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Sustrans’ influence in Scotland put in the spotlight


16 November 2020

Questions about the influence of active travel charity Sustrans on transport policy and practice in Scotland have been raised in Edinburgh and Aberdeen. 

New campaign group Get Edinburgh Moving (GEM), which was formed to fight a low traffic neighbourhood (LTN) scheme in East Craigs, has questioned Sustrans’ role in a letter to the council. 

GEM chairman David Hunter said: “Many are deeply concerned about the extent to which the transport agenda is being driven by Sustrans. Key council staff are seconded from Sustrans, funding is provided by them, and implementation responsibility ceded to them by the council. 

“It is difficult for the community to envisage that the council can act in the interests of all road users and council taxpayers when the agenda is controlled to such an extent by a single-minded interest group.”

Transport Scotland employs Sustrans to administer the long-running Places for Everyone Fund and also the Covid-19 Spaces for People Fund. Both provide active travel funding to councils. 

Sustrans and consultant Atkins wrote the design guidance for the Spaces for People fund. The charity also offers grant recipients support services, for instance  procurement; identifying where infrastructure is needed; a design service; construction contract management; and public engagement.  

Sustrans’ website says it has staff seconded into Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Perth and Kinross, Stirling and Inverclyde councils. Two are seconded to Edinburgh.

GEM’s Hunter told LTT: “How have these guys [i.e. Sustrans] managed to weave themselves so effectively into the policy-making infrastructure? They’re deciding where funding goes and what is delivered from the standpoint of one set of road users. I think this had slipped under the radar but people are waking up to it.

“Edinburgh doesn’t put the RAC in charge of roads policy and quite rightly so. But for the exact same reason I can’t see why it hands so much of roads policy to a cycling pressure group.”

Aberdeen citizen’s journalist website the Aberdeen Voice recently said: “Many are scratching their heads at the central government decision to give Sustrans the cash and remit to deal with social distancing in city centres. It exists to get us out of cars and buses and onto bikes or to walk instead – is this really the moment for doing so?”

Susan Webber, Edinburgh’s Conservative transport spokeswoman, said she understood GEM’s concern. “If the RAC were seconded into the council, the optics don’t look so favourable do they?” she told LTT. She said Edinburgh’s political priorities were too focused on cycling. The council’s active travel team should be renamed, she said. “They should just come clean and call themselves the active cycling team. There’s nothing in these schemes to help walking and public transport.”

LTT spoke to two people who did not want to be named because of sensitivities. One said Sustrans was simply awarding funding for schemes that councils wanted to deliver, and performing an administrative role for Transport Scotland. “They [Sustrans] didn’t design the railway track [i.e. set the policy direction].”

The other said Sustrans was “like a cuckoo that has outgrown the nest”. “It’s got undue influence. Transport Scotland and councils have become very reliant on it. It seems a little bit too cosy. Why is a charity organising our infrastructure?”

LTT asked Transport Scotland, Edinburgh and Sustrans for comment. 

Transport Scotland said: “Sustrans, with substantial experience in handling public sector funding, has administered the £39m Spaces for People fund. It is for local authorities to decide on interventions that best respond to local needs. Sustrans then check the application meets the criteria set by Transport Scotland.”

Edinburgh’s transport and environment convener Lesley Macinnes said: “Contrary to the comments made [by GEM], Sustrans is not involved in transport policy-making by the council. Our own commitments to drive down carbon emissions, improve air quality and reduce congestion have led to the development of many ambitious and well-received schemes to improve cycling and walking infrastructure.

“As a council, we have benefited significantly from Transport Scotland funding administered by Sustrans for active travel improvements, which we have bid for by our own volition. We have also gained from Sustrans’ input and expertise throughout the design and development of projects supported by such funding.

“Any final decisions on policies and the implementation of schemes and projects are made by elected members.”

John Lauder, executive director for Sustrans Scotland, said: “Spaces for People projects on the ground are designed, managed and delivered by the applicant to the programme. Sustrans designers and associated staff are available to help the applicant if they wish their involvement, but while Sustrans is the funder for Spaces for People, all decision-making on the way the scheme is designed, communicated, implemented and installed is with the statutory body who applied for the funding, in these cases, the local authority.”

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