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OPINION

Open letter: New Forest Plan B will not benefit cycling

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Campaigner details deficiencies & doubtful decision-making

Editor's note: @forestcyclist has been in the vanguard of the campaign to have the New Forest National Park Authority (NFNPA) spend Department for Transport  (DfT) funding awarded for a 'rural Boris Bike' hire scheme on that scheme or another cycling project within the park.

This open latter to the Department details the NFPA's often wholly inappropriate plans to spend that cash on road repairs and facilities outside the park.

It is reproduced here unedited except for extremely minor matters of layout.

Dear Transport Ministers,

I write with regard to the New Forest Family Cycling Experience (NFFCE) programme, a £3,570,000 Department for Transport (DfT) funded programme, awarded in August 2013 to the New Forest National Park Authority (NFNPA) as one of four grants to improve cycling and create 'innovate cycling assets' in National Parks. I am approaching you directly as a last resort, prompted by a comprehensive refusal by the NFNPA to engage in any meaningful and constructive way with the wider cycling community.

I am an everyday cyclist based in the New Forest. I commute to work by bike daily, and enjoy recreational cycling with my family when time allows. In short, I am bang in the middle of the target market for the NFFCE programme. However I am not alone. Earlier in the summer, in response to the NFNPA 11th hour uncertainty around the Public Bike Share project, I organised a petition to support the scheme which generated over 2500 signatories in just a few days and garnered the backing of retired professional cyclists Chris Boardman & Jens Voigt. Whilst this strongly supported petition was ultimately ignored and belittled by NFNPA members, it brought to the fore the strength of opinion around what investment in cycling in the New Forest should really mean. Whilst I write this letter as an individual, I am confident that its contents represent the views of many thousands of people both within the New Forest National Park and further afield.

I am taking this opportunity to write to you as I understand that you will shortly be deciding whether to approve or reject the NFNPA ‘Plan B’ schemes, resulting from underspend arising from non-delivery of at least two of the projects in the original application made by NFNPA.

When the Cycling Ambition programme funding was announced early in 2013, there was significant excitement in the New Forest around what this could achieve in respect of transforming sustainable transport in the National Park. The NFNPA appeared to work hard to engage key stakeholders, including cyclists, to develop a set of innovative cycling projects which met the funding criteria. At the time there was significant support for the proposals and a sense of shared excitement when the programme was announced as successful in August 2013.

Joy soon turned to despair when NFNPA members decided at the 11th hour in August 2014 to abort the Public Bike Hire project on somewhat spurious and completely unsubstantiated grounds, this is all in despite of NFNPA members having authorised officers to undertake a lengthy and expensive (£84,000) feasibility and procurement exercise to identify and select a preferred supplier, B-cycle. The rationale behind the decision was one of the key reasons for establishing the petition, reasons for rejection outlined in these hyperlinked NFNPA meeting papers include questionable rationale such as ‘anti-cycling sentiment’, ‘not wanting to introduce more cyclists onto the roads at this time’ and ‘financial viability’ of the scheme. All three reasons are very easily dismissed, but it was clear from the public meetings that the NFNPA members underlying ‘concern’ was that the project would lead to MORE cycling (heaven forbid), the whole purpose of the DfT funding! Ironic then that both the DfT Cycling Ambition guidance and the NFNPA’s own Management Plan and Recreation Management Strategy cite an increase in cycling as one of their core aims.

Instead of finding a way to deliver the projects in the original application, NFNPA members have apparently embarked on a process of identifying and securing support for a set of 'Plan B' capital schemes. I say apparently because none of these schemes have been subject to any form of wider public consultation or scrutiny, and therefore the cycling community (the users of the schemes) have not been able to input or provide any feedback to ensure cyclists needs will be met in the most appropriate ways. This is hugely disappointing, and slightly ironic, given that the NFNPA members’ last minute decision to abort the Public Bike Share scheme was influenced by the results of public consultation with only approximately 130 respondents.

It is the comprehensive breakdown in engagement between the NFNPA and cyclists that has motivated me to write to you.

So, onto Plan B. I have no doubt that the NFNPA has and will continue to make a seemingly robust case for the reallocation of funding to these alternative schemes. However, it is reasonable to assume that taxpayers would expect proper scrutiny of the proposals, so I’ve listed a few questions below to help with this process:

Are the Plan B proposals legitimate capital spend?

I was interested to read the following quotes from a recent NFNPA meeting in the New Forest Post “Some NPA members questioned whether funding would be approved as it was basically highway maintenance” and “I am so glad that common sense has prevailed” (in relation to ‘Boris Bikes’ being scrapped).

