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OPINION

Boris Johnson resignation: A blow for active travel?

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Will the next Prime Minister be as supportive of schemes aimed at boosting cycling and walking?

Boris Johnson’s resignation today as Conservative Party leader – he plans to stay on as Prime Minister until the autumn to allow time for his successor to be chosen, although it is widely expected a caretaker will take on the role – signals the end of what has been the most chaotic premiership of my lifetime, and that’s from someone who lived in Italy when Silvio Berlusconi was in power.

Given the u-turns and the denials swiftly followed by admissions and less-than-sincere apologies that have characterised his time in Number 10, Johnson’s departure will be widely celebrated, and not just by political opponents – but could it also stall the progress the government has been making, under his leadership, in encouraging active travel?

It’s hard to think of a single issue on which he has been more consistent – this is a man, remember, who ahead of the 2016 referendum wrote a draft newspaper column making the case for the UK remaining within the European Union alongside one arguing why it should leave it before throwing his weight behind the Leave campaign.

But back in his days as Mayor of London, he would regularly commute by bike from his Canonbury home to City Hall, and it was under his tenure there that the Cycle Superhighways programme was launched, as well as the cycle hire scheme that would give rise to the nickname ‘Boris Bikes’ (although it was his predecessor, Labour’s Ken Livingstone, who green-lit the scheme which had initially been proposed by the Liberal Democrats).

Those early cycleways, painted blue to reflect their sponsorship by Barclays, offered nothing in the way of physical segregation.

Boris Johnson on CS2 extension Nov 2013 (source MayorofLondon on Twitter)

But in what turned out to be an inspired decision Johnson – who famously is not one for detail – recruited Andrew Gilligan as the city’s first cycling commissioner and one of the results was the protected cycleway running from Lancaster Gate to the Tower of London via Parliament Square and the Embankment.

Johnson and ill-thought-out infrastructure projects go hand in hand – the Garden Bridge, the airport in the Thames Estuary, the bridge linking Northern Ireland and Scotland and the Emirates Air Line cable car to name but four, with only the latter ever being built – but that cycle route, used by thousands of people each day, has proved to be transformational for getting across the heart of the capital safely and quickly.

He said at the time that bringing the project to fruition in the face of opposition including from his own party was the toughest challenge he had faced in his career to date.

“To be honest, this whole Cycle Revolution, which is really under way, is provoking the most incredible backlash, I’ve got to be honest with you,” he told the London Assembly in late 2015.

“I can’t think of anything I’ve ever done that’s provoked such direct remonstrances from everybody,” Johnson added. “Virtually every senior government minister in one way or another has ticked me off in one way or another for the Cycle Superhighways.”

Boris Johnson (picture credit Prudential RideLondon)

When he replaced Theresa May as Prime Minister in autumn 2019, Johnson – who, as foreign minister had been banned on security grounds from riding his bike around London – swiftly appointed Gilligan as his transport advisor.

In May the following year with the country in lockdown as a result of the coronavirus pandemic heralded “a new golden age for cycling” with active travel put firmly at the heart of the country’s recovery, the government’s plans outlined in July that year in the document Gear Shift: A bold vision for cycling and walking.

> Boris Johnson reveals how he will bring in “new golden age for cycling”

Backed by a promised £2 billion budget during the life of the current Parliament, councils across England were told in no uncertain terms that projects needed to meet strict quality standards or face being denied further funding, and that schemes needed to be given time to bed in and be properly assessed, a response to a number of instances of temporary infrastructure being swiftly removed by councils due to opposition from vocal minorities.

> Department for Transport say councils must give walking and cycling schemes time

In recognition of the role they can play in tackling diverse issues including reducing congestion, promoting physical and mental health and helping fight the climate crisis, support for cycling and walking has also extended to the creation of a new body, Active Travel England, headed by Chris Boardman.

The agency is tasked among other things with improving the quality of cycling and walking infrastructure across the country outside London (where, ironically, investment in cycling has stalled due to TfL’s funding crisis brought about by the pandemic which sees it having to rely on short-term bailouts from the government, making it impossible to plan for the longer term).

The big question now from a cycling perspective is whether whoever succeeds Johnson as Prime Minister will embrace active travel with the same enthusiasm as he did?

