Friday, 25 March 2011
Cycling England is dead; new Sustainable Transport Fund undermined by Localism Agenda
On March 31, Cycling England, the “Non Governmental Public Body” that was supposed to get “more people cycling, more safely, more often” in England will be abolished as part of coalition government reforms to “increase accountability, deliver smaller government and improve efficiency”.
The DfT has set up the £560m Local Sustainable Transport Fund to take over its role from 1 April 2011. The LSTF will provide funds, but no guidance to local authorities on the journey to “modal shift” in sustainable transport? Will this be enough to change our present car-bound national profile to one where we use public transport and walk and cycle more? Instead of our sluggish 1-2% of trips by cycle at present, can we in the UK ever hope approach the dashing Dutch figure 27% of trips by bicycle (33% in racy Utrecht)?
I tried to talk with Secretary of State for Transport, Norman Baker. His spokesperson was very helpful, and directed me to an online video of the Minister, where I saw a convincing depiction of the dream of a future UK where transport is sustainable.
But it is going to to be up Local Authorities to deliver the dream. The spokesperson confirmed that no policy or advisory body or department would replace Cycling England. It would be up to local authorities to devise and implement initiatives to persuade people to use sustainable transport.
Yet, as I know from living in Brighton and Hove, local authorities are not all committed to sustainable transport. Anyway, cycling campaigners believe we can’t achieve modal shift without enabling national policies and legislation.
Maybe something is cooking behind the scenes in the DfT that no one is telling me about, some killer policy move that will mark the route to the promised land of sustainable. But it there is, they are not telling me.
I decided to talk to Sustrans. Sustrans was among the vocal critics of Brighton and Hove City council in February when they announced plans to demolish the city’s flagship cycle freeway, paid for by Cycling England money.
I spoke with Jason Torrance, Sustrans' Policy Manager. He surprised me by telling me that the creation of the LSTF arose from an idea first mooted by Sustrans, Campaign for Better Transport and Friends of the Earth – that of a Transport Carbon Reduction Fund. It formed part of both Conservative and Liberal Election Manifestos in last year’s parliamentary elections.
“So you got what you wanted?” I asked.
“Yes and no,” he said. “We got ring fenced funding for Sustainable Transport – which the DfT are to be congratulated for. But we didn’t want less money for Transport overall – but who does?. When we made our original proposition we didn’t know Local Authority Transport funding would be slashed. In England, outside of London it’s 26% lower. Capital and revenue are both reduced, even with the sticking plaster of the LSTF. Spread over all the Local Authorities, the LSTF funding is very small, too small to make any significant difference.
“There is a welcome focus on where the majority of journeys take place – locally. But there is a collision of national government aspirations and localism agenda. The Transport Secretary, Phillip Hammond says on the one hand that the government has prioritised action to tackle climate change but on the other hand he says that local views can be different. Some will deprioritise sustainable transport.
Mr Torrance is sanguine about the demise of Cycling England: “We don’t have a funding environment that has prioritised £140m for a Cycling England. It is now incumbent on the local authorities to use the momentum in a wider sense and move towards integrated transport systems as a part of upcoming Local Transport Plans published at the end of March.”
I asked him whether he felt the DfT could achieve modal shift without a strong body like Cycling England helping guide Local Authorities with policy guidelines set at national level, such as 20 mph and stricter liability.
“It’s a not a problem of the existence or otherwise of Cycling England, it’s problem of the localisation agenda,” he said.
I told Mr Torrance that where I live, in Brighton and Hove, the Local Authority is trying to repeal its commitment to sustainable transport.
“Yes, in the general dialogue there is an alleged war on the motorist. We’ll see more of that around fuel duties. But our inefficient transport system imposes significant costs on our economy. Congestion, air quality, accidents, and physical inactivity each cost our wider economy some £10bn a year. That’s quite a cost. Travel choice has been marginalised and motoring made a necessity.”
The DfT told me they would not set up an infrastructure or policy unit to guide local authorities Local Authorities under the LSTF, and rather, “it is local authorities and their delivery partners who have the practical experience and expertise of delivering successful sustainable transport projects on the ground.”
Mr Torrance replied: “The reality is that we have an ever devolving localised political trend. We need urgent guidance from central government to Local Authorities. That is what will save billions. We have a huge potential to change the way that we make the majority of our journeys and make the step change to four out of five local journeys being made by foot, bike or public transport,
“The localism agenda makes it difficult to have an adequate response to climate change or physical inactivity. We need a national response to a national crisis. Devolving responsibility to Local Authorities to interpret or in their own way prioritise as they see fit is not necessarily a recipe for success. Phillip Hammond quotes national policy as giving over-riding commitment to localism – the reality is that this may well end up undermining the government’s very own strategy.”
Do you think we need 20 mph limits and stricter liability?
“Sustrans’ Quality Streets campaign (www.quality-streets.org.uk) has brought a coalition of organisations together to push for the critical enabling environment for cycling – low motor traffic speeds via a 20mph default in all residential areas. We are pushing for additional guidance to encourage local authorities. But being a tempered political realist that’s not going to happen on a national level. It is happening due to local decisions in some places, parts of London and Portsmouth for example. But there’s no coherent road safety strategy in this country. The localism agenda precludes national strategy guidelines. We are lagging behind many parts of Europe and our economy is suffering. If we wanted to achieve that modal shift - that 2% of trips that are currently made by bike transformed into the around 27% happens in the Netherlands - we would need real focus and real direction from government.”
From your relationship with government, do you believe the structures being proposed by the DfT will enable modal shift toward sustainable transport?
“My wife says I’m a relentless optimist. But my optimism is getting stretched very thinly indeed. We have small steps where giant leaps are required.”