle Racing on the Roads’ campaign, which you can ‘like’ on this Facebook page.

Closing roads is an emotive subject. When cycle events such as Etape Caledonia, a Scottish ‘sportive’, not a race, close public roads for a few hours, some NIMBY objectors say their human rights are breached because they can’t drive to church.

The law, as it stands, effectively stops motor races being held on public roads in England, Wales and Scotland because an Act of Parliament is needed – at a huge cost – for one to be allowed, such as the former series of Birmingham F3000 city centre races.

Last year Conservative MP Ben Wallace set up an all-party parliamentary group on motor sport, with the backing of the Motor Sports Association. He said the Coalition Government is “determined” to scrap the ban on motor sport using public highways. He said the challenge was to convert the millions of people who watch Top Gear into political power.

Yesterday, in parliament, Wallace, the MP for Hemel Hempstead, secured a debate on his idea.

“What is wrong with motor sport?” he asked.

Answering his own question, he said:

“Nothing, except that we could do more for it. We could do more to allow events to take place. The problem in England and Wales is that if we want more events, and more diverse events, to take place, we cannot use the roads and highways in the same way as the Isle of Man or Northern Ireland. To do so would mean suspending numerous provisions of the Road Traffic Act 1988. We have a midway point. Something called a traffic regulation order allows access to a road to be suspended, but the provisions of the Highways Acts still apply. Drivers must still average 30 mph on the area of road closed to the public, and rights of way still exist, meaning that unless a uniformed police officer is there to prevent Mr and Mrs Smith from carrying on their business, no one is empowered to prevent them from using it.”

He added:

“I am not here to ask that motor sport be allowed to impose itself on communities that do not want it or that the Government give power to an unelected governing body to decide that it wants motor sport when the local community does not. I am here to ask the Government to devolve power to local authorities, so that they can decide whether they want to host an event. That could be in Brecon, north Lancashire, where I am, or north Yorkshire-anywhere they want a rally. It is about places with rarely used lanes and roads, which desperately need inward investment, tourism or to kick-start the season, perhaps, at unfashionable times of the year. Let us empower our local authorities to do that.”

Wallace said cycling would benefit from his ideas, too (something ignored by the minister for roads when replying to Wallace):

“A change would apply not only to motor sport, but to cycling. It is bizarre that some stages of the Tour de France could not happen here if the bikes averaged more than 30 miles an hour. One might deliberately create a race on a road and that in itself could break the current highways law. Therefore, a change is also about empowering local authorities to give cycling events a proper go and getting Britain to the forefront of that sport. We need only go out on a Sunday to realise how big cycling has become.”

Wallace believes driving very very fast on public roads will teach responsible driving habits:

“We can teach young men and women to drive responsibly and learn to drive high-speed performance cars, while teaching them that there is a time for racing and a time for driving on a normal road. Perhaps we can divert some of the boy racers away from racing though my village at 2 am and away from tragic accidents, and encourage them to get involved in a motor sport that perhaps becomes more affordable and accessible to a lot of them.”

Answering Wallace, roads minister Mike Penning (a motor sports fan who stays up late to watch international F1 races and who goes on jollies to overseas motor sport races) said:

“We are trying to empower local communities, not just councils, so that they can say to their council, “Look, we would like to have some sort of event in our patch next year or next week.” It is not all about having Formula 1. That event took place in Birmingham and it had to go through a complicated process, because every time such an event is proposed, an Act of Parliament has to be passed to allow it to proceed. That may have been right and proper in 1928-although I doubt it-but it certainly is not right in 2011.

“The Motor Sports Association is not proposing that our streets are closed down every weekend in every town, but we have to make sure that there is confidence out there that that will not happen.”

He then revealed he wants to amend current legislation regarding motor racing on UK roads:

“I am today announcing a public consultation on how we will amend the legislation in which we want as many people as possible to participate, so that we can establish how we can deregulate the matter from central Government bureaucratic control, while ensuring that local communities do not have such things imposed on them. We are in a very exciting situation. The consultation, which will last for three months, will proceed from today, and I hope that many different people from across the motor sport and other racing industries come forward with innovative ideas.”

His statement in parliament contained nothing about the inclusion of cycle racing in the three month consultation.

Showing his ignorance of how roads are funded, Penning went on to say:

“We also need to ensure that the motorist, who predominantly pays for our roads, is not inconvenienced too much.”

Since 1937, roads have been paid for out of general and local taxation, and not by motorists directly.

Penning, the roads safety minister, also joined Wallace in believing motor racing on UK roads will be a good thing for road safety:

“One of the reasons why the younger chaps in my constituency tell me that they are always out and about in their go-faster cars is that they do not feel that they have an outlet. I am not saying that they are bad guys-they are not. They are just frustrated.”

Regarding those “frustrated” motorists, Penning said his consultation would be a “very popular measure throughout the country.” Pre-empting the results of the consultation, he added: “I hope that we can introduce the legislation that will enable local authorities to exercise those controls.”

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