Hidden costs of British cycle funding

One of the big problems with the funding of cycle infrastructure in Britain, is that unlike other things it is rare for there to be a dedicated revenue budget for the cycle infrastructure. The City of Edinburgh Council is one of the notable exceptions who have allocated 5% of the transport budget and are increasing it over the next few years.

On the other hand in many other parts of Britain, such as Suffolk, cycle infrastructure is generally funded either through Section 106 money from new developments, or through bidding for specific projects with certain pots of money that get announced from central government from time to time. There is generally relatively little money in the main transport budget allocated to cycling beyond repairs.

With the Section 106 agreements the money from a single development is often so little that it won’t give a single improvement scheme, and the money if often banked until there are several developments that provide Section 106 money before a scheme is implemented. Also recent changes mean that it’s much easier for developers to not pay up, or argue that the demands are too onerous.

With the bidding process for the special pots of money that get announced from time to time, there are various problems with the system. It’s unknown when the next pot of money will be announced nor how much it will be. Often it will be short notice, so there won’t be enough time to draw up the bid in time for the bidding process or spending the money, such as when it’s got to be spent in the same financial year. I have heard of cases where the council officers ask local cycle campaigners a few days before the bid is due, which often isn’t enough time to respond. However councils and cycle campaigners can be organised and ready for this situation to occur.

Matt Turner has a blog post listing all the announcements from central government highlighting investment in cycling, which he keeps up to date. However a lot of the funding is mixed with other sustainable transport funding, which means that that councils don’t have to spend the money on improving cycle infrastructure, thus it’s harder to come up with a figure of how much has been spent on cycling. It is also extremely complicated as to which pot of money can be used by each authority and for which purpose.

There is a hidden cost to the bidding process as council officers have to spend time speculatively writing up potential projects which will often just be rejected due to too many bids or poor quality rushed bids. It would be much better if they were spending their time on projects which were more likely to succeed.

In the past there have been network based plans of improvements, such as the LCN+ in London, however it wasn’t backed up with the regular funding needed to see through the completion of the network and often left out the hard bits, such as junctions. However if there is a single point on someone’s journey where they can’t cycle safely, the transport planners have failed them, as the bicycle user may just give up and revert back to the car as they don’t feel safe enough to ride a bike.

Of course this wouldn’t be a problem if cycling would have a significant revenue budget. This means that longer term plans could be much easier planned in over the longer term, as the transport planners and cycle campaigners know that there will be money available each year for cycling related improvements. It then becomes a problem of ensuring that the improvements are of a high quality, which is a much easier problem to solve than there being not enough money on a regular basis for ambitious improvements. Of course there could still be some form of bidding process for bigger pots of money for bigger projects, however that should be an exception rather than a rule.

Ideally councils would have £10 to £20 per head of population per year, to spend solely on cycle infrastructure so that Britain can catchup with The Netherlands and Denmark. These figures have been mentioned in the Get Britain Cycling report, and by a Lothians MSP. For Suffolk County Council with a population of 668553 at the last census, that would mean £6,685,530 (£6.6 million) to 13,371,060 (£13.3 million) per year available for cycling. Unfortunately Suffolk County Council don’t make it easy to find the transport budget, I can only presume that it sits in the “Economy, Skills & Environment” part, which stood at £77 million in the 2013-2014 financial year, thus hard to say how much of the transport budget it would engulf.

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