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Budget reaction: £2 billion for active travel not enough for government to meet its own targets, warn campaigners

Chancellor Rishi Sunak sets out spending plans to 2025 – but planned investment in cycling and walking is well below what is needed

Active travel campaigners have said that funding for active travel announced in today’s Budget and Spending Review from Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak will not be enough to meet the government’s own target of doubling levels of cycling and increasing levels of walking by 2025.

In his address to the House of Commons this afternoon, Sunak said that the government would provide “funding for buses, cycling and walking totalling more than £5 billion” in England – misreported by the BBC in its live online coverage of the announcement as “spending on cycling infrastructure of more than £5 billion.”

In its Autumn Budget and Spending Review 2021 (SR21) published today, the government says it “will invest over £5 billion in buses and cycling during this Parliament.”

It claims that the funding “delivers a step change in investment, delivering the commitments in Bus Back Better and Gear Change” – the latter being the document that set out its active travel pledges.

More than £3 billion will be spent on improving bus fares, services and infrastructure, and the government also says there will be “more than £2 billion of investment in cycling and walking over the Parliament,” and claims that it includes “£710 million of new active travel funding at SR21.”

It added: “This funding will build hundreds of miles of high quality, segregated cycle lanes, provide cycle training for every child and deliver an e-bike support programme to make cycling more accessible.”

It is unclear, however, whether that £710 million really is ‘new’ money, given that it is now 18 months since Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced in the House of Commons in February 2020 that the government would be spending £5 billion on buses and active travel between then and 2025.

And if – as Johnson promised – £2 billion of that money is for active travel, equivalent to £400 million a year, the question must be asked of when that funding is going to come fully on-stream, given that, for example, the amounts allocated to local authorities under the first two tranches of the £225 million emergency active travel funding announced last year total £217.5 million.

Besides the “more than £2 billion” set aside for cycling and walking, £6.9 billion in funding for eight English city regions announced today will also include some spend on cycling.

That includes investing in active travel in Greater Manchester, a Dutch-style roundabout in Bradford, and improvements for cyclists and pedestrians in Tees Valley and Bath and Bristol – although as this article from Transport Network points out, again it does not appear to be ‘new’ money.

Responding to today’s announcement, Sarah Mitchell, CEO of the charity Cycling UK, said the money fell well short of the investment needed for government targets for growing active travel set out in last year’s Gear Change document to be met.

“Ring-fenced funding of £2 billion over five years will enable councils to get on with building hundreds of miles of separated cycling routes in both urban and rural areas,” she said.

“However it won’t deliver the tens of thousands of miles needed to create the ‘world class’ network that the government promised in its Gear Change vision document last year.

“Meeting the government’s own targets to double cycling and increase walking by 2025 will require investment of between £6 to £8 billion,” she added.

“If England is to have a chance of making this target, local authorities must be able to make up the shortfall and secure additional funding if we’re to ‘build back better’.”

Xavier Brice, chief executive of the sustainable transport charity, Sustrans, warned that current levels of funding for active travel meant it was “unlikely” that the targets the government had set itself for 2025 would be missed.

“Last week, the UK Government’s Net Zero Strategy reiterated the target for half of all journeys in towns and cities to be cycled or walked by 2030,” he said.

“This is a very ambitious target that highlights the need for long-term, reliable investment in active travel, and also public transport.

"However, whilst the £2 billion of funding is a great starting point for building up walking and cycling, the UK government’s existing targets for 2025, which include doubling cycling, are unlikely to be met, and so we look forward to the government setting out how they will meet the 2030 target in the forthcoming second Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy,” he added.

Meanwhile, with less than a week to go until the start of the COP26 conference in Glasgow, the government has been criticised for continuing to freeze fuel duty and pledging to reduce air passenger duty for domestic flights – with Green Party MP Caroline Lucas tweeting that it looked as though Sunak “didn’t get the memo on the climate emergency.”

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.

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