Having seen the list of proposals, I am of the view that a number of the schemes are simply highway maintenance, perhaps more suited to a revenue funding budget. Included in the list of schemes is a £1,275,000 proposal to resurface the carriageway edges along Rhinefield Drive, to restore the edges to a previous condition. Another proposal involves replacing the gravel along 16 miles of Forestry Commission tracks with another form of gravel. A third proposal, apparently already approved, involves the resurfacing of the Lyndhurst to Ashurst cycle route, again a straightforward highway maintenance scheme.

There is very strong local and indeed national opinion amongst the cycling community that such schemes have been included in Plan B simply to preserve the decreasing maintenance budgets of the local highway authority and Forestry Commission. Indeed, beyond the cycling community I have been contacted by a great number of New Forest businesses who very much welcome the year round trade that cyclists bring to the New Forest, and these business people are as disappointed as anyone that perfectly viable cycling schemes have been needlessly binned and quickly replaced by rudimentary maintenance work.

Is investment in infrastructure outside of the National Park the best approach?

No doubt you will be aware that a significant number of the NFNPA Plan B proposals are investments in infrastructure outside of the National Park. Whilst many of these do have some merit, others are far more dubious. None is more questionable than a £300,000 contribution to a new Family Cycling Centre at Moors Valley Country Park, an isolated commercial visitor attraction some 3 miles to the west of the National Park, in Dorset, operated between the Forestry Commission and East Dorset District Council. Moors Valley is funded almost exclusively through visitor car parking charges, there are no cycling links or public transport links into the New Forest National Park from the Moors Valley site. It seems very strange indeed to invest this National Park Cycling funding in an attraction which is entirely designed to prevent cyclists from accessing or having a National Park experience. National Parks are assets for the nation, places where the next generation should be encouraged to go for exploration, exercise and enjoyment. It seems utterly ridiculous that a funding stream designed to increase cycling to and within New Forest National Park should actually be used in a manner to prevent it!

Are non-cyclists the best people to devise cycle schemes?

As mentioned earlier, the NFNPA has not invited wider comment or input from cyclists on the Plan B list of schemes. Given that cyclists are expected to be the users and beneficiaries of the new infrastructure, I suggest that this is a huge oversight. Probably the best example of this is the proposal to spend £1,275,000 on maintaining the carriageway edges along Rhinefield Road, a scheme which is neither desired nor considered necessary by the cycling community. Indeed, there is significant local opposition to the scheme from cyclists, as the key beneficiary is likely to be motorists who will, as a result of this resurfacing, be able to drive faster along this road. Only this weekend gone a cyclist was seriously injured on this road by a driver, yet this spending proposal actually does nothing to make the road safer for cyclists.

It is logical to conclude that non-cyclists may not be well placed to identify the best use of this funding; ideally the proposals would be developed through close collaboration with multiple stakeholders, as appeared to be the case with the original application. The simple fact the NFNPA members have approved the Plan B schemes without wider involvement of the cycling community is enough to set alarm bells ringing!

Are Plan B schemes deliverable?

Having lived in the New Forest all of my life and now raising my young family here, I’ve observed the painfully slow progress of delivering any new cycle infrastructure. This is in part due to the sheer volume and tenacity of ‘Forest Interest’ groups, the protection offered by numerous habitat designations in the New Forest, and the complex process of gaining consent from the powers that be, including Natural England and The Verderers of the New Forest. It is for these reasons that the conversion of an existing footway to a cycleway, to create the Ashurst to Lyndhurst cycle route, took over 10 years to deliver.

I have absolutely zero confidence that many of the Plan B schemes are deliverable by the extended September 2015 deadline, and I strongly fear that should Plan B be approved, it will only lead to further awkward conversations between the NFNPA and DfT in the months to come and quite significant failures to actually achieve the stated aims of this funding.

Are there alternative schemes?

Ironically, many of the Plan A schemes already aborted are the preferred alternatives of the local cycling community. As well as the innovative Boris Bike scheme (which the preferred supplier B-Cycle is still willing to facilitate), the original proposal included a ‘Family Cycling Centre’ at Brockenhurst. I understand that this may still be achieved on an alternative nearby site and I would suggest that this is fully supported. Indeed, reading the original bid document it would appear that this development committed the majority of the match funding to original bid.

Alternative schemes not included in plans A or B include the completion of National Cycle Network Route 2, by implementing a scheme along the notorious ‘straight mile’ section at Holmsley. Local cyclists and campaign groups have lobbied for years to have this section improved, but apparently to no avail. There are numerous other examples of infrastructure improvements which would be higher up the priority list than the current Plan B schemes, as well as other measures designed to reduce the impact of cars such as a reduction in speed limits. It is most regrettable that the NFNPA has not engaged with cyclists to identify these very obvious schemes.

