Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Cycling England Abolished

Cycling England is on the list of bodies that will be abolished in the 'Bonfire of the Quangos', according to the Telegraph.

There is no indication that this is a good thing for cycling as it will likely mean less money spent on cycling projects. There are rumours of a Green Transport Fund being set up to take on some of Cycling England's responsbilities, but details and funding are unclear. There are many decent people with unquestionable commitment to cycling working at Cycling England. As yet, there is no plan for what the ConDems are going to do in terms of developing cycling - I've posted before about the minister responsible - Norman Baker - being conspicuous by his silence on the matter, and his boss, Philip Hammond, is known to be completely ignorant of cycling.

That said, I don't think the current set-up has served cycling well. There is a plethora of bodies supposed to be doing things for cycling, all of which have funds but none of which have the authority to make things happen. There were always new initiatives, new pilot programmes such as Cycling Demontration Towns, Safe Routes to Schools, new optimistic targets to double or quadruple cycling by some ever-receding future time, and lots and lots of press releases, but meanwhile where the Schwalbe Marathon meets the tarmac, modal share has stayed stubbornly low. Cycling England, Sustrans, TfL, local authorities and central government have always been involved in cycling, but there's never been a resourced national plan or the framework to make things happen at a local level. The best of intentions on the part of Cycling England and Sustrans have got bogged down in the bureaucratic sands of Traffic Orders and the Cycle Tracks Act, and come up against the immovable objects of car-centric highways departments and NIMBYism. A lot of money got wasted on schemes that never ultimately delivered.

What is needed is a legislative framework and a policy mandate that requires and enables safe, high-quality infrastructure to be built. You won't get that from local councillors who are scared stiff of the local backlash if a couple of parking spaces are moved. You won't get it from quangos who have money but no powers. You won't get it from highways departments which are staffed by people who don't cycle. You won't get it where converting a 20-yard footpath to a cycle track requires a full-scale public enquiry.

It's been too easy for the previous government to devolve responsibility to the quangos, so that it looked like it was taking cycling seriously while making progress at a glacial rate. Only decisive action at a central government level can cause a meaningful increase in cycling. This can only happen if central government sweeps away the labyrinth of bureaucracy and restrictive legislation, and takes full responsibility. Unfortunately, there's no indication that will happen. There is a localism bill which could make it even easier for the local majority to act against the national imperative. Such a bill could enable local residents to block rat-running traffic, enforce 20MPH speed limits or make the area around their local school safer, but I somehow suspect it won't - it will simply cement the car-centric status quo.

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