15 December 2020

Are the UK Government’s cycling plans genuine?

In its ambitions to encourage cycling, the UK Conservative government may find barriers amongst those responsible for local implementation, especially its local political allies. However, a greater barrier may be the Government’s sincerity.

The jury is out regarding how the public genuinely feels about cycling. Research by organisations such as Sustrans and British Cycling shows that 75% of us welcome cycling initiatives. However, increasingly vocal resistance, often highlighted in the media, may suggest the public is not as supportive as the research implies. What we do know is that the Conservative Government has communicated its ambition to support cycling, from David Cameron’s plan to 'kickstart a cycling revolution' to recent commitments in the Climate Emergency Plan.

As part of our research into sustainable travel at Nottingham Business School, we made a freedom of information requests to 55 English unitary authorities, requesting data on populations, spend on road transport projects and spend on cycling infrastructure projects over the last ten years. Only 24 provided data, 19 authorities commented that they did not separately record the spend on cycling; the remainder did not respond. We then recorded which political parties controlled these authorities over the last five years. The results are revealing and do not give cause for optimism. The Government’s efforts to encourage cycling appear to be thwarted in two ways, the local commitment to fund cycling infrastructure and resistance from Conservative led local authorities.

Local spend is not enough to produce meaningful change

The Cycling & Walking Alliance has previously recommended a spend per head of population on cycling of at least £10. It has gone on to call for the Government’s cycling investment to be at least 5% of transport spend in 2020/21, rising to a minimum of 10% over the next five years. In terms of spend per head of population this equates to £17 in 2020/21, rising by 2024/25 to £34.

We found that local authorities had spent on average just £2 per head of population annually on cycling infrastructure over the last ten years. The highest spend per head of population was £8.58 on average and the lowest was £0.03 amongst those that reported any spend. Some authorities in some years made no investment in cycling infrastructure at all.

The highest expenditure by any authority in any year was £37.23 but since then, five years ago, the average annual spend for that authority has been only £1.93 per head of population. The most consistent spend per head by any authority was £15.82, maintained over three years.

Over the last five years there were only six examples of the 24 local authorities spending £10 or more on cycling (Cycling & Walking Alliance’s target) out of 120 opportunities (24 councils multiplied by five years).

Resistance from Conservative local authorities

Of the 24 councils only eight were Conservative controlled (14 were Labour and two were Independent). Amongst the top ten spenders only three were Conservative, the others being Labour. Only one of these Conservative councils has been Conservative controlled throughout the five-year period.

What’s more, Conservative authorities tended to spend less than their Labour counterparts with Labour councils spending 50% more per head of population. What was also apparent is that Conservative councils were more likely to have periods of no spend, were more likely to have missing data and less likely to be able to measure their spends.

In short, when it comes to implementing Conservative policy regarding cycling the government relies on Labour local authorities.

So, what is the big picture?

Given nationally low spends and lack of commitment amongst Conservative councils the government’s plans appear to face considerable barriers. However, the scale of their commitment is very revealing. A commitment of £350m over five years represents just over £1 per head of population, lower than existing levels of spend and well short of what has been called for. The government will be fully aware that this spend cannot possibly produce the results they seek.

One must question the party’s motives here. The government will be well aware of the lack of local support for cycling from its Conservative councils. It will be fully aware that many of its own politicians do not support attempts to promote cycling. Evidence is provided by Conservative politician Tony Devenish’s latest column in Conservative Home and former minister for cycling Robert Goodwill’s letter to Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, calling for withdrawal of emergency active travel funding for cycling. Conservatives might also judge, given the low levels of cycling in the UK, predominantly undertaken by educated, under-55-year-old urbanites, that it is unlikely their voters support cycling.

Commentators can point to the obvious inconsistencies here but only the government can know what the big picture and the true motives behind its statements are.

Dr Seamus Allison is senior lecturer and Aoife Allison is research assistant at Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University

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