Lee Waters MS: how to make Wales more active
I’ve been campaigning for a change of attitudes to walking and cycling since I was 11. I couldn’t understand why the local park keeper would chase me off my bike but accepted council trucks driving through Ammanford park. As a child a bike gave me freedom, and I was cross that my form of transport wasn’t taken seriously, it just didn’t seem fair. My letter of protest to the South Wales Guardian was turned into an article and marked the beginning of my activism. And my first lesson in campaigning: complaining works, to a point.
I returned to it in 2007 as Welsh Director of Sustrans and launched a campaign for a law to get the Government and local councils to take it seriously. The Active Travel Act was passed with cross-party support in 2013. My second lesson in campaigning: legislation works, to a point.
Five years later I was appointed the Minister in charge of active travel in Wales and over the last 20 months have been working to fine tune our delivery mechanisms. We are spending record levels on creating infrastructure to encourage people to travel by foot or by bike – we have already invested over £95million since this Government was elected in 2016. And my third lesson in campaigning: money makes a difference, to a point.
For all the legislative framework and investment to support it I don’t think anyone could yet claim that we have cracked active travel.
For all the legislative framework and investment to support it I don’t think anyone could yet claim that we have cracked active travel. This is going to be a multi-generational project; and it as much about attitudes and values as it is about engineering. We have developed a transport system that is centred on making it easy to drive a car, and places barriers to travelling actively. We need to ensure that walking and cycling are the most convenient transport options for shorter journeys for as many people as possible.
There is also a clear class and gender element we must confront. Non-car users are seen as being of less value to the economy in transport appraisal and don’t get the priority, often forcing them to ‘invest’ in a car – the poorest 20% of the population on average can spend 25% of their income running a car. When you spend 10% of your income heating your home you are classed as being in ‘fuel poverty’, yet there is no equivalent category of ‘transport poverty’. Indeed we continue to often locate key services in locations where they are very difficult to reach without a car. The Welsh Government have now adopted a ‘town centre first’ approach but we are living with the legacy of past decisions.
The barriers to easily walking and cycling for everyday journeys also disproportionately impact women. As Caroline Criado Perez has arrestingly outlined in her book Invisible Women the assumptions of the transport system are replete with male biases. Cycling is a case in point, for every women who rides a bike, there are two men.
Women still predominantly bear the main burden of caring responsibilities which can create more complex travel patterns, but the planning of transport networks, including active travel routes, often reflects traditional commuter travel patterns. Little thought is given to how a busy parent, or someone less confident on a bike, may be encouraged to juggle multiple priorities and several routes to get to work and school. This is a system design failure that we must address.
The barriers to easily walking and cycling for everyday journeys disproportionately impact women...this is a system design failure we must address.
One of my main observations from 13 years of immersion in the delivery of walking and cycling projects is that active travel is primarily a health agenda, but it is dependent on transport professionals to deliver it; yet from a transport perspective walking and cycling are fringe issues. There are multiple public health benefits which cannot be disputed, but when just 2% of journeys are by bike the transport benefits of a focus on active travel are more contestable. So the challenge is, how do we get active travel to be taken seriously as a mainstream transport project as part of a programme of modal shift?
Protest, legislation, and funding all play their part, but while necessary they are never going to be sufficient to bring about the change we need to see to improve air quality, reduce preventable diseases, cut carbon emissions and reduce congestion.
The Welsh approach has been to take a strategic approach to infrastructure planning. Instead of disconnected routes opportunistically dependent on short-term funding opportunities, the Active Travel Act has put in place a longer-term planning framework which requires councils to set out a long view of their ambitions over 15 years underpinned by rolling three-year plans.
During its hearings on the implementation of the Act the Senedd’s Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee (which I was a member of at the time) heard that councils were reluctant to identify possible future routes for fear of raising local expectations which funding would prevent them for delivering. The Welsh Government has responded by radically increasing the funding available for active travel infrastructure in recent years, reaching £35m this year, which we boosted further for temporary measures in response to Covid 19, and we ringfenced £9m of that to ensure every Council was awarded funds to work up future schemes (and make immediate small scale improvements).
That has helped.
I want to support councils to listen to people who aren’t currently making local journeys by walking or cycling to help them understand what infrastructure is needed to get them to try it. Once we do that, we can be better at building a pipeline of schemes which connect more people from where they live to where they want to go. And make sure we’re spending money in the right places, on the right type of infrastructure that will encourage people to walk and cycle more. It’s no good us spending more money on schemes if the end products are poorly executed; that’s not going to encourage anyone to leave their car at home.
