Campaigners have written to Prime Minister Boris Johnson with concerns Active Travel England, the linchpin of the Government’s "golden age of cycling", may take a year to launch, and 18 months to get up to speed.
The letter from #BikeisBest, a coalition of more than 50 cycle brands and organisations, says while the government’s Transport Accelerator for large infrastructure projects will launch as soon as next month, there is no clear timescale for Active Travel England to begin its work.
Without Active Travel England new design guidance for cycling and walking infrastructure can’t be enforced, councils without active travel expertise won’t have the support they need to plan and deliver routes, and new major infrastructure schemes could be designed without active travel elements at all.
However, sources argue the Department for Transport is trying to ensure the new public body is robust enough to avoid the same fate as Cycling England, the former cycling delivery body disbanded in Philip Hammond’s 2010 "bonfire of the quangos".
The #BikeisBest letter, titled "safeguarding the golden age of cycling", says swifter action by government, and a clear timetable, are needed to prevent a "post-code lottery" of safe cycling and walking infrastructure, and help councils withstand outcry over road space reallocation by a "vocal minority" opposing change.
The letter reads: “There are worrying signs that access to the kind of high quality cycling infrastructure that will enable mode shift could come down to a postcode lottery. Even where local authorities have received all the funding they asked for, delivery of schemes by some councils have been shelved because of local pressure from a vocal minority. This is a worrying trend that transcends geography or party politics.”
East Sussex and Brighton are the latest councils to roll back on new temporary cycle lanes, intended to provide safe alternatives to driving, as traffic levels increase following lockdown. Elsewhere vigilantes have sabotaged low traffic neighbourhoods in London.
#BikeisBest argues in the meantime a “centralised professional training scheme for active travel could be offered and promoted by the DfT” to equip local councils with the skills to deliver decent cycling and walking routes – as well as issuing reminders councils have been “mandated by government… to enable cycling and walking”.
Sources in talks with the Department for Transport and those involved with the former Cycling England, say ensuring Active Travel England meets the necessary standards and has the relevant powers could take between six months and a year with the less than 20 staff currently allocated to active travel – and reaching full steam, with the necessary staff and resources, could take 18 months.
One source said: “It does need to be set up properly because the worst thing would be to set up a group and not give it teeth or a sense it’s around to stay, to do the job properly, that it could lose its budget or be cut by the next government.”
Some argue with political will it could happen sooner. Until it is set up, Cycling UK’s Roger Geffen points out government will remain on track to reach only 40% of the way to its target to double cycling, with funding currently a quarter of what’s needed to deliver that growth. There are questions over whether councils even have the capacity to spend the £2bn allocated to cycling, currently. The level of resources Active Travel England will have for its huge task of negotiating with councils, politicians and planners up and down the country to deliver a cycling boom, is also unclear.
Phillip Darnton, former Chairman of Cycling England, said: “The besetting evil of all things cycling has been the stop-start, short-term nature of things. The destruction of Cycling England was the destruction of ability of councils to produce cycling programmes, and that lack of continuity has hampered cycling ever since.
“However keen and eager we are, in my view if it’s to be done properly it’ll take the rest of the year,” to set up Active Travel England, and “at least a year for [the equivalent of] a cycling demonstration town to start doing anything”, said Darnton.
The Department for Transport said it is in the early stages of developing Active Travel England “in line with the usual government approvals process for the creation of a public body”.