A Conservative MSP has questioned whether a Scottish government scheme designed to enable 500 people to obtain bikes through interest-free loans represents “value for money”.
In the Scottish Parliament yesterday, Brian Whittle, a former European athletics champion in the 4x400m relay, asked the government’s minister for active travel and Scottish Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie why the Access Bikes scheme had yet to provide a single loan in the three months since it was introduced.
Funded by the Scottish government and devised by Cycling UK alongside a number of credit unions, the Access Bikes scheme aims to help people on low incomes and with limited transport options get mobile by providing interest-free loans of up to £500 towards the cost of a bike.
According to Cycling UK, while 62 per cent of households in Scotland with a net annual income of £50,000 and over have access to one or more bikes, that drops to less than 20 per cent among those with incomes of £15,000 or less.
Under the new scheme, no upfront payments are needed and repayments are structured so as to be manageable, enabling adults to buy a new or second-hand bike plus accessories and equipment such as locks and helmets.
At the launch of the scheme in September 2021, Patrick Harvie said: “Promoting cycling is something the government must do to respond to the climate emergency. To make cycling easier, infrastructure is critical, but so too is affordable access to bikes – and I look forward to the success of the Access Bikes initiative.”
However, the project has come under fire from opposition parties in the months since its launch. In December, a freedom of information request revealed that despite the scheme’s intention to provide 500 loans, none had been awarded in its first three months.
The Conservatives’ shadow transport minister Graham Simpson labelled the policy “an expensive flop” and questioned the ability of those on lower incomes to repay the loan within the nine-month term.
"Patrick Harvie has spent nearly £400,000 of public money on a loan scheme that, in three months, has yet to hand out a single loan,” Simpson said.
"It's unclear whether there is an issue administering the scheme, or if there has simply been no demand for it. Questions need to be asked about how active travel is encouraged, but expensive bike loans are clearly not the answer."
Yesterday in the Scottish Parliament, Brian Whittle said that it was not “unreasonable to ask why a scheme that has access to £390,000 of public funds to offer 500 loans has failed to provide even one loan three months after it opened.”
Citing the example of East Ayrshire’s Cycle Station, a social enterprise which encourages locals to cycle by refurbishing unwanted bikes and selling them for a fraction of the cost, Whittle asked the minister if he was willing to “commit to making funds equal to or greater than that allocated to his loan scheme available to support existing successful local initiatives such as the Cycle Station?”
Responding to Whittle’s question, Harvie said: “The pilot scheme is designed to test whether providing interest-free loans can improve bike ownership and alleviate transport poverty. The fact that we have received 348 expressions of interest so far shows that there is demand for such provision.
“We will assess whether the scheme represents good value for money by the number of bikes that have been purchased by September 2022. Cycling UK will provide a report on the scheme’s operation after year one.
“The scheme is in its infancy, and we will judge its effectiveness after the pilot period rather than after a few weeks, as well as continuing to develop the scheme in the light of on-going feedback.”
In August the Scottish government launched another pilot project which aims to encourage active travel by providing free bikes for schoolchildren who can’t afford to buy one.
Ryan joined road.cc as a news writer in December 2021. He has written about cycling and some ball-centric sports for various websites, newspapers, magazines and radio. Before returning to writing about cycling full-time, he completed a PhD in History and published a book and numerous academic articles on religion and politics in Victorian Britain and Ireland (though he remained committed to boring his university colleagues and students with endless cycling trivia). He can be found riding his bike very slowly through the Dromara Hills of Co. Down.