November 2014
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Councillor flabbergasted … or … the Importance of Budgets … and … What You Can Do

Something remarkable happened at the Spokes public meeting on Cycling Development in the Lothians

Every one of the 4 or 5 questions from the floor to Councillor Tony Boyle, our West Lothian Council speaker, and WLC deputy Transport Convener, was preceded by congratulations! –  an absolute first for our public meetings, with their articulate and challenging audiences.  [Admittedly, some of the actual questions were pretty critical, such as the cycling conditions in Linlithgow High Street].  People from East Lothian and Midlothian even pressed Cllr Boyle for advice on how their councils could emulate West Lothian’s example.

Inside the meeting [pic: @reizkultur]

Inside the packed-out 140+ strong meeting [pic: @reizkultur]

Indeed Cllr Boyle, who initially professed to be a little nervous, came away almost shell-shocked with the positivity of reaction to his contribution!  What had the Council done to deserve this paean of praise?

What Cllr Boyle had done was to reveal the range of new cycleroute connections between towns, networks, rail stations, etc to be built by West Lothian in 2014/15 and 2015/16 – all funded 50/50 through successful applications to the Sustrans Community Links fund.

Outside the meeting [pic: @reizkultur]

Outside the meeting – little Amsterdam [pic: @reizkultur]

As we had already reported, West Lothian won £1.8m – more than any other Scottish Council except Fife (and Edinburgh if you include the government’s special Leith Walk allocation).  This of course means that West Lothian is willing to come up with a matching £1.8m – a significant sum for a medium-size council, even though spread over 2 years.  They had already earmarked some cash for cycling projects but were so successful that they have to find more, and are confident they can do so – whether from their own budget or by seeking further partners/grants.

What also impressed the audience was seeing the maps in the West Lothian presentation showing clearly that most of the 10 projects are geared to ‘useful’ links – between communities, to rail stations, to community facilities, etc – not just for recreational cycling – and hearing the sums of money involved in some of the projects.

[Click here for a full report on the meeting, and all the presentations]

The Importance of Budgets – Government and Council

Summing up the meeting our chair, Alison Johnstone MSP, said the biggest lesson was the importance of council and government cycling budgets.

Without West Lothian Council being willing to earmark cycle funds, which could be used for match-funding – and being able to make well-researched bids – they would never have achieved this range of projects.

Perhaps even more crucial is the Government Cycling Budget [in reality not a ‘cycling budget’ but assorted sums allocated from assorted lines in the overall Scottish budget].  The greater part of this money in recent years has been dispensed via the abovementioned Sustrans Community Links funding scheme to which councils and other public bodies submit bids for 50/50 funding.

Without this 50/50 opportunity  West Lothian might have built just one or two of the proposed schemes, from their own transport capital funds.   With the 50/50 opportunity the council submitted a wide range of bids and, when 10 succeeded – far more than anticipated! – the council decided this was too good an opportunity to miss, and committed themselves to finding the full 50% – £1.8m – by one means or another, so as to implement all the successful bids.

The government/Sustrans Community Links funding has also been absolutely critical to Edinburgh‘s growing portfolio of cycling projects.   Our Edinburgh Council speaker, Cllr Adam McVey, described two recent costly projects – the highly-praised rebuild of the A90 route out to Queensferry and Fife, and the Gilmerton/Lasswade link to Midlothian’s existing route south to Roslin [NB – both these projects still have further construction phases].  Without the Sustrans 50/50 opportunity neither project might have happened at all since the council would very likely have prioritised its funding to city centre projects such as Canal-Meadows-Innocent where usage density would be highest.

Given this, it is tragic that the government’s 15/16 budget, now revealed in draft form, looks set to mean less cash for cycling than in 14/15, with infrastructure suffering particularly badly – i.e. cycleroute projects like those above.   In Edinburgh this could slow down or even completely stymie big projects such as the proposed city-centre east-west route.   Councils in the Lothians would also suffer, as they would be bidding into a smaller central pot.

What You Can Do

  • Most important – email your MSPs about the Scottish draft budget.  The Association of Directors of Public Healthwidely supported by other organisations – recommends 10% of transport budgets should go to active travel, compared to 1%-2% by the Scottish Government.   At the very minimum, the draft budget should be revised so that there is at least as much funding as last year for cycling infrastructure – i.e. for the Sustrans Community Links scheme.
  • Locally – email your councillors.  If you would like a new or upgraded cycleroute to connect communities, or to connect to local facilities, ask that the council bids to the Sustrans Community Links scheme for 50/50 funding.  The next round of bidding is in December/January.

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