His time in office has seen a succession of scandals that in past times would surely have long ago led to his resignation but he has clung on to his position with all the tenacity of a limpet – until now.

Boris Johnson promises Golden Age for cycling (via BBC).PNG

The collapse of support for him among his ministers and backbench Tory MPs will in large part be due to plunging support for the party in the polls and inboxes full of demands for him to go from constituents and party members, and one common theme among the dozens of letters of resignation published in recent days has been that under his leadership, the Conservative Party has lost sight of its so-called traditional values.

There’s little doubt therefore that the incoming Prime Minister will be under intense pressure to restore those to the party to bring voters back on-board – and should that person not be as engaged with and supportive of active travel as Johnson has been, there is every possibility that it is an area of policy that could become a casualty of the change in leadership.

Yes, there are some Conservative local authorities that do embrace active travel – Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council, currently rolling out a network of protected cycle lanes in partnership with Dorset Council, springs to mind – but they are very much in the minority and others, such as the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, actively resist having segregated infrastructure on their key roads.

> PM Boris Johnson ‘ballistic’ over scrapping of Kensington High Street cycle lane

Here on road.cc, we’ve covered numerous examples of Conservative councillors and MPs opposing initiatives aimed at improving conditions for people on bikes, while the Daily Mail – whose editorial stance reflects its core readership, which closely aligns with much of the party’s voter base – has made no secret of its view of cycling infrastructure, and bike riders in general unless they happen to be winning Olympic gold medals.

It may well be a number of weeks until we know the identity of Johnson’s successor. But whoever it is, he or she will bring their own priorities to Number 10, including how best to spend what money is available as the country heads towards a forecast recession, and how to win back voters who have withdrawn their support in recent months. It would be a pleasant surprise if continuing to back active travel were high up the agenda – but I’m not going to hold my breath.

Simon joined road.cc as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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37 comments

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OldRidgeback | 1 year ago
6 likes

Hmm, it's worth remembering that Johnson's 'cycling revolution for London' was really just a continuation of the plans set out by his predecessor, Ken Livingstone. All Johnson did was not cancel the plans and, of course, take the credit for someone else's idea.

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Rich_cb replied to OldRidgeback | 1 year ago
7 likes

That assumes that ideas are hard and implementation is the easy bit.

A quick glance at Boris' litany of infrastructure ideas, that remained just that, should disabuse you of that notion.

If you did want to continue down that rabbit hole you could argue that the Lib Dems came up with the idea before Livingstone and Paris implemented a scheme before that so maybe all the credit for London's cycling infrastructure should go to whoever was Mayor of Paris at the time?

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lonpfrb | 1 year ago
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Another bad judgement of BJ was that TfL should be a transport operatons company and not an asset management organisation. Thus the central government grant was no longer required and any new infrastructure would be built separately.

So Crossrail tested that idea and years late, billions over budget is the result. We will never know if that would have been different with the previous arrangements but we do know that TfL has changed for the worse. Specifically year on year budget cuts and the loss of significant capabilities as people leave.

So don't forget that misjudged decision..
Getting cycle superhighways done is probably not in the same league.

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open_roads replied to lonpfrb | 1 year ago
4 likes

The "crossrail is billions over budget" is trotted out as a matter for fact but the budget performance is rather more complicated than most people realise.

The crossrail deliver budget was trimmed in c2008/2009 during the financial crisis - politicians decided it could be done for £2-3b less than the people who had built tunnel / rail systems had estimated. The contingency budget was also reduced at the same time.

The reality is that crossrail has been largely delivered within the original budget estimate. There have been delays (covid) and over runs (Bond Street) but given the scale of the project and risks associated with major civil engineering works that's not completely unexpected.

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Rich_cb | 1 year ago
9 likes

I think it's almost certainly going to be a retrograde step for active travel.

Boris has many flaws but he's probably been the best prime minister for cycling in living memory.

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Simon E replied to Rich_cb | 1 year ago
2 likes
Rich_cb wrote:

Boris has many flaws but he's probably been the best prime minister for cycling in living memory.

Sadly that's a pretty low bar.

