Grant Shapps’ bike licence plates proposal ‘a strange and pointless idea’

<span>Photograph: Scott Hortop Travel/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Scott Hortop Travel/Alamy

Transport groups and opposition parties have reacted with bafflement to a proposal by Grant Shapps to look at mandatory insurance and registration for cyclists, something previously rejected by the Department for Transport (DfT) as impractical and counter-productive.

In an interview with the Daily Mail that appeared to surprise his own officials, the transport secretary said he “absolutely” wanted to extend speed limits to cyclists, adding: “I see no reason why cyclists should break the road laws and be able to get away with it.”

He added: “That obviously does then lead you into the question of, well, how are you going to recognise the cyclist, do you need registration plates and insurance and that sort of thing? So I’m proposing there should be a review of insurance and how you actually track cyclists who do break the laws.”

Related: North Korea – a model for Grant Shapps’ bicycle licence plate proposal?

The Mail said this was a reference to possible number plates or other identification for bikes. Wera Hobhouse, the Lib Dems’ spokesperson on transport, condemned what she called a “strange and pointless idea [that] would pile extra costs on to people who are trying to be more active”.

The DfT did not dispute that this was what Shapps meant, but said there was no plan in place and it would be a matter for whoever was transport secretary under the new prime minister.

Somewhat confusingly, in a separate interview with the Times, Shapps said he was “not attracted to the bureaucracy of registration plates”, adding: “That would go too far.”

Mandatory registration for cyclists is almost unknown in any country, and is widely seen as difficult to enforce and bringing no net benefit given the relatively little danger that cyclists pose to others, and the probable impact of such bureaucracy on levels of cycling.

The official DfT line, as explained by the junior transport minister Charlotte Vere in a parliamentary answer last year, is that the costs of registration “would outweigh the benefits, and this would deter many people from cycling”.

Edmund King, the AA president, said: “It is in the interests of all road users, and indeed our environment, that as a society we encourage more use of active travel, such as walking and cycling, and also the transition to zero emission vehicles.

“Introducing more barriers to slow the take-up of safe cycling would be a retrograde step. What we really need is better infrastructure for cycling so that some of the present-day issues on the roads are removed.”

Labour’s shadow transport minister, Gill Furniss said: “This absurd and unworkable plan would create a mountain of bureaucracy for cyclists, and force people away from active travel. Buses are in crisis, rail services are being slashed, fares and fuel are soaring – and the transport secretary’s big idea is to slap number plates on tens of million of bicycles.”

Hobhouse said: “This would be another blow to those struggling to afford transport costs, especially with fuel prices spiralling and rail fares set to rise by a record amount. Registration plates also risk more bureaucracy for people who simply want to teach their child to ride a bike, or frankly just get to work.”

Matt Edwards, the Greens’ transport spokesperson, said registration would be “an expensive folly that would be impossible to administer”. He said: “Most road traffic accidents in the UK, especially those with fatalities, are caused by reckless car drivers, not cyclists. The anti-cycling narrative this government is pushing is actually making things far more dangerous for cyclists.”

Duncan Dollimore, head of campaigns for Cycling UK, said the plans were “impractical and unworkable, and have been repeatedly dismissed by successive governments. They’re also a complete U-turn on current government policy. “Every country which has tried to implement such ideas have soon realised their costly mistake.”

Simon Munk, the campaigns manager for the London Cycling Campaign, said many experts, including those in the DfT, had rejected the idea of registration.

He said: “Shapps seems to be playing to a tabloid audience in attacking cyclists as scofflaws, but it is cars, not cycles, that present the greatest road danger. Being hit by a motor vehicle is the principal cause of death and serious injury to all road users, and survey after survey shows that drivers are more likely to break road rules.”