Cycle friendly councils plan to leave UK and join the Netherlands
The move follows frustration from local authority officials and councillors over inflexible regulations and a lack of resources to prioritise cycling from the UK government.
Though not straightforward, seceding from one country and becoming part of another would be legal under international and EU law, with free trade and harmonised legislation making such a move practical.
It's more likely, however, that the local authorities will use the threat as a way to put pressure on central government to give them more flexibility, in the same way that Orkney and Shetland have aired ideas of independence in the past to secure concessions.
The Netherlands is well placed to adopt local authorities as 'exclaves' – areas of territory entirely surrounded by another country - already exist in the extraordinary village of Baarle-Nassau, where individual streets and even buildings are divided between two countries, with some patches of Dutch territory lying within Belgian territory, in turn surrounded by Dutch territory.
The move follows enthusiasm from local authorities for all things Dutch because of that country's enviable record in promoting and building high quality infrastructure for cycling. Over a quarter of all trips are made by bike, far ahead of Britain's measly 2%. Many British cycle campaigners have been seduced by the idea of replicating Dutch infrastructure in Britain, believing it is the one true path to enabling a much wider take-up of cycling, and that transporting the Netherlands to Britain would transform people's choice of transport.
Several outer London boroughs have recently received grants worth £100m to become 'Mini-Hollands'. This itself an implicit acknowledgement of the superiority of Dutch design and lifestyles, and some of the changes will be designed along Dutch principles.
The Dutch also run trains in East Anglia, Merseyside and the north of England through their Abellio brand. That has achieved a creeping 'Dutchification' of transport systems, including opening of Dutch-style cycle parking facilities, called Cyclepoint at Leeds Station and integrated cycle hire at stations in many parts of its networks. Taking over whole local authorities is the next logical step for the Dutch.
It's a real sign of how desperate people have become for space for cycling that whole communities in Britain are prepared to declare independence and Go Dutch. These towns and cities could be perfect demonstrations for how proper, Dutch infrastructure could work in this country and we really hope this becomes a reality. "
CTC Policy Coordinator
The Dutch Embassy has played an active role in promoting cycling in Britain, organising conferences, taking UK policy makers on study tours and sponsoring annual bike rides for politicians.
A spokesperson from the Embassy said, “We've not been formally approached yet, but we'd welcome any local authorities prepared to fully 'Go Dutch' and join the Kingdom of the Netherlands. There won't be any language issues – we are all fluent in English – but they may have to get used to wearing clogs!”
CTC's contact – from a major city in the East of England which doesn't want to be identified – said, “the UK Government's treatment of local authorities is appalling – we still have no dedicated funding for cycling, while basic road markings and signs that have been in use in the Netherlands for decades still aren't permitted here. East Anglia is topographically and culturally close to the Netherlands: they drained our Fens; we both skate on the canals and it is as flat as a poffertje.”
She continued, “if Scotland is considering a referendum on independence, we see no reason why we cannot opt to join a country which is closer in attitude and mobility patterns to us. The coffee shops would also be a considerable draw for British people coming to visit.”
Cambridge is the leading city for cycling in the UK, with over half of people cycling once a week or more and a cycle commuting rate of 30%, rivalling that of many Dutch cities. However, even their new infrastructure is being constructed which falls below the standard that would be expected in Holland, mainly due to poor regulations.
Barriers to entry
One potential barrier is that the Netherlands is part of the Schengen agreement on free movement, whereas Britain remains outside. Border crossings would therefore be required until special dispensation (along the Northern Ireland – Republic of Ireland model) is secured. However, this may be an advantage, as such a crossing would give an opportunity to educate drivers – and cyclists - about how they should behave around cyclists on Dutch territory, such as giving priority at cycle tracks.
In this video, cars carefully check at each junction and give way to cyclists. Although tests have taken place on similar designs in Britain, UK regulations don't currently permit cycle tracks to maintain priority over a road unless they are placed on a humped crossing, with a multitude of extra road markings to establish the priority.
Trials of Dutch infrastructure in this country have found that driver behaviour around cyclists remains a problem. Understanding cyclists' needs may only be resolved through adopting the Dutch traffic codes, legal systems and training procedures, in addition to any infrastructural changes. Culturally, cycling is deeply embedded in Dutch institutions, with schools, businesses and organisational attitudes expecting most people to be cycling for a high proportion of trips. It is hoped that such socio-economic patterns can be replicated in any place that might become Dutch territory.
It's the right way
Driving on the left hand side would also present a bit of a problem, but could be resolved. The new Dutch territories could be switched over to drive on the right hand side, a move that Sweden made in 1967, and which was conducted with the minimum of fuss and fewer crashes, thanks to temporary lower speed limits. However, even in Britain we are used to dealing with this, with many signs outside the ports and remote parts of Scotland regularly reminding drivers of the change in driving side.
There would also, of course, be concerns about people losing their British identity, but becoming Dutch would still mean that the residents would have a King (distantly related to the Queen) and it would be straightforward to operate local commerce based on the pound as well as the Euro.
This would not be the first time the Dutch have taken over parts of Britain - indeed, the Dutch annexed the whole of Britain in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, with the invading army welcomed by many in Britain, though at the time they had fewer bicycles.
Space for Cycling
The proposed secession – though presently a long way from reality - shows how desperate transport officials across the country are to implement Dutch cycling infrastructure in response to the growing demands for protected space for cycling. Attempts to provide good facilities along Dutch lines often fall foul of petty rules and the whim of safety auditors.
CTC, following inspiration from the London Cycling Campaign, is, with campaign groups around the country, rolling out the Space for Cycling campaign nationally. Supporters will be able to challenge their councillors to make space for cycling when the campaign goes live later in the month.