Funding cuts in Northern Ireland put Active School Travel programme at risk

Cuts to the Active School Travel programme in Northern Ireland mean children risk missing out on learning safe cycling, a skill for life. Andrew McClean, Cycling UK engagement officer for Northern Ireland, explains why this is the wrong decision and how you can support our call to stop the cuts

Picture the scene: school pupils lined up in the playground, wearing helmets and smiles from ear to ear, sitting on their bike saddles watching and listening intently to an instructor who is about to teach a set of lifelong skills. Skills which will give them independence, promote an active lifestyle, make the air cleaner where they live and have a profound impact on how they and their communities view transport.

You’re looking at a scene from the Active School Travel programme. This scene is repeated across the school year, across the country from rural to suburban and urban schools. In fact, over the last 10 years, Sustrans has increased the number of schools signed up to the programme so it now covers 48% of all NI schools, with over 130,000 enrolled pupils.


Save the Active School Travel programme


A self described 'concerned parent' from Newry, County Down who has seen the cycling proficiency in schools axed, and now the Active Travel School programme hanging in the balance, is fed up with children, yet again, taking the brunt of funding cuts, writing in a letter to Sustrans: "It is these young children who missed out on so much during Covid who are now missing out on learning more skills for life". There is a clear understanding from this parent and parents across the country of the importance of these skills and the impacts they will have across their children's lives.

It is these young children who missed out on so much during Covid who are now missing out on learning more skills for life

Concerned Parent, Newry, County Down

The results of the programme are quite staggering, with a 37% increase in the number of pupils travelling actively to school and an 18% decrease in the number being driven. These are eyewatering figures when you think about how it translates to reduced air pollution around the school run, physical activity levels of children and traffic congestion. Even more striking is how little this programme costs to achieve these results: it is funded 50:50 by the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) and the Public Health Agency (PHA) at £226k each, a drop in the ocean of their budgets and less than the cost of one recent toucan crossing in Belfast.

Taking all this into account, you would think it’s a slam dunk for both the DfI and PHA: low cost, high achieving, great visually and shows an investment in the future of transport. For the DfI at least, this doesn’t seem to be enough. They are planning on stopping their half of the funding in the face of recent and severe budget cuts from Northern Ireland Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris.  We need your help to save the programme.

To be fair to the Department, this budget leaves them £112 million short of simply fulfilling their statutory obligations, all at a time with no Assembly and no Minister in charge - leading them to consider cost savings such as reducing public transport, not gritting the roads over winter and even switching off streetlights.

Currently active travel (walking, wheeling and cycling) is not part of the statutory duties of the department, but the Climate Change Act gives them an obligation to present their ‘sectoral plans’ for transport by December this year, which include how they will get to a level of 10% of the overall transport budget being spent on active travel. With this deadline and uptick in spending in mind, it seems incredibly short sighted to cut a programme which supports and enables pupils across the country to learn the skills to safety travel to school under their own steam, only to likely reinstate it at the end of the year (leaving Sustrans with complex budgeting and staffing issues). 

Our sympathy with DfI over these decisions is tempered somewhat when we point out that it will contribute a mere 0.2% of the savings they need to make. When we look further at the proposed cuts across the department, there is a clear theme of lessening the impact on people who drive and putting it on those who don’t own cars or choose to travel sustainably. This is an approach inconsistent with the targets set out in the Climate Change Act and inconsistent with the rhetoric of the department of supporting people to travel actively and in a low carbon way. 

We ask the DfI to recognise that continuing to put the costs on people making the right choices on travel is short-term thinking and that we need to build our climate response from the ground up, starting in our schools.

We, along with Sustrans, schools, supporters and parents are urging the Department for Infrastructure to reconsider the plan to stop funding this programme and we want you to do the same. Send a letter to the department through our supporter action below to let them know you agree.


Save the Active School Travel programme