My impression is that Boris Johnson's government has done f..k all for cycling outside London.

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Rich_cb replied to Simon E | 1 year ago
1 like

I'd argue that the highway code changes and the changes to design standards for cycling infrastructure were beneficial to all cyclists.

Funding has definitely been increased for active travel too, implementation however is down to local authorities and/or devolved governments so is largely outside the PM's remit.

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Simon E replied to Rich_cb | 1 year ago
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Fair points there. But the effect of the Highway Code changes is almost impossible to discern (and many road users will claim they unaware of them) and can Boris really take the credit for that? Design changes have in themselves created nothing substantial. The highest standards in the world are worth nothing if they are not implemented.

Boris and Grant Shapps might have made promising noises at times but it has had little or no difference to decision-making at local level - you only have to see how few councils took up the money for covid-related infrastructure, or added a cycle lane and shortly afterwards ripped it out.

This is a government that wants to spend £27 billion on roads for motorised traffic and reduced fuel duty on petrol and diesel, happy to subsidise electric cars (especially company cars) but not e-bikes. And it seems that any money for active travel is crumbs fallen from the table.

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Rich_cb replied to Simon E | 1 year ago
2 likes

Boris appointed Gilligan and Shapps who drove through the changes so I think he deserves credit for both the highway code changes and the design standards.

I agree that the designs now need to be implemented but that is a local government issue as I mentioned before.

The standards should, however, stop sub standard infrastructure being funded which make roads more dangerous (I'm looking at you murder strips) so even if they don't lead to the building of safe infrastructure they will at least stop the building (painting) of dangerous infrastructure.

You can certainly argue that active travel needs far more investment and I'd wholeheartedly agree but Boris increased both the funding and profile of active travel and hopefully has created a legacy of continuing improvements in both areas.

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AlsoSomniloquism replied to Rich_cb | 1 year ago
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The consultation document seems to indicate the call for changes needed to the HC came from a time under Mays term.

Although shame he didn't promote a lot more of that report including Driving Instructors needing to take an Advanced Cycling Course as well and other items which would have helped as much as the HC changes might.

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Rich_cb replied to AlsoSomniloquism | 1 year ago
2 likes

The ideas are easy, it's the implementation that's hard.

Boris appointed good people who drove through some really worthwhile changes.

Does he deserve 100% of the credit? Of course not. He does deserve significant credit though.

Imagine how few of those recommendations would have seen the light of day with a PM opposed to them.

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Simon E replied to Rich_cb | 1 year ago
1 like
Rich_cb wrote:

I agree that the designs now need to be implemented but that is a local government issue as I mentioned before.

That will be the councils that have had their budgets slashed over the last 12 years.

Yet Shropshire council - already on its knees financially and led for decades by inept, corrupt fools who couldn't even run a bath - persists with its intention to build a so-called 'relief' road that will solve nothing but empty the coffers.

But ask them to take cycling seriously and you'll just be laughed at.

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Rich_cb replied to Simon E | 1 year ago
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A decent proportion of the active travel money is ringfenced so the overall state of a council's finances shouldn't be relevant.

Tax take in the UK is on course to be the highest since WW2 during this parliament, the fact that we have such poor public services despite this high level of taxation is down to poor management as in the example you gave.

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Simon E replied to Rich_cb | 1 year ago
1 like
Rich_cb wrote:

A decent proportion of the active travel money is ringfenced so the overall state of a council's finances shouldn't be relevant.

Councils surely can't implement active travel infrastructure if the relevant staff have been laid off.

I suspect this, as well as deep antipathy towards cycling among councillors, is part of why councils like mine have shown no enthusiasm for the funding or active travel.

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Rich_cb replied to Simon E | 1 year ago
0 likes

I doubt many councils have laid off their entire highways department.

Even if they had, the ringfenced money could be used to employ a private contractor. Possibly more expensive but better than doing nothing.

There's no financial justification for a council's lack of action.

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Dnnnnnn replied to Rich_cb | 1 year ago
1 like
Rich_cb wrote:

Tax take in the UK is on course to be the highest since WW2 during this parliament, the fact that we have such poor public services despite this high level of taxation is down to poor management as in the example you gave.

