The extent to which English local authorities need to improve their active travel credentials has been laid bare by Active Travel England's 'capability ratings', a "first ever review" of councils' ability to deliver active travel infrastructure schemes.
Taking into account the "three core ingredients to succeed" in delivering the government's objective of 50 per cent of trips in England's towns and cities to be walked, wheeled or cycled by 2030 — namely, strong leadership, ambition and a track record of delivery — each of the 79 local transport authorities outside of London completed a self-assessed rating, which was then subject to validation by Active Travel England.
The ratings will be used to guide the initial allocation of Active Travel and Capability Funding, Active Travel England says, with the body promising to support local authorities to improve their ratings in time for the next update in the summer.
A concerning picture?
The headlines? Just five local authorities — Nottingham, Greater Manchester, Leicester, West Midlands and West Yorkshire — achieved a level three rating, the remaining 94 per cent fell in the bottom three levels.
Four local authorities — Rutland, Leicestershire, West Sussex and Worcestershire — were scored in the lowest level 0 bracket, while not one council achieved level four, the highest possible.
Of the 79, 40 local authorities (51 per cent) received a level one rating, 30 (38 per cent) were given a level two rating, while five per cent and six per cent were given level zero and level three ratings respectively.
Active Travel England pledged to help those struggling, "so eventually, there will be no rating zero authorities" but noted inspections will take place to assess the quality of provision on the ground to "inform future ratings".
Higher rated authorities are eligible to access more funding, Active Travel England added, however effectiveness, quality and deliverability will be the primary factors in deciding final allocations. Local authorities rated zero will not be invited to apply for the Active Travel Fund but may be eligible for capability funding if they wish to improve.
The ratings were initially self-assessed by the local authorities, with that score then validated against Department for Transport evidence, including "13 metrics, performance history and other proxy data".
Rating 0: Local leadership for active travel is not obvious, no significant plans are in place, the authority has delivered only lower complexity schemes.
Rating 1: Some local leadership with basic plans and isolated interventions that do not yet obviously form a plan for a network.
Rating 2: Strong local leadership, with clear plans that form the basis of an emerging network with a few elements already in place.
Rating 3: Very strong local leadership, comprehensive plans, and a significant network in place with a growing number of people choosing to walk, wheel and cycle.
Rating 4: Established culture of active travel with successive increases in walking, wheeling and cycling, underpinned by a dense integrated network and highly supportive policies to give more people the choice to walk or cycle.
Explaining the "two-step" approach of asking local authorities for self-assessment before validating against data, Active Travel England CEO Danny Williams said the process "ensured outcomes were robust".
"This highly collaborative exercise was conducted to ensure every local authority had clarity on what was needed to secure funding and Active Travel England understood which type of support was required to ensure success," he said.
"A zero rating is something no one wants, least of all Active Travel England, but to be effective, we must all work from an accurate starting point. We want every authority to succeed and be able to access funding, so we will provide a support package that includes dedicated training, guidance and access to design support.
"The ratings will be reviewed annually. If in the interim a local authority demonstrates its capability has improved significantly, there will be scope to change ratings sooner. We will help local authorities give people a real choice to travel actively if they wish.
"When it comes to cycling, although fully protected routes along arterial roads into towns and cities are often effective, they are not the only type of infrastructure that works. A network of properly connected quiet streets in local neighbourhoods, well-placed road crossings, improved junctions and traffic restrictions near schools can also be highly effective for all types of active travel.
"We will help local authorities to deliver the most appropriate infrastructure for their context. Done well, active travel provision creates attractive, healthy places where people want to live and invest, benefiting local economies and returning very high value for money.
"Working with ambitious local authorities will be at the heart of everything we do because we won’t achieve our targets without councils delivering consistently, high-quality infrastructure that people choose to use, so we will continue to work in partnership, to co-create and share best practice."
The ratings come on the same day the decision by the government to slash the budget for active travel schemes in England outside London, the same areas featured in the ratings above, was branded a "backward move" by the Walking & Cycling Alliance (WACA).
The announcement of the cuts, which come ahead of Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt's Spring Budget next week, was made on Thursday in a written statement by Secretary of State for Transport, Mark Harper.
He said that since the current funding round was agreed, "headwinds" resulting from inflation relating to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and continued supply chain disruption following the coronavirus pandemic "have made it difficult to deliver on our capital programmes, and we recognise that some schemes are going to take longer than expected."
In a statement, WACA, which brings together a number of groups campaigning on active travel issues, described the cuts as a "backward move" and "disproportionate" compared to those made for other modes of transport, and would make it "impossible" for the government to meet walking and cycling, as well as Net Zero, targets.
"It is heart-breaking to see vital active travel budgets wiped away in England, at the exact time when they are most essential to UK economic, social and environmental prospects," WACA said. "It simply doesn't make sense to withdraw investment in active travel at this time.
"Representing a two-thirds cut to promised capital investment in walking, cycling and wheeling, these cuts are a backward move for active travel and will counteract the tremendous progress we’ve seen in recent years.
"These cuts are disproportionate compared to those for road and rail and will leave England lagging far behind other UK nations and London, at a time when we need to be raising the bar everywhere."
The announcement of the funding cuts comes little more than a year after the government set up the arm's length body Active Travel England, with then Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his transport adviser at Number 10, Andrew Gilligan, both strong proponents of cycling and walking.
Dan joined road.cc in 2020, and spent most of his first year (hopefully) keeping you entertained on the live blog. At the start of 2022 he took on the role of news editor. Before joining road.cc, Dan wrote about various sports, including football and boxing for the Daily Express, and covered the weird and wonderful world of non-league football for The Non-League Paper. Part of the generation inspired by the 2012 Olympics, Dan has been 'enjoying' life on two wheels ever since and spends his weekends making bonk-induced trips to the petrol stations of the south of England.