As the dust settles on yesterday’s news that the Coalition Government is to disband Cycling England in March next year, it’s sobering to reflect how quickly the Tories’ manifesto pledge that “encouraging cycling will be a major priority for a future Conservative Government” appears to have been torn up during the party’s first five months in power.
During that period, the impact has also started to be felt of the 40% cut in the Road Safety Grant, a measure that lies squarely at odds the Liberal Democrats’ own manifesto pledge to “further boost cycling through our commitment to improving road safety, road quality and reducing traffic levels, on-road cycling which will make cycling easier, safer and more accessible to all.”
The signs that pre-electoral promises of promoting cycling were evident as soon as the coalition came into being, the agreement that underpins it making only the briefest of passing references, immediately followed by the appointment of a Secretary of State for Transport who is at best ignorant of, and at worst hostile towards, those of us who choose to ride bikes.
The efforts of Mayor of London Boris Johnson to bring about a cycling revolution may have been derided in some quarters, with the Cycle Superhighways described as nothing more than a lick of paint and doubt expressed among cycle campaigners over whether the city’s Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme will truly bring cycling to the masses, or whether it’s simply a massive waste of money, with investment outweighing the benefits.
But whether or not you agree with how Johnson is going about promoting cycling in the capital, it’s undeniable that he is doing something, and that unlike his fellow Bullingdon Club alumnus now occupying Number Ten, cycling means more to him than simply providing an environmentally friendly photocall.
Moreover, the Cycle Hire Scheme, while currently lacking the scale of Vélib’ in Paris, does underline the potential popularity of cycling as a form of urban transport as well as its ability to turn a profit.
As Carlton Reid has pointed out on BikeBiz, the money saved by abolishing Cycling England is equivalent to that spent on building just five metres of motorway. With the benefits of cycling to the economy well documented, there certainly seems to be no logic behind abolishing Cycling England on economic grounds alone.
Indeed, the government itself has said tha yesterday’s announcement of the decision to dispense with close to 200 quangos was less to do with financial considerations – although the list was drawn up as a result of the public spending review – than with increasing transparency and accountability.
Again, however, it’s difficult to see how that justifies the action taken in Cycling England’s case – it acted as an expert body dispensing funds to local authorities who then had to answer to their local electorates for how they spent them , and it doesn't get more accountable than that.
That in turn begs the question of what the government's precise reasoning was for killing a useful quango that cost a mere £200,000 a year to run.
Cycling England’s demise means that cycling no longer has a unified body to put its case in the corridors of power, and no longer has a readily identifiable budget that can be allocated to specific initiatives that take the national picture into account.
Instead, cycling in England will be left to fight for cash from the much vaunted but little explained Local Sustainable Transport Fund, which as yet has no budget, and investment will largely depend on the whim and political priorities of local authorities.
With sports governing bodies bracing themselves for an expected 30% cut in funding under the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, due to be published next week, things could get worse yet.
If we’re not doing so already, by the time the London Olympics begin on 27 July 2012, we may well be looking back on the years of the Labour Government not only as a golden age for investment in cycling infrastructure, but also for British success at the elite level of the sport.
Clearly, nothing we or anyone else in the cycling world says is going reverse Cycling England’s death sentence, but we can work together to weather the storm and hope for brighter days ahead.
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.