It's true tax is currently high as a share of GDP - but not because of local government. Its headcount is the lowest for 60 years and remaining staff have had years of real terms pay cuts. Ringfencing small amounts for active travel schemes doesn't help much.
Many countries have higher tax vs GDP atm - after two years of pandemic GDP losses + pandemic public spending (health spend up 32% in 2020/21), it's hardly surprising.
Over a longer period, the UK has had poor economic growth post-2008, while spending on the likes of health and pensions continues to consume more of the budget - in considerable part at the expense of discretionary local spending. English councils’ non-education spending per resident fell by almost a quarter in real terms between 2009–10 and 2019–20 (https://ifs.org.uk/publications/15673).

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wtjs replied to Rich_cb | 1 year ago
2 likes

I'd argue that the highway code changes and the changes to design standards for cycling infrastructure were beneficial to all cyclists

You may do, but it would still be incorrect- just like the claim that Johnson was anything other than a loathsome, lying fat b******

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Rich_cb replied to wtjs | 1 year ago
1 like

What a well argued riposte.

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Mark_1973_ | 1 year ago
2 likes

Nicely done Simon. A left-wing attack on the Tories concealed in an "article" about cycling. Bravo!

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chrisonabike replied to Mark_1973_ | 1 year ago
12 likes

In the eye of the reader here.  Note the mention of some cycling positives by both Boris and some conservative local authorities.  If this makes many Tories not look good on cycling this is only because the actions by government and councils show they are not.  It would seem that the party is mostly not interested in even looking good.  If not actually taking a swing at things (e.g. infra) trying to assist cycling; presumably to appeal to some voters.

Simon could have said "other parties don't appear much better" but this is after all about the Conservatives.

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Rendel Harris replied to Mark_1973_ | 1 year ago
10 likes
Mark_1973_ wrote:

Nicely done Simon. A left-wing attack on the Tories concealed in an "article" about cycling. Bravo!

Nicely done Mark. A stupid whiny right-wing attack on road.cc concealed in...oh, hang on, it's not concealed at all.

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chrisonabike replied to Rendel Harris | 1 year ago
3 likes

Snap!

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Adam Sutton replied to Mark_1973_ | 1 year ago
9 likes

I'm sure you could have squeezed in mention of wokeness or some other asinine nonsense as well.

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Tom_77 | 1 year ago
1 like

YouGov poll of who Conservative party members want to be the next PM.

Out of that lot, Penny Mordaunt is pro-cycling. She signed the Cities Fit For Cycling EDM, none of the others did (although not all were MPs at the time).

 

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zideriup replied to Tom_77 | 1 year ago
1 like

Penny was also Trans-tolerant until she dropped support in a leadership race where demonstrating how 'not "woke"' one is seems to be the most important attribute and most pressing issue. 

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Adam Sutton | 1 year ago
6 likes

I am more concerned about the damage he has done while in the position.

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davwil | 1 year ago
1 like

Any thoughts as to whether CWIS2 will be a game-changer with a further £2.6B of funding? 

https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/second-cycling-and-walking-invest...

Or will the next prime minister pull the plug on both ATE and this extra funding?

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chrisonabike replied to davwil | 1 year ago
3 likes

Which 2 billion was that?  I'm losing track, was it the 2 billion which turned out to not be ringfenced, or new money, or indeed all for cycling and walking?

https://www.transport-network.co.uk/Ministers-play-catch-up-on-cycling-a...

Genuine question.  I know that Scotland managed to commit to 10% of the travel budget on active travel - although not immediately, and this will take time to actually appear as changes.  I appreciate that this may be a case of lies, damned lies, statistics and then government pledges but does anyone know?  Can anyone know?  Am I asking "is there a plan" when even Boris has departed...?

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brooksby replied to davwil | 1 year ago
4 likes

I read that Steve Baker wants to pull the plug on all 'green' policies if he gets in, on the justification that climate change and stuff really aren't a short term threat (and presumably that he cannot think in the long term?)

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lonpfrb replied to brooksby | 1 year ago
1 like
brooksby wrote:

I read that Steve Baker wants to pull the plug on all 'green' policies if he gets in..

Looking at the YouGov chart, he has no chance 1%.

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