A few years ago David Cameron promised a cycling revolution but, as is becoming a recurring theme with this Government, he is yet to deliver on that promise. Far from a revolution, it’s been business as usual. That means funding has been abruptly stopped, started, and then discarded altogether. Even when money has been allocated to cycling, it’s been decidedly short-term in vision and haphazardly split between multiple disconnected initiatives, leading to a lack of clarity around sources and overall strategy. It’s been difficult to make heads or tails of the piecemeal announcements of so-called cash injections and local schemes and the empty words. But if the Government thinks it can evade scrutiny through incomprehension, they’re wrong. Because some things couldn’t be clearer.
For starters, in 2011 the Government made the decision to abolish Cycling England, an independent, non-departmental public body with a budget of £60 million per year. Cycling England had been tasked with “working to get more people cycling, more safely, more often.” Axing Cycling England and then two years later pledging to revolutionise cycling is symptomatic of wider inconsistencies: whether about-turning on feed-in tariffs, proposing illogical housing policy, or lifting Labour’s reregulation ideas, one theme is overarching in this Government’s actions and that’s chaos.
The Conservatives promised in their manifesto before the General Election to “reduce the number of cyclists and other road users killed or injured on our roads every year.” It’s hard to see how they plan to achieve that if they can’t even be bothered to set national road safety targets. In fact, the key factor preventing people from getting on their bikes is safety, especially among women and older people. A whopping two-thirds of non-cyclists and half of all cyclists say that it is too dangerous for them to cycle on the road. That’s just unacceptable. Labour wants to see cycling a safe, accessible mode of transport for all – whatever a person’s age or gender.
Last year a successful cross-party campaign with cycling organisations forced the Government to include a Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy for England within the Infrastructure Act. That means funding for cycling should now be allocated on the same basis as money for the Strategic Roads Network – finally putting cyclists and motorists on even footing. This part of the Act came into force in July, and the Government has already published its Roads Investment Strategy. The Roads Investment Strategy runs from 2015-2021 and contains a strategic vision, timeline, statement of funds, infrastructure plan and performance specification. Yet the long-promised Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy has failed to materialise and is apparently now delayed until the spring, when they will begin ‘consulting’ on it. This isn’t walking pace, it’s a snail’s pace, and tells us that the Government simply isn’t serious. Furthermore, the Infrastructure Act specifies that if a Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy is not currently in place, the Secretary of State for Transport must ‘lay before Parliament a report explaining why a Strategy has not been set.’ So where is the explanation for the hold-up?
In their Cycling Delivery Plan, the Government wrote of their ‘aspiration’ to increase levels of cycling funding to the equivalent of £10 per person per year. The word ‘aspiration’ is bandied about a lot in politics, to the point where it seems to have lost its meaning. In this case, it certainly seems to be meaningless as the Government are no closer to realising this funding ambition. The Local Sustainable Transport Fund, 29 per cent of which was spent on cycling in 2013/14, came to an end in March 2015. Furthermore the ‘competition’ based approach to funding has resulted in fragmented results for different areas. Just as we’ve seen with buses, there’s regional disparity across the country. Cycling still only accounts for 2 per cent of all journeys, but in my constituency of Cambridge 29 per cent of all journeys to work were made by bike in 2011. To lift cycling in other areas, and support still further in areas doing well, we need to see national, ambitious targets and an annual pot of money specifically reserved for cycling.
There are huge transport and health benefits that encouraging cycling would tap into. More people cycling is good for public health, it’s good for reducing congestion, and it’s good for improving road safety. But the Government needs to put its money where its mouth is and back cycling to capitalise upon these benefits.
Ahead of the Comprehensive Spending Review in just a few weeks it is important that the Government think long and hard before financially side-lining cycling once again. Funding for Bikeability training, for instance, is confirmed until the end of March 2016 but no decision has yet been taken on funding beyond this. I sincerely hope this training – so integral to both promoting cycling and increasing safety – isn’t sacrificed by the Chancellor in the wider budget squeeze.
The Government’s lips are sealed about what we can expect to see in the Spending Review, but the outlook appears bleak. Once again it seems the Government is going to break their promise, and put the brakes on cycling funding.