Boris's billions for buses and bikes

Cyclist and bus
Photo: Cycling UK (Joolze Dymond)
There’s billions here and billions there, but is it for buses or is it for bikes? And is it new money, or sound a bit funny? Is it Boris the Bike or a whole load of hype? Will it get people cycling and do what it ought, or be deeply frustrating and fall so far short? Cycling UK's Head of Campaigns Duncan Dollimore explains.

Cycling UK has been asking the Government to show us the money for cycling and walking for years, so you might expect me to be excited about the Prime Minister’s announcement on Tuesday. Five billion pounds of new funding to overhaul bus and cycle links for every region in England outside London. What’s not to like?

Millions to Billions - linking bikes to buses

Sadly, when it comes to money for active travel it pays to follow the figures not the headline. The warning bells rang when funding for buses and cycling were merged. I’m sure it’s been done before, but funding for active travel is usually referenced separately to the bus budget, because they’re different. Lumping them together is a great way to hide the truth with a bigger number!

I probably should point out that the announcement doesn’t actually reference funding for walking, but does say that dozens of new ‘Mini-Holland’ schemes “will be taken forward to transform town centres to make them safer to get around”, so we can only assume, unless or until there’s some clarification, that whatever slice of the £5 billion cake is earmarked for cycling is in reality the cycling and walking portion – but is it a sliver or a slab?

How much of the £5 billion would be spent on cycling was the question the Prime Minister was asked by Ruth Cadbury MP, co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Cycling and Walking (APPGCW), after he made his announcement to Parliament. His answer was “in the first stage, £350 million”.   

Known knowns and known unknowns

Now as Donald Rumsfeld once said, there are known knowns and known unknowns. The £350 million slice of the cake for cycling is a known known, whether there’ll be anything after that is a known unknown. There could be, but unless and until the Government clarifies this, and makes a commitment, all I can say is that what was announced for cycling yesterday wasn’t £5 billion or a sizeable chunk of that, just £350 million from a five-year funding pot.

If that sounds a little harsh, and you’re wondering whether I should be patient and a little more trusting, and perhaps wait to see what follows in the March Budget or the anticipated Government Spending Review in the summer, I’d suggest that waiting for proper investment in active travel is like waiting for Godot. Nothing ever happens, so the abject failure to fund cycling and walking continues. I’m sick of waiting.

Half a mile for each constituency

Of course, £350 million sounds like a lot of money, but it isn’t in transport infrastructure terms. That’s clear from the reference in the announcement to building “over 250 miles of new, high-quality separated cycle routes”, which led Chelmsford MP Vicky Ford to press the Prime Minister for an assurance that Essex and the East wouldn’t miss out on new investment and infrastructure. He obliged, but nobody seems to have done the maths. With 460 parliamentary constituencies in England outside London, if Vicky’s constituency gets a fair share her constituents can expect 0.54 miles of new routes. Hardly an active travel network.

In contrast, Andy Burnham and Chris Boardman’s Bee Network plan for Greater Manchester involves a fully joined up cycling and walking network covering 1,800 miles. OK, they don’t yet have funding to deliver all of that, but 400 miles of it is either already being built or in development, whereas across the rest of England, as Chancellor Sajid Javid's response to Ben Bradshaw MP’s question on Tuesday laid bare, the Government’s current commitment is woefully inadequate, as “more than 250 miles” actually turns out to mean just 250 miles.

Working out exactly how much money has been spent on cycling and walking, and how much is being set aside for future spending, isn’t straightforward.

Duncan Dollimore, Cycling UK Head of Campaigns

Smoke and mirrors

Working out exactly how much money has been spent on cycling and walking, and how much is being set aside for future spending, isn’t straightforward. That’s partly because, as Ruth Cadbury explains in her blog on how to invest in cycling, much of the funding planned for active travel is merely an assumed proportion of an existing budget rather than funding directly from the Department for Transport (DfT) that’s ring-fenced for cycling and walking.

Consequently, Government estimates of future spending have to be looked at with a degree of caution, which is why we’ve been campaigning so hard for long-term funding that’s specifically set aside for local authorities to enable them to deliver their local cycling and walking infrastructure plans (LCWIPS), and doesn’t involve a competitive tendering process. Exactly what the evidence shows is needed.