It’s also ironic that there already exists 100’s of miles of additional gravel track network already in place across the Forest. Permitting cycling on this network would link numerous communities, instantly increase the amount of traffic free cycle routes, and provide a higher quality cycling experience than currently exists, all at absolutely no cost. Again, cyclists and cycling organisations have been lobbying the Verderers of the New Forest for many years to open up this existing network, but no progress has been ever made, it is seemingly a ‘closed shop’ to the cycling community.

Does the New Forest National Park deserve this investment?

Whilst NFNPA officers have shown great enthusiasm and commitment to developing cycling, there is no doubt a disappointing and sustained negativity towards cycling from the NFNPA members themselves. I attended a recent Authority meeting and was astonished by some of the anti-cycling rhetoric displayed by the majority of members. As custodians of a national asset with huge potential for cycling, it is tremendously frustrating that members are unable to endorse their own adopted policies and embrace cycling. It is clear many members on the NFNPA who are district/parish councillors continue to make decisions on National Park matters still wearing their respective district/parish councillor ‘hats’, rather than conducting themselves in line with the proper interests of a National Park

The attitude of members has also created significant negative PR for cycling in the New Forest, which in the medium term may have a negative impact on the cycle tourism, which ironically the Cycle Ambition set out to support. The position of the NFNPA has also received criticism from trusted organisations such as the CPRE and the Campaign for National Parks.

Some examples of recent media coverage on this matter are linked below:

New Forest cycling grant fails to live up to expectations

New Forest plans to use rural Boris Bike grant to repair roads damaged by cars

Petition launched to save New Forest Boris Bikes scheme

New Forest has chronic problem with cycling schemes

Foresters say no?

If the Plan B is indeed the very best that NFNPA members are willing to endorse for cycling in the New Forest then I would much rather see this rare and valuable cycling funding returned to DfT and invested in far more worthy cycle schemes elsewhere.

Inappropriate spending of DfT cycling funds?

Freedom of Information requests have been made to NFNPA, Hampshire Country Council (Calshot Activities Centre), and the Forestry Commission which have identified some apparent inappropriate instances of spending from this DfT cycling funding. For example, car park resurfacing, refurbishment of toilets, and a £25k van to replace an existing NFNPA vehicle, all of which are either maintenance or replacement of existing equipment. Quite how these achieve the objectives of the cycling ambition programme is frankly beyond me and the many thousands of people I have interacted with over this matter. Specific details of this spending (and the NFNPA guidance for the grants) can all be found here in this zip file. Some have suggested to me that it’sts simply ‘clever accounting’ by NFNPA, the more vociferous however consider it akin to money laundering.

I specifically find it most curious that tens of thousands of pounds of this cycling funding were applied for by HCC and authorised by NFNPA within just one working day, conveniently right before the 1st April 2014 deadline for this portion of funding. I submit that this funding application specifically has not been scrutinised at all and that the DfT cycling money has simply been thrown around like confetti by NFNPA solely to subsidise the budgets of other public bodies and avoid funding returning to the DfT.

How will Plan B be evaluated?

I understand that the original funding to NFNPA from the DfT was granted through a competitive bidding round, generating four successful and five unsuccessful national park applications. I imagine that the unsuccessful applicants are keeping a close watch on developments, and are likely questioning the legitimacy of reallocating the original funding to alternative ‘sub-standard’ cycle schemes. In order to follow due process, presumably the DfT will be evaluating the NFNPA Plan B application against the five unsuccessful applications submitted in the spring 2013, or at least ensuring that the Plan B proposals generate the same outcomes as those set out in the original application. Please can you confirm if this the case?

Reallocating this cycling funding also sets a dangerous precedent for future bidding processes. Is it now acceptable for a local authority to bid for cycling funding to deliver a set of specific projects, and then decide (at the last moment on spurious grounds) not to deliver them and yet still expect to keep that funding to spend on something else? Something only very tenuously linked with cycling which clearly does not deliver the original objectives?

To conclude it appears that there has been a catastrophic failure of leadership and governance at the NFNPA. This of course isn’t the DfT’s concern, but the DfT should be rightly concerned about reallocating this funding to a set of schemes which simply do not achieve the right outcomes, are not required by the wider cycling community, and will likely continue to generate negative PR for cycling in the New Forest for many years to come. A fundamental shift in attitudes amongst the NFNPA members is what is required, but unfortunately this isn’t something which can be achieved through funding alone.

I am entirely supportive of NFNPA's aim to: "be the UK’s premier family cycling destination, with cycling normalised as the key method of getting between the communities, transport hubs and attractions of the National Park." However, having studied all of the above in great detail with many other stakeholders 'Plan B' does absolutely nothing to achieve this goal. This simply cannot be right.

Yours sincerely

@forestcyclist (find me on Twitter)

 

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