How the new Towns Fund could improve cycling

View of Blackpool from Blackpool Tower
Blackpool is one of the cities which could benefit from the new £3.6bn Towns Fund. Photo diamond geezer (Flickr CC)
Online shopping, out of town supermarkets and Covid-19 have all taken their toll on how towns in England operate. In this article, Cycling UK campaigns information officer, Cherry Allan, explains how a new £3.6bn Towns Fund for 100 towns could help encourage cycling and walking while also reversing town centres' fortunes.

Many towns in England have been struggling economically for some time. Online shopping and out-of-town, mega-supermarkets have taken their toll, not to mention the latest hit, Covid-19.

Thankfully, the £3.6 billion Towns Fund is there for 100 of them, and so is active travel as long as councils write it firmly into their bids.

Towns can apply for up to £25 million each (more in exceptional cases), and the Government specifically says that supporting sustainable transport is one of the best uses for it.

The Fund could make a colossal difference: the current spend per head on walking and cycling is said to be about £10 in England outside London, but the Fund could yield far more. A town like Margate, for example, would have almost £400 per head to play with, giving them real scope to invest generously active travel.

A town like Margate, for example, would have almost £400 per head to play with, giving them real scope to invest generously in active travel.

Cherry Allan, Cycling UK campaigns information officer 

There will be other calls on the money, of course, but cycling and walking complements rather than competes with them, and helps local economies regenerate and thrive (see overleaf).

So, if you’re campaigning in any of the 100 towns (see map below), now is the perfect moment to urge your Town Deal Board to put forward any ‘shovel ready’ plans and/or new ideas, plus proposals to make any worthwhile temporary cycle/pedestrian-friendly Covid-19 infrastructure permanent.

What is the Towns Fund?

  • The Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) is inviting 100 selected towns in England to apply for a share of £3.6 billion (£25m each, more in exceptional cases).
  • The aim is “…to drive the sustainable economic regeneration of towns to deliver long term economic and productivity growth.” The growth needs to be ‘clean’, in view of the UK’s legally binding commitment to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
  • Deprivation and poor transport are among the specific problems MHCLG wants to address and, more recently, the impact of Covid-19 on local economies and retail.
  • A town’s proposals need to be set out in a Town Investment Plans(TIP).

The fund’s key features

  • Towns have until 13 July to decide whether they’d like to submit TIPs and, if so when. They can choose between three ‘cohorts’ (31 July, end of October or end of January 2021).
  • This is not a competitive fund – the money is there if a town’s application is approved.
  • The funding is primarily capital (i.e. for long-term assets).
  • TIPs should be developed with input from the community (the Town Deal Board, in fact, ought to include community/local voluntary community sector representatives).

What the guidance on TIPs says about sustainable/clean/active transport

  • “There may be […] opportunities to make decisive changes for the long term, such as investing in sustainable modes of transport to take advantage of behaviour changes caused by lockdown.”
  • The MHCLG lists “new or upgraded cycle and walking routes’ under interventions to help meet some of the ‘target outcomes’ (i.e. affordability, convenience, reliability, and sustainability of travel options, reduced congestion and “enhanced high street and town centre experience that prioritises the health, safety and mobility of pedestrians”).
  • “… clean transport, including cycling infrastructure” is mentioned as a ‘cost effective’ intervention.

What could cycling and walking do for the 100 towns? 

It is not surprising that MHCLG will welcome strong proposals to boost active travel. The Government already recognises that investing public money in walking and cycling offers a high to very high benefit to cost ratio, the average return being around £5-6 for every £1 invested.   
But, if any local decision-makers are still in doubt, ask them to picture al fresco cafés, the shade of trees, flowers in planters, comfortable benches, public art and independent stalls - just some of the facets that make for a lively and profitable town. An ideal way of accommodating them is to reallocate road space from cars to pedestrians and cyclists, and create coherent routes for them.

Cycling and walking work for the local economy

A 2016 report on the value of cycling concluded:
  • Cyclists visit local shops more regularly, spending more than users of most other modes of transport.
  • Per square metre, cycle parking delivers five times higher retail spend than the same area of car parking.
  • A compact town optimised for walking and cycling can have a “retail density” (spend per square metre) 2.5 times higher than a typical urban centre”.  
An extensive, but low-cost ‘Dutch-style’ transformation to Orford Road, Walthamstow Village, has led to more visits and new shops opening. With motor traffic no longer dominating it, residents find the Victorian high street more pleasant and sociable. 
A driver stuck in traffic sees a cyclist go by in the bike lane.
Retailers tend to overestimate the number of shoppers who drive: in Bristol, they thought two fifths did, but in reality it was only a fifth. Yet, as the owner of Acorn Hardware in Jesmond, Newcastle discovered, active travel can be good for business and improves the atmosphere. With the loss of some car parking, his two-way street became one-way except for cycling. Shoppers on bikes were just as likely to buy as people in cars.  
An additional benefit is for the workforce, as local businesses profit when more of their staff cycle (fewer sick days, for example), and because cycling helps tackle local congestion. 
For towns with tourist attractions and/or set in tempting countryside or by the sea, catering for cycling visitors makes sense. What town wouldn’t want a share of the £520m odd that cycling and mountain biking is estimated to contribute to tourism in Britain every year?

Cycling and walking are clean and support clean growth

You can’t get much more zero-emission than cycling and walking, and they are far more pleasant companions on local streets than big, polluting motor vehicles. In 2018 (UK), road transport emitted a quarter of CO2 (most of it coming from passenger cars), and over a third of nitrous oxides, a harmful pollutant.  All too many towns have serious air quality problems - more people cycling and walking shorter journeys can help tackle this.
Cycle-friendly towns attract companies who also help a town reduce emissions: e-cargo bike delivery services, for example, or bike-hire outlets and bike shops.
A man with a laden e-cargo bike

Cycling and walking help tackle deprivation 

Almost half (46%) of households on the lowest real income level have no car or van available to them (this is far more than the average for all households in England (24%). Cycling, though, is an inclusive, cost-efficient option for local trips to work, the shops and education, and significantly increases the range when compared to walking.  
The economic, environmental and societal case for including high quality proposals to encourage cycling and walking in Town Investment Plans is clear. If you live in one of the hundred towns that can access this funding, then let us know how you get on!