Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Cycling England is dead; long live cycling in England

A delayed posting of the link to my second story for Guardian Environment. 28 March 2011. Cycling England has been abolished and the Department for the Environment says it will take the work in house and promote sustainable transport using a new £560m Local Sustainable Transport Fund (LSTF). But sustainable transport lobbyists say the "localism agenda" may derail attempts by government to achieve "modal shift towards sustainable transport". After all, not all local authorities want sustainable transport - the Tory administration in Brighton and Hove declared in January that it wants to repeal moves in that direction.

Link to Guardian story, with comments, here

My story was subbed to fit the Guardian word count. My original story is below:

Cycling in England after Cycling England is abolished
1590 words
By Russell Honeyman

22 March 2011. On March 31, Cycling England will be no more, and critics fear its successor will be unable to achieve modal shift toward sustainable transport because it is crippled by the “localisation agenda”.

To all intents and purposes, Cycling England is dead already. The “Non Governmental Public Body” that was supposed to get “more people cycling, more safely, more often” in England has been abolished as part of coalition government reforms to “increase accountability, deliver smaller government and improve efficiency”.

The Department for Transport (DfT) will bring key functions of Cycling England in-house. It says the work can be done better within the Department through the mechanism of a £560m Local Sustainable Transport Fund (LSTF).

Secretary of State Norman Baker launched of the LSTF in an online video describing his vision for “modal shift to sustainable transport”. Electric cars and long distance rail travel will help reduce carbon and yield health and environmental benefits. Physical inactivity and poor air quality cost the state scores of billions a year, while walking and cycling improves high street turnover by 10-15%. Congestion, he said costs us £11bn a year.

Mr Baker praised Cycling England’s Demonstration towns. Over £160million in government funds to 18 towns and cities over 6 years saw increases of 27% in cycling, and doubled the number of children cycling to school. During this time cycling was on a general decline in the rest of the UK.

But Mr Baker wants an end to “the top down approach”. He wants to hand power back to local authorities, alongside decentralised economic power, regional growth funds and Local Enterprise Partnerships. He wants to move away from specific grants to local, customised solutions.

Hence, he abolished Cycling England, and in its stead, set up the Local Sustainable Transport Fund (LSTF). He envisages local authorities working in partnership with voluntary sector, community and business to put forward proposals for grant funding from the scheme. The first round will be in April 2011.

That’s just over a week a away.

Sustainable Transport charity Sustrans' Policy Manager Jason Torrance broadly welcomed the LSTF. But today, he warned: “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.”

Mr Torrance is sanguine about the demise of Cycling England: “We don’t have a funding environment that has £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.” (more>>>)
Things aren’t quite as rosy for cycling in England as Cycling England’s reports make them seem. A 27% increase is not much when you consider 1-2% of trips are made by cycle in the UK compared with up to 33% in the Utrecht, Netherlands. Bristol 's Cycling City experiment has been declared a failure because its target of doubling cycling wasn’t met.

I asked Torrance what was needed in the UK.

“Sustrans’ Quality Streets campaign 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.”

During its short life, Cycling England did reverse the UK trend. It provided extensive guidance and evaluation to Local Authorities. I wondered if we could achieve modal shift without this. I tried to talk with a board member of Cycling England, but a spokesperson said it would be “highly inappropriate to comment since they were being abolished”.

I asked the DfT about life after Cycling England. The DfT does not have a defined department to deal with these queries, but a nice spokesperson in the Press Office offered to help me. She said there would be no infrastructure or policy unit to offer guidance for Local Authorities under the LSTF. Instead, the Department issued guidance notes, held a programme of workshops with authorities and issued a FAQ sheet. She said the DFT has a “cycle and sustainable travel team in place” but declined to put me in contact or give me details of who has been appointed to the team.

“However,” the spokesperson said, “it is local authorities and their delivery partners who have the practical experience and expertise of delivering successful sustainable transport projects on the ground.”

I worried about this faith in Local Authorities, especially in view of Brighton and Hove Conservative Party’s January effort to repeal the city's commitment to modal shift in sustainable transport. They have minority control of the city council, and were only defeated by a combined Labour-Green vote. The following month, Tory Council Leader Mary Mears asserted that the council would not have to repay Cycling England grants if they demolished cycle lanes paid for by the grants because "the quango is about to be abolished".

That’s not true of course. The DfT spokesperson confirmed Cycling England grants will be audited, or “evaluated” to use their preferred term, by teams set up by Cycling England and contracted to the DfT. The evaluation is funded by DfT and conducted by Sustrans and AECOM and continues throughout 2010/11 into 2011/12.

But evaluations might not be so detailed in future. DfT’s LSTF FAQ sheet says: "We do not wish to make the evaluation process onerous."

The spokesperson said: “We are starting to think of how we evaluate the Fund in line with its two core objectives of supporting economic growth and reducing carbon emissions. As stated in the FAQs, this is in early stages as we do not know what bids we will receive. Auditing will be carried out in line with DfT’s standard procedures.”

Sustrans welcomes LSTF, but warns against localisation
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.

Jason Torrance surprised me by telling me 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? 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. 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.”

“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.

Some innovations introduced by Cycling England will not be interred with its corpse. Bikeability cycle training programme will continue, and there is also the expert panel the DfT is setting up an “on wider sustainable travel that would promote cycling as part of the wider green agenda”. One wonders what will happen if the DfT does succeed in getting hundreds of thousands of schoolkids on their bicycle, before it has constructed the kind of segregated cycle freeways you find on the continent.

The Cycling England website will close at the end of March, alongside the body corporate. There are masses of research on it, not least the surveys which reveal the reason most ordinary Britons won’t cycle on our road: cold fear of the British traffic. The DfT says it will transfer the Cycling England web resources to a new website. But I reckon download what you want now. The journey between worlds has never offered the promise of complete re-incarnation, and the new gods of Transport may have a different idea of what constitutes good reading matter for British cyclists than the old Cycling England.

Norman Baker Video

Quality Streets campaign


“Making a Cycle Town”

The Brighton and Hove Tory motion to repeal Sustainable Transport in the city

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