Fears that Cycling England, the body whose activities include co-ordinating Bikeability training for schoolchildren and which also instituted the Cycling Demonstration Towns initiative, would fall victim to the coalition government’s so-called ‘Bonfire of the Quangos’ have been confirmed by the Cabinet Office this morning.
The organisation is one of almost 200 that will be culled as part of the coalition government’s spending review, although The Daily Telegraph claims that cost savings will be limited as many functions of the bodies to be scrapped will be transferred to other organisations within Whitehall and elsewhere, and ministers are instead pointing to increased transparency and accountability as justification for their reforms.
Indeed, the trade website BikeBiz points out in an article published this morning that Cycling England, which has only three full-time staff with its board drawn on a voluntary basis from organisations such as CTC, Sustrans and British Cycling, costs just £200,000 a year to run.
Set up in 2005, Cycling England had a budget of £60 million in 2009/10, the money coming from the Department for Transport elsewhere in Whitehall such as the Department for Health, and co-ordinates allocation of those funds for cycling initiatives to local authorities and other bodies such as National Parks and train operators.
The body also provides a unified voice for cycling at national level, one that is now set to be silenced at a time when it is perhaps more needed than ever before to prevent the work taken to increase levels of cycling in England in recent years being undone.
Norman Baker, the Under Secretary of State for Transport, told BikeBiz that scrapping Cycling England was part of a move to give more power and responsibility to local authorities, saying “We want to give more power and more flexibility to local authorities as we strongly believe that they know best what is right for their communities.”
"This new Coaltion Government is firmly committed to cycling. That is why it is expressly referred to in the Coalition Agreement," he insisted.
That reference, however, is limited to the following: “We will support sustainable travel initiatives, including the promotion of cycling and walking, and will encourage joint working between bus operators and local authorities.”
That’s hardly a ringing endorsement, and the cycling community in England is unlikely to have been reassured by a speech on ‘the future of transport’ at last month’s Conservative Party Conference in which Baker’s boss, Secretary of State for Transport Philip Hammond, did not make a single reference to cycling, instead pointing to electric cars as the way to help address traffic congestion.
That omission doesn’t inspire confidence and may seem surprising given the success of London’s Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme introduced by one of Hammond’s fellow party members, Mayor of London Boris Johnson, in July this year, let alone Prime Minister David Cameron's cycle commuting photocalls while in opposition.
At the same time, however, the Secretary for State, a self-confessed motoring enthusiast, did cause unease among cyclists at the time of his appointment when he said “I've never actually cycled in London. I'd have to take a deep breath. I think you need to know what you are doing to cycle in London.”
Following the abolition of Cycling England in March next year, cycling initiatives in the country will be left to compete with other forms of transport for funding from the government’s Local Sustainable Transport, which does not yet have a budget, and which is thought likely to benefit other forms of transport.
However, Baker maintains that decentralisation is the way forward, saying: “As there will no longer be a dedicated cycling pot of money, but instead a much broader fund, we feel that Cycling England is not the right way to continue to incentivise and encourage local authorities and others to stimulate cycling."
While it is hoped that Bikeability training will continue, no framework has yet been put in place, and Cycling England’s chairman Phillip Darnton is fearful for its future direction, telling BikeBiz: "Critically the decision to abolish Cycling England threatens the future of national cycling proficiency training, Bikeability. This scheme currently receives £12 million p.a. through Cycling England from the Department for Transport.
"Over 90 percent of all local authorities are involved in and benefitting from the programme, as are over 50 percent of all School Sports Partnerships – of which every school in England must be a part.
"While the Under Secretary of State has indicated that the Department for Transport will maintain support for the scheme,” he continues, “there are as yet no details as to how this will be effected.
"Neither the Minister nor DfT officials will discuss either the level of funding or the scale of their future intentions for cycle training. We will be pressing for clarification as soon as the Comprehensive Spending Review is published on October 20th.
"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."
Referring to the new Local Sustainable Transport Fund, Darnton’s fellow Cycling England board member Lynn Sloman told BikeBiz: "If the Government is to build on the last five years’ progress in getting more people cycling, it will need to do more than simply allocate grants.
"Cycling England’s experience is that in order to get results, you need to cut through the red tape, and really support, engage, enthuse and challenge. You need to combine the energy and passion of the cycling NGOs with the expertise of professional local authority teams; you need to share ideas and experience; and you need visionary leadership."
Meanwhile, Malcolm Shepherd, Chief Executive of Sustrans, warned that there was a risk of people's travel options being restricted if current investment in low-cost schemes to promote cycling, walking and public transport were not maintained.
“Cycling England has been a crucial conduit for funding which has touched the lives of millions of people by making it possible for people to cycle for everyday journeys," he said..
“With increasing challenges of health, congestion, carbon reduction and energy security, the low cost solution that cycling offers must be pursued with more vigour than ever. And local authorities must increase their efforts to work with charities and other partners to make it possible for more people to get around by bike."
Mr Shepherd continued: “The new Local Sustainable Transport Fund must not be a smokescreen for wider cuts to the spending that gets people cycling, walking and using public transport. From Sustrans' own practical work we know that minimal investment can reap huge rewards, for example, every £1 spent on encouraging people to change their travel behaviour brings a benefit of £8. The Fund must ensure that the benefits of Cycling England's successful work are not lost and smarter travel choices are extended to an increasing number of people.”
Paradoxically, Sir Philip Green’s report published earlier this week on government efficiency, which Cabinet Secretary Francis Maude acknowledged uncovered waste on a “staggering” scale, argued in favour of retaining quangos, a recommendation that today’s news demonstrates has been ignored.
Instead, while those who have worked so hard to promote bike riding under the Cycling England umbrella will clearly continue to do so through their respective organisations, there can be little doubt that the demise of the body will make their task harder.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.