So, I was cautious last Friday when the Government issued a press release suggesting that expected spending on cycling and walking from 2016 to 2021 had doubled to £2.4 billion. MPs without a full grasp of the figures or what’s been announced previously might readily conclude that it’s an increase, a big number, and therefore evidence that the Government is taking investment in active travel seriously. But headline figures can mask reality.

The truth is that we just don’t understand the £2.4 billion estimate. The Government had previously said the five-year investment figure to April 2021 would be just short of £2bn, with an annual average of around £390m per year. The inference is that another £400 million has been found, but it’s unclear whether that’s money it estimates has been spent in the last four years, but which hasn’t previously been accounted for as active travel spending, or whether this is new money it now thinks will be spent in the year from April 2020 onwards. If the latter, perhaps it's factoring in extra funding which local authorities have secured for cycling and walking from the Transforming Cities Fund, but that’s just a guess.

£350 million – and buses!

The truth is we just don’t know, and we couldn’t understand last week why, if the Government was suddenly planning to spend twice as much on cycling and walking next year than the average for the last four, it wasn’t trumpeting that clearly rather than obscuring the spending for 2020/21 in a five-year total figure. But, whilst we were working that one out, the Prime Minister jumped in announcing £5 billion for buses and cycling, which now looks like only £350 million specifically set aside for active travel.

I know, the Government has said that £5 billion, or whatever slice of it goes to cycling and walking, is new money, in addition to existing funding streams, but I don’t know what to add this to, because as I’ve already outlined, we don’t understand the estimates of future spending!

What we know for certain is that the only capital funding for active travel referred to within the Conservative manifesto last year was £350 million for a cycling infrastructure fund, which sounds suspiciously like the £350 million that wasn’t on the side of a bus, but which Boris Johnson confirmed is the cycling element of the £5 billion bus and cycling fund.

The report we aren’t allowed to see!

I couldn’t let some of the Government figures about estimated spending and funding for buses and cycling go unchallenged, but neither should we forget the big picture. At no level, with any of their funding proposals and however the cake is sliced, is the Government getting anywhere near the level of investment in active travel that’s needed to achieve its own Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy (CWIS) targets to double levels of cycling, and they know it.

Former Transport Minister Jesse Norman MP admitted this last year whilst giving evidence to the Transport Select Committee, candidly acknowledging that meeting the CWIS targets would require a doubling of investment, which he wanted to do and the Government ought to commit to. He was moved to a different Ministry a few weeks later.

It’s reasonable to conclude that Jesse Norman’s evidence was informed by the evidence gathered by Lynn Sloman from Transport for Quality of Life (TfQL), who was commissioned by the DfT to report on what needed to be done and the level of investment required for the Government to achieve its CWIS targets. We’d expected the TfQL report to be published before Lynn Sloman spoke at an APPGCW debate on active travel funding last April, but ten months on and despite numerous parliamentary questions asking when the Government intends to do so, the report has still not been published.

What we need - £6 to £8 billion

It’s not difficult to work out what the report is going to say. A week ago the Government put to Parliament its first report on progress made towards delivering the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy, along with a host of reports, cases studies and evidence including the reports on the model of the impacts cycling and walking investment from TfQL’s research but without the TfQL report.

That said, the DfT’s own figures show that what’s needed is at least £6 billion more over the next five years, and for the avoidance of doubt, that’s at least £6 billion over and above the £2.4 billion estimated spending in the five years up to March 2021.

So, the Government knows that this is the level of investment needed, and in advance of the Budget on 11 March, Cycling UK and the Walking and Cycling Alliance explained to the Treasury why sustained, secure, long-term investment of between £6-8 billion over a five-year period is needed, putting an end to stop-start funding. We just need the Treasury to get on board and fund what the DfT is telling them is needed, and for someone in Government to allow the DfT to publish the TfQL report to end the smoke and mirrors and spell out clearly and in simple terms the type and level of investment needed to get more people moving more actively and achieve the CWIS targets.   

Take action

If reading this makes you anywhere near as frustrated as I am about delay, and the failure to adequately fund something which is so clearly part of the answer to our various air pollution, climate, inactivity-related public health and congestion crises, then you can help and take action by contacting your MP in the run up to the budget on the 11 March.

There’s a danger that some MPs think that announcements over the last week mean that the Government’s got cycling and walking done and fixed the funding problem. Nothing could be further from the truth.