Transport secretary Grant Shapps’ criticism of councils for getting many Emergency Active Travel Fund (EATF) schemes ‘wrong’ has more than a strong hint of blame-shifting about it. The DfT, after all, stipulated that to receive a share of the £45m, councils must demonstrate they had “swift and meaningful plans to reallocate road space to cyclist and pedestrians”, by means such as residential road closures and ‘pop-up’ cycle lanes – just the sort of measures that have provoked anger in many parts of the land. Moreover, it was the Government that suggested councils skip the public consultations by implementing schemes using temporary or experimental traffic regulation orders. Indeed, the grant conditions encouraged their use, requiring councils to start implementing schemes within four weeks of receiving funds.
If the furore was simply about a programme delivered at the height of a pandemic then it might be appropriate to blame exceptional circumstances and move on. But it is not so simple. The DfT has a second, much larger, slice of the EATF, worth £180m, awaiting award. Councils were told that bids for this pot must propose reallocating roadspace from general traffic to cycling and walking, too: “Schemes that do not meaningfully alter the status quo on the road will not be funded.”
The roadspace reallocation agenda is not being driven solely by a pandemic. The policy is a core tenet of the Government’s new Gear Change strategy for cycling and walking (the order is important) published in the summer. Endorsed by the cycle-loving Prime Minister, the plan replicates much of the thinking behind the cycling agenda pursued by Boris Johnson as mayor of London supported by his then cycling commissioner Andrew Gilligan, who is now his transport adviser. To really improve the environment for cycling, they recognised the need for aggressive measures to reallocate roadspace. To achieve this, Gilligan in particular saw a need to confront and defeat the voices of opposition in the motoring looby.
The EATF has been an early road-test for Gear Change. It is not really a surprise that many of the projects have generated a backlash. The question now is whether the brickbats will knock the agenda off course. Ministers have some tools to use, namely the ‘carrot’ of funding and the ‘stick’ of Active Travel England, an inspectorate that will grade council performance. But how many political leaders does this country have who will stick with this potentially bumpy journey? That’s still a bit of an unknown.
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