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No cycling, no cash, councils told

Seven London boroughs face a funding freeze backed by TfL and DfT after ripping out or failing to deliver active travel schemes.


Councils on the naughty step

One of the shock announcements from the DfT and Andrew Gilligan in the Prime Minister’s office last week was of three councils outside London and seven inside that faced a freeze on future funding opportunities due to their actions around active travel schemes.

In London, Ealing, Harrow, Hillingdon, K&C, Redbridge, Sutton, and Wandsworth, it was announced would not be able to bid for the next round of active travel funding schemes from TfL “pending further discussion”, but also might lose out on other transport funding in general for a period (joined by Brighton, Liverpool and West Sussex outside London).

This is because, “schemes must not be removed prematurely, or without proper evidence and too soon to collect proper evidence about their effects” wrote Chris Heaton-Harris, Minister of State for Transport, and that the government and TfL in London would “assess authorities’ performance in delivering schemes and, following the precedent we have already set, those which have prematurely removed or weakened such schemes should expect to receive a reduced level of funding.”

This is a long overdue action from TfL and government – that puts real teeth to the calls for councils to do more and better on walking and cycling in response to the climate crisis and to avoid a ‘car-led recovery’ from the pandemic. It shows that there are consequences to those councils who fail their residents on delivering schemes – whether through poor consultation, weak leadership, bad design etc. But what does it mean for your borough?

The not-so magnificent seven

If you’re in one of the boroughs listed above and now on the active travel naughty step, now is the time, with your local group, to push the council hard. They have cost residents dear and failed to take appropriate action on a climate emergency despite in most cases declaring one.

It’s clear transport is a vital part of our action on climate – and the Climate Change Committee, the government, the Mayor, everyone is saying we don’t just need a switch to EVs, but also reduction in car use and mode shift. So what will your council do now?

In our view, the quickest and smartest way back for councils facing a freeze is demonstrate real commitment to do better. Councils can use any fallow period where external funding isn’t forthcoming to work up new schemes, improve existing ones and re-consult on them, to reframe the conversation with residents, re-engage with them on how collectively they need to tackle the climate crisis – taking the traditional ‘do nothing’ option in consultation off the table publicly.

These councils could, as some other councils already do, even put some Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) or Section 106 funding or some of their own money, into active travel in the meantime. Not only would that ensure residents continue to gain the benefits of taking action on car use, active travel and climate emissions and the borough doesn’t fall further behind, but it would also clearly demonstrate they were ready to receive funding once more – delivering despite a lack of external funding. But at the least, if the council wants the tap turned back on, it needs to demonstrate it stands ready to do far better. That likely means politicians in that council being public about the missteps and showing some real leadership on these issues as soon as possible.

Good news and bad

For those boroughs not on the naughty step, the news could be good or bad. For some, they could of course be next. Several London boroughs failed to deliver anything substantive like Hillingdon, others have weakened schemes or delayed them without publicly pulling them. For boroughs in this category, it’s important to understand that the funding freeze has hit boroughs of just about every political stripe, including the Prime Minister’s own constituency. It’s clear that if your council doesn’t deliver, it could easily be next.

So our local groups will be pushing hard for boroughs to do something, soon. For those that have declared a climate emergency, then it really will be for the council to now demonstrate it understands what an emergency response looks like. And certainly now wouldn’t be the time for another transport strategy or climate action plan – but some actual action. In the face of the already looming 2022 local council elections that may not be the boldest possible scheme. But there are many things councils can still deliver now, fast, that aren’t that controversial. And new guidance from the DfT released at the same time also emphasises robust engagement and consultation – at the very least again, politicians can crack on with actually doing some leadership and demonstrate some political will and start actually having proper conversations with residents about what is needed and why.

For an increasing number of London boroughs, however, the funding freeze is good news – as funds will presumably be redirected their way. This is their opportunity to ‘stretch goals’ some schemes that weren’t funded yet. Our local groups will be pushing for schemes to be ‘shovel-ready’ for when funding arrives. And that could include boroughs who’re only just now stepping into the A list alongside Waltham Forest, Hackney, Islington, Lambeth, Camden etc. For boroughs able to show a track record of delivery and some nous to have schemes ready to go, there could be some extra, unexpected funding this year.