It’s no good us spending more money on schemes if the end products are poorly executed; that’s not going to encourage anyone to leave their car at home.
Our next focus is on up-skilling the professionals and putting the target end-users at the heart of the approach. Phil Jones and Adrian Lord have completed an update of our active travel design guidance and we are in the process of going through the consultation responses. We are also working with professional bodies (the RTPI, ICE, CIHT) to design a training programme for transport and planning officials to understand and implement best practice.
Next year councils will have to publish updated plans for their local network of routes and submit for approval by the Welsh Government. All future funding will be tied to the routes set out on these Integrated Network Maps. The last time this happened genuine public engagement by local authorities was patchy: in one Council area just 13 people responded to the ‘consultation’.
This time I’ve set aside funding to help under-resourced local authority teams to spend time with a diverse range of potential future users to ask the question – ‘what facilities would need to be in place to encourage you to walk or cycle’. I’ll expect councils to use this information to prioritise their future bids for funding.
I fully recognise that austerity has had a real impact on the ability of councils to deliver. Walking and cycling was already a poorly resourced area in most local authorities and that has worsened in some areas as a result of the cuts councils have had to absorb. A number of councils have no dedicated active travel officer and are therefore not well placed to bid for funding. We need to bolster the skills and capacity to deliver this agenda. I want to see more work on a regional basis by councils so that they can pool their expertise and capacity. I’ve asked a small group of council officers to develop proposals for peer-review arrangements so that neighbouring authorities can help each other to stand the best chance to attracting funding.
I’ve also asked our arms-length delivery body Transport for Wales to develop a central source of expertise to help and challenge local authorities to meet the design and delivery standards that we have developed. I want them to take a proactive role in ensuring that funding only goes to schemes that are up to scratch.
By giving a Transport for Wales a leading role we will also be putting Active travel on a par with other forms of public transport so that they can develop an integrated plan to encourage people to use their cars less. As the Burns ‘South East Wales Transport Commission’ interim report said “If the public transport and active travel network is to serve a wide range of needs, the different modes need to operate as a single transport network”.
We should see active travel as part of a high quality, integrated and sustainable public transport system, on a par with other vital public services like our NHS and social care. Things which do require investment and support, but which have much wider benefits to our daily lives and the fabric of our communities. Things which aren’t easily quantifiable in mere pounds or pence – a mark of a civilised society.
We should see active travel as part of a high quality, integrated and sustainable public transport system, on a par with other vital public services like our NHS and social care.
There are two remaining areas that I wanted to address when I was appointed that I’ve not yet been able to progress – strategy and scrutiny.
Getting the mechanics right is essential to effective delivery, but we also need a strong sense of direction. We need a clear strategy for active travel and a set of stretching targets to push us to achieve it. The next Wales Transport Strategy is in development and it’s important that active travel is an integral part.
But those targets and strategy have to be a shared endeavour to be effective so it’s essential that we produce them in dialogue with civil society, our delivery partners and those who we want to encourage to take up walking and cycling. To be brutally frank, we just don’t have the bodies within the Welsh Government to do all these things in the time we need to get them done (this is especially true when dealing with the consequences of Covid).
We have an Active Travel Board which I have been chairing since I became a Minister, but when I was a backbencher I was a persistent advocate for empowering an independent Chair to work with, and challenge, the Government. The appointment of Active Travel Commissioners in Scotland, in major English Cities including London, and recently the announcement of a Commissioner for England, suggests now is a good time for us to boost our scrutiny function too. So I have asked Dr Dafydd Trystan Davies to take up the post of Chair of our Active Travel Board with a brief to advise on stretching targets and to help devise a strategy for Wales - strategy and targets that think seriously about the barriers I mentioned earlier.
Dafydd has done terrific work as chair of governors of a new primary in Cardiff enshrining active travel into the culture of the school. And in appointing Dafydd, a former Chair and Chief Executive of Plaid Cymru, I hope I can demonstrate the sincerity of my commitment to keep active travel as a cross-party agenda that needs to transcend political cycles (pun not intended).
He will act as an independent adviser to the Welsh Government, sitting alongside Active Travel Commissioners in the UK, and challenging and supporting us on active travel.
I genuinely believe we have taken steps in the right direction. The challenge is now to go further and to go faster.