Yesterday's spending review left the future for cycling in Britain far from clear, elite cycling was spared (for now at least), however with the Department for Transport asked to make £13bn of cuts, 21 per cent of its budget over the next four years and local councils being asked to save 28 per cent it is likely that funding for cycling infrastructure projects and cycle promotion will be squeezed - it's also pretty certain that we can all look forward to a lot more potholes in the roads.
The key points of the review most likely to affect spending on cycling infrastructure and the promotion of cycling as a form of transport were the cutting of the transport budget and the devolving of spending powers to local authorities – "devolving powerlessness" was how CTC campaigns manager Roger Geffen characterised that move given the level of cuts involved.
Yesterday's announcement, which comes less than a week after it was confirmed that Cycling England is to be wound up in March, wasn't all bad news and uncertainty, however - elite cycle sport was spared the axe (well, there is the small matter of London 2012 to consider) and that was despite the fact that UK Sport saw its budget cut by 28 per cent.
All bets are off though after March 2013 when the Olympics are safely out of the way and the new spending settlement runs out. British Cycling's chief executive, Ian Drake welcomed the reassurances on short term funding and was realistic about the future:
“We fully appreciate the current economic climate and the tough decisions that have to be made. In that context, the fact that both UK Sport and Sport England are able to commit to existing funding levels through to March 2013 is extremely welcome news. Vitally, this creates the stability we need to focus on the job in hand ahead of London 2012, both in terms of elite performances and the wider growth and development of our sport.
“It is no surprise that the picture will change post-2012 and over the past 18 months we have already prepared for this by working hard to grow other revenue streams through membership and commercial partnerships, such as with our principal partner British Sky Broadcasting. That work will continue to ensure we will be well placed to build further on the excellent momentum gained over the past few years across all areas of activity.”
The future for the continued promotion and growth for cycling as a transport and leisure activity though was far from clear, "it still leaves an awful lot of questions" was the assessment of CTC's Geffen, "what will happen to funding for cycle training for adults and children, for promoting cycling in schools, for promoting cycling in rail integration, and what about continuing support for the cycling towns and cities?"
More detail on how the Department for Transport will find the £13bn it needs to make in its budget over the next four years should emerge next week when government departments start to report in more detail.
Cycling bodies such CTC and Sustrans are pinning their hopes on the government's new Local Sustainable Transport Fund, however as Geffen pointed out to road.cc, "We still don't know the size of local Sustainable Transport funds, or who will be entitled to bid funding and what that funding will cover". Indeed last month's announcement of the new funds by the DfT was somewhat lacking in detail and open to varying interpretations:
“Measures could include encouraging walking and cycling, initiatives to improve integration between travel modes and end-to-end journey experiences, better public transport and improved traffic management schemes,” said a statement from the Department for Transport issued at the time. Some meat was put on those bones in the small print to the DfT's notes on the spending review (see Carlton Reid's comment below) with the news that £560m would be allocated to the funds, with a proportion of this already earmarked for Bikeability training but that money is going to have to stretch a long way given the demands likely to be put on the Sustainable Transport Funds.
The fear must be that with a 28 per cent hole in their transport budgets to fill local authorities will be tempted to dip in to their Sustainable Transport Fund to pay for that new contra-flow or to fill the hole in the pothole repair budget - both of which could easily be portrayed as measures to reduce carbon emissions. The removal of ring fencing around many areas of how local authorities spend their transport budgets certainly opens this up as a possibility.
Potentially all spending on cycling in the future will be in the hands of local authorities, a prospect that concerns Geffen: "It is really going to be down to local authorities to decide on how to spend the money they've got… Local authorities know best which may come as a surprise to many cyclists who know that local authorities don't know best when it comes to cycling". Perhaps not surprisingly one likely outcome of all this is that the CTC will be focusing much of its campaigning at a local level in future, says Geffen.
Sustrans is the cycling organisation that is most likely to be impacted by any cuts in government spending on cycling infrastructure given it role in championing such projects. Peter Lipman, Sustrans policy director saw little encouragement for sustainable transport in the measures announced and laid down a challenge to the new government to live up to its much trumpeted green credentials:
"Not surprisingly the spending review of transport has given us few sustainable options to bite on, save some commitment to public transport. Roads dominate, which does not bode well for walking and cycling, but perhaps there'll be better news when we get more details next week.
“Either way Sustrans believes that government transport strategies need to be far braver going forward if we are to be serious about improving health and energy security, reducing carbon and fostering long term economic prosperity. And of course living up to the coalition's promise of being the greenest government ever."
One test of the government's green credentials willl be how it resolves the uncertainty surrounding the future funding (if there is to be any) for Cycling England's Cycling Demonstration Towns and Cities. In cycle-funding terms these are reasonably big ticket items, in transport funding terms they cost peanuts and promise to deliver substantial benefits in terms of health savings, traffic reduction, and reduced carbon emissions.
"The idea of the Cycling Towns was that it was to see what happened if continental levels of funding were invested over a sustained period of time, as it stands we are back to stop start funding with uncertainty about what's going to happen from as early as next March, says the CTC's Geffen, "Not only does the funding for the cycling towns and cities risk being lost, but the continuing uncertainty means a lot of the people who have built up expertise risks being lost too".
There is no doubt that we now live in a new world, but what place cycling has in it seems yet to be determined.
Tony has been editing cycling magazines and websites since 1997 starting out as production editor and then deputy editor of Total Bike, acting editor of Total Mountain Bike and then seven years as editor of Cycling Plus. He launched his first cycling website - the Cycling Plus Forum at the turn of the century. In 2006 he left C+ to head up the launch team for Bike Radar which he edited until 2008, when he co-launched the multi-award winning road.cc - which he continues to edit today. His favourite ride is his ‘commute’ - which he does most days inc weekends and he’s been cycle-commuting since 1994. His favourite bikes are titanium and have disc brakes.