August 2021

Active Travel: Scotland / England

How do the recent major announcements by the UK government on active travel (AT) policy in England compare with Scotland?

Our conclusion: Scotland is still best for AT funding, but the Scottish Government needs to catch up when it comes to enabling and incentivising all councils to make the best use of it.

Government Active Travel Funding 21/22

Active Travel funding for this financial year, 21/22ScotlandEngland
(inc London)
Government AT cash for Councils and other relevant bodies£115m£438m £70m
Population (2020)5.5m56.5m3.2m
Govt AT cash per person (to nearest £1)£21£8£22

*Although Wales is included in the table, we have not checked it out further for this article. For anyone wishing to know more, here are the Welsh government active travel page and Wales Transport Strategy 2021.

Clearly cash per head is much higher in Scotland (and Wales) though still below comparable European levels – indeed it has been higher for several years (though both Scotland and England funding has been rising from much lower levels just a couple of years ago). Why then do we see several England cities such as Manchester and London already with UK-leading infrastructure, but it’s slower happening in Scotland? We don’t know the full answer but there could be many reasons, including…

  • Some projects may get large sums from other sources (e.g. Manchester Beelines added £160m from a government ‘Transforming Cities’ fund)
  • Cash in England may be heavily concentrated in a small number of big projects but more widely spread in Scotland (e.g. almost every Scottish Council received Spaces for People cash, which came from the 20/21 AT budget)
  • Scottish Traffic Regulation Order rules are extremely labyrinthine compared to England and can (and have) delayed major AT projects by over 2 years – meantime depriving the public of new facilities, and also causing significant cost increases and scheme cutbacks. The Scottish government now recognises this, but is too slow tackling it
  • Distances between population centres may be greater in Scotland, and more cash may go to long-distance tourist/recreational routes, to attract visitors

Government messaging, advice and instruction

Across the UK, Active Travel schemes in certain towns and cities have met extremely vociferous opposition, including petty or extensive vandalism to some installed schemes. There is clear evidence from representative surveys that this is not a majority view, and most people would like to see quieter streets, with safe and welcoming conditions for cycling, walking and wheeling. There is also evidence that once schemes have settled in, they usually work effectively in creating quieter streets and reducing injuries. Nonetheless, in both Scotland and England, so vocal has been the opposition in some areas that a number of councils have removed schemes, sometimes after only very short periods of operation, whilst others have been deterred from going ahead at all.

How have governments reacted? … bearing in mind that these schemes use precious public money and reflect government policies to boost active travel, for reasons of public health, the climate emergency and the impossibility of catering for unlimited car use.

Official Ministerial letter to English councils

In England government ministers are acting with determination and toughness to ensure that such decisions are taken on objective criteria, and that councils can’t get away with premature or non-evidenced decision-making. Transport Minister Chris Heaton-Harris MP has written to English councils telling them…

  • Schemes must not be removed prematurely, or without proper evidence, and too soon to collect proper evidence
  • Consultation should include objective tests of public opinion, such as professional polling, to gather a truly representative picture
  • Premature removal of schemes carries implications for the management of public money
  • Those (Local authorities) which have prematurely removed or weakened such schemes should expect to receive a reduced level of funding [see ‘Policy document’ below for more details]
  • Authorities which are proposing to remove or weaken schemes should not proceed unless they have had regard to (forthcoming) guidance

It is very important to note that such a letter is not just to make nervous or recalcitrant councils think again. It also provides strong official government backing for forward-looking councils who are facing vociferous opposition and sometimes threats of legal action – councils can point to this official government guidance.

Interestingly, many of those English councils who have prematurely removed, watered down or scrapped cycle lane projects are Conservative (e.g. West Sussex, Kensington & Chelsea) – yet the same party in government has shown the courage not just to say that such decisions are wrong but to halt future AT cash meantime. Some Labour Councils which have done similar (e.g. Liverpool) are of course included too.

Policy document

The messages are reinforced in a new government document, Gear Change One Year On, which (pages 20 onwards) summarises government AT initiatives for the coming year. In particular, it fleshes out the funding sanctions – they may apply to any council “which does not take active travel seriously,” including failing to install planned schemes. And, importantly, where active travel performance is poor, the funding sanctions will affect “the wider funding allocations it receives, not just on active travel.”

