Glimmer of hope for Cycling England as Commons committee slams government cuts
'Bonfire of the Quangos' may end up costing "more than it will save," say MPs
There is the faintest glimmer of hope this morning that Cycling England, set to be wound up in March, may receive a last-minute stay of execution after an influential parliamentary select committee branded the coalition government’s ‘Bonfire of the Quangos’ as a “poorly handled” and “botched” operation that may “cost more than it will save.”
Last October, the coalition government announced that Cycling England, hose activities whose include co-ordinating Bikeability training for schoolchildren and administering the Cycling Demonstration Towns initiative, and costs just £200,000 a year to run, was one of nearly 200 quangos that are due to be scrapped in the wake of its Comprehensive Spending Review.
Cycling England had enjoyed a budget of £60 million in 2009/10, and the decision to scrap it came under fire from organisations such as the sustainable transport charity, Sustrans, whose chief executive Malcolm Shepherd warned that the new Local Sustainable Travel Fund, under which cycling will have to compete for funding with other forms of transport, “must not be a smokescreen for wider cuts to the spending that gets people cycling, walking and using public transport.”
At the time the chairman of Cycling England, Philip Darnton, told the trade website BikeBiz that “Discontinued funding would mean a new generation lost to cycling, and a risk of increased accidents through lack of proper instruction. This prospect is alarming in its implications for childhood obesity and the environmental impact of a further increase in car trips to school."
In a damning verdict, today’s report, published by the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee, claims that the cull of quangos instituted by the government fails to achieve the twin goals used to justify it – greater accountability and a reduction in spending, and that it would result in more money spent than would have been saved.
In a clear signal that it believes the decision to axe so many bodies as primarily a politically motivated one, the report adds that the government has been unable to translate "ambitious pre-election rhetoric into deliverable policy."
In compiling the report, the committee interviewed cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell, the head of the Civil Service, who was unable to say just how much money the government’s action would save, even though he was given time to undertake research to find out the answer.
Speaking to the Guardian, the committee’s chairman, the Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin said: “The whole process was rushed and poorly handled and should have been thought through a lot more. This was a fantastic opportunity to help build the big society and save money at the same time, but it has been botched.
"I suspect that in the short term the reorganisation will now cost more than it will save. This was put together on the hoof and can be much improved for future reviews."
The government has rejected that criticism, however, with an aide to Francis Maude, the minister overseeing the dismantling of the quangos, telling the Guardian that the committee had “fundamentally misunderstood” the situation and that its findings were “absurd.”
Mr Maude himself remained resolute that the government’s plans would go ahead, saying: “We fundamentally do not agree with the committee that our reform will not improve accountability. We remain committed to seeing it through and making the reforms that the British public demand, and to stopping the meddling and expense created by unaccountable bureaucrats."
Labour, however, has called on the government to bring a halt to the process of winding up the quangos to enable a review of the situation to be carried out, with Jon Trickett, shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, maintaining: “"This proves the chaos theory of government. They are producing an irrational, unaccountable and expensive mish-mash of proposals, which will do nothing to improve the quality of services to the British public."
Even if the government were to perform an unlikely U-turn and Cycling England were saved, it would in all likelihood operate on a different scale compared to before, with its ringfenced £60 million budget presumably already allocated to government departments in Whitehall and elsewhere, including the Local Sustainable Travel Fund.
While the government has pledged to continue to support Bikeability, which is now adminsistered by the DfT with ring-fenced funding, there is no guarantee over the scheme's long-term future, nor that of the Cycling Towns and Cities initiative.