Andrew Vine: Tax break for bikes is fast track to healthier nation

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WE need only cast our mind back to that unique and magical summer weekend last year when the world came to Yorkshire, to see an innovative policy millions would vote for.

The weekend was, of course, that of Le Grand Départ when the Tour de France brought the most welcome of invasions, and millions lined the roads to cheer on the cyclists as they sped through town and country.

My suggestion for a policy as part of The Yorkshire’s Post Manifesto for the general election is born of those cheers and the sheer exhilaration of Yorkshire’s people as witnessed by a global television audience of billions.

It is not about party politics, but about the people who bedecked our county in the yellow of the Tour and did so much to show the world what a special place Yorkshire is.

It’s about their children and grandchildren as well, about the lives they live and even the air they breathe.

Any of the parties that win May’s general election – or a coalition of them – could, and should, embrace it because it would build on the legacy of the Tour and do the nation nothing but good.

Let’s get people cycling by giving them a financial incentive to do it. And there’s a very simple, cost-effective way of making that happen – create a tax break for buying a new bike.

In a few days’ time, people across Yorkshire will be scrambling to get their tax returns in to meet the final deadline for this year.

When that same deadline arrives in 2016, their income tax bill could be just that little bit lower because the cost of buying bikes for themselves, their partner or spouse, and their children would be allowable against it.

What better way could there be of getting millions on a bike and out onto the road to enjoy our glorious countryside, or take a spin along the cycle lanes of a city or a rural road, daydreaming for a moment that they were being cheered on by crowds thronging the pavements?

The long-term benefits of promoting a mass movement towards cycling would far outweigh any loss to the Treasury.

Imagine the countless billions that the NHS would save over the decades ahead if whole generations took up cycling as a result of being encouraged to do so at very modest cost to the public purse?

The upswing in general health and fitness would be incalculable, and it could even punch a significant hole in the increasing costs of dealing with the clinically obese.

Less pressure on hospitals, fewer demands on GPs, a reduction in chronic ailments that cause so much misery – a tax break on bikes could become one of those milestone moments in public health to rival the smoking ban or universal vaccination against potentially fatal diseases.

But there would be much more to this than just the hard cash. It could be the catalyst for cultural change that builds on the legacy of Le Grand Départ, one key aim of which was to get more people cycling.

That is already happening in Yorkshire, as increasing numbers discover for themselves the joy of getting on a bike as well as the benefits to their health.

The growth in cycling is strong and steady, already noticeable all over the county. If though, families could get out onto the road on new bikes that effectively cost them nothing, that 
would produce a step-change in the 
way not only Yorkshire, but the country as a whole, viewed cycling.

Riding a bike would potentially become as much a way of life in Britain as it is in Holland, where whole cities of people commute to work on two wheels as well as cycling for pleasure in their leisure time.

Then there are the other benefits that would bring in addition to improving the nation’s fitness – less congested roads and cleaner air, fewer children suffering respiratory problems as a result.

And if we’re back to the hard cash that matters so much to politicians of all persuasions, a tax break would provide a shot in the arm for manufacturers and retailers.

More jobs would be created in making and selling bikes, with a consequent boost to the Treasury from the tax paid by both companies and employees.

Our minds are going to be very much on cycling again in May, when the Tour de Yorkshire lights up the county. The crowds will be out and cheering once more as the riders flash by.

And if any of the political parties who will contest the election just a few days after the Tour have the courage, foresight, and yes, common sense to see the long-term good that a tax break on bikes would bring and act on it, then they would deserve a cheer as well.

Tomorrow: Bernard Ingham.