Additional measures in the document include a new body, Active Travel England, whose responsibilities will include…

  • inspect finished schemes and ensure that local authorities have funding allocations reduced where schemes have not been completed as promised, or have not started or finished by the stipulated times
  • act as a statutory consultee on larger planning applications to ensure that they provide properly for walking and cycling

Incidentally, it is perhaps ironic that this is the same government which, just 10 years ago when it first came to power, scrapped the former Cycling England. Still, better the sinner that repenteth… and perhaps their mistake is helping toughen the current actions!

Scottish Government

Scotland, however, seems happy with a much more laissez-faire approach, with no such letter to councils.

Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, Michael Matheson MSP, has of course said on many occasions that he would like to see successful Spaces for People schemes made permanent. However, other than stating the obvious that councils can apply for AT funding in future years to support the costs, nothing has been done, at least in public, to back up those councils (such as Edinburgh) which have faced vociferous minority opposition and legal threats, or to take to task those councils (such as Aberdeen) which have removed schemes prematurely.

Interestingly, previous Transport Minister, Humza Yousaf MSP, was not afraid publicly to criticize councils run by his own party a few years ago when they ripped out bike lanes prematurely (South Ayrshire) or cancelled future proposals (Bears Way route, East Dunbartonshire). Surely, with the climate emergency, we should expect no less in 2021.

New Highway Code

Another announcement in the UK government news release was that the Highway Code active travel changes consulted on last year, with favourable results, will go ahead (subject to Parliamentary approval this autumn). The changes include…

  • a hierarchy of road users so that those who can do the greatest harm have the greatest responsibility to reduce the danger they may pose – for example, car drivers towards cyclists and walkers; and cyclists towards walkers.
  • strengthened pedestrian priority on pavements and when crossing or waiting to cross the road
  • ensuring that cyclists have priority at junctions when travelling straight ahead
  • guidance on safe passing distances and speeds

Whilst such changes may sound sensible safety measures and just bringing us into line with most European countries, they are enough to enrage some sections of the motoring public – for example this Daily Mail furore.

Although these are UK-wide matters, the Scottish Government, after much pressure, did investigate adopting Presumed Liability, or the stronger Strict Liability, nearly 10 years ago [see CAPS2013, pages 21-22]. This is similar to the above ‘hierarchy of responsibility,’ but with tougher legal backing, and is the law in almost every European country.

Sadly, the Scottish Government then decided there was insufficient evidence that such legislation would reduce casualties – and anyone writing to Scottish Ministers now still gets referred to that 2013 ‘desk-based review.’ Meanwhile Roadshare, the campaign for Presumed Liability, in a detailed 2015 research report found a strong statistical association (which of course can not be causal proof) between countries with such legislation and those with high levels of AT and good casualty records. More encouragingly, latest news is a UK government initiative to research Strict Liability, in which Transport Scotland has been invited to participate.

What you can do

  • If you think the Scottish Government should be doing more, email your MSPs and tell them what is happening in England
  • Retweet our tweet about this article – thank you!

Documents relating to the July 2021 UK / England AT announcements

  1. Letter to English Councils Transport Minister Chris Heaton-Harris MP tells councils that where AT schemes are removed prematurely, or without objective evidence, future cash will be reduced
  2. UK government news release 30.7.21 Announcing the ‘Summer of Cycling & Walking’ initiatives, including more cash, requirements for Councils not to remove schemes prematurely, revised Highway Code and more. Note that the release refers to the “Summer of Cycling and Walking document, published today” – but as of July 31 we can find no such document, unless it means the Gear Change review document below.
  3. Gear Change: one-year-on review Although this report does review progress on last year’s Gear Change document, more interesting is its detailed coverage of policies and plans going forward
  4. Letters to English Councils seeking bids for AT capital funding / revenue funding
  5. Govt research: Public Attitudes to the planned Highway Code changes
  6. Highway Code Review Although the public consultation was in 2020, the strong impression given here and in the above government announcement is that the consultation proposals will be largely adopted. A final decision will be taken by Parliament in autumn 2021.

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