NI budgetary outlook for cycling is bleak

The Department of Finance is consulting on Budgetary Outlook scenarios for the period 2018-20, in lieu of a functioning government. You have until 5pm tomorrow to respond and stop the Department for Infrastructure from burying active and sustainable transport again.

You can read the full document here but the gist of it is:

  • Current spending by all Departments will exceed the available budget in 2018-19, mostly due to inflationary pressures.
  • Despite the long term goal of public service transformation, immediate solutions are needed to balance the budget in the short term.
  • This means three broad approaches:
    • cut allocations and manage in-house
    • cut whole services and policies
    • increase rates
  • Scenarios blending certain choices are presented but decisions have not been taken and it will be for Ministers (whether devolved or direct rule) to consider public feedback.

At the centre of government planning remains the draft Programme for Government (PfG) Framework with a new outcomes-based approach to delivery.

“The Budget therefore needs to be constructed with the aim of delivering the Programme for Government outcomes.”

The pertinent sections for walking and cycling in the PfG are:

OUTCOME

  • We live and work sustainably – protecting the environment

INDICATOR

  • % all journeys which are made by walking/cycling/public transport
  • Greenhouse gas emissions
  • Annual mean nitrogen dioxide concentration at monitored urban roadside locations

OUTCOME

  • We connect people and opportunities through our infrastructure

INDICATOR

  • % of all journeys which are made by walking/cycling/public transport

..and the indicator which is destined to forever drown out those laudable objectives:

  • Average journey time on key economic corridors

What the Budgetary Outlook says about active travel

There are two main elements to a government budget:

  • resource (running things)
  • capital (creating things)
DfI resource scenarios

On the resource side, there is no mention of active and sustainable travel promotion. None.

All three proposed scenarios even go so far as to propose stopping all road safety advertising and programmes. While the crude sledgehammer of many “hard-hitting” local campaigns have become stale and schlocky in recent years, DfI’s own research indicates they impact positively upon road safety outcomes.

Naturally, Bikefast believes trying to promote cycling without first providing safe, dedicated space, and a changed road design culture, is putting the cart before the horse. But is DfI simply abandoning the promotion of a form of transport it has committed itself (in the PfG) to increasing?

That doesn’t make sense.

DfI capital scenario

On the capital side is where the talk about active and sustainable transport should be turned into action. And yet, again, in the face of budgetary pressures, walking and cycling is buried to protect the big-ticket road items.

“Over the three years flagship commitments now consume 40% of DfI’s total capital funding and when NI Water’s PC 15 commitments are met, this rises to some 77%.

This severely restricts the amount available for essential safety related roads and public transport maintenance, greenway and cycling provision, together with the purchase of new buses and trains.

After including the funding of York Street Interchange, contractual and Transformation projects, there remains on average across the three years, some £50 million to fund all remaining maintenance programmes, including roads structural maintenance, and other capital projects. Our estimated requirements are in excess of £150 million.

This budget scenario prioritises investment in flagship projects.”
DfI Key Challenges (Budgetary Outlook 2018-20)

For context, DfI has currently live ownership of these three documents:

But DfI, in the clear, without political pressure, and yet with PfG indicators matching outcomes to the programmes laid out in their own policy documents, can’t even bring itself to propose a defined and protected budget line in the short term. This is DfI marooning its own policies.

Senior officials can (and do, with me, ad nauseum) talk in glowing terms about their commitment to cycling and walking investment, and yet here we are again at the sharp point of decision and.. nothing.

As it has been, as it ever will be.


Bikefast’s key points for response

To demonstrate that this is an unfair assessment, the Department for Infrastructure must amend its proposals for 2018-2020 to include the following:

Make the 1,000km greenway network a Flagship Project.
Greenways are a brutally cost-effective investment in active transport, health outcomes, rural regeneration and tourism to name but a few things – a cross-Departmental golden goose that will lay eggs for the economy for decades to come. Protect the investment in a greenway network, use it as a self-enforcing spur for DfI to create safe, dedicated active travel networks within the urban areas into which these greenways will connect.

Set aside a £25m capital grants programme fund for greenways now.
This is to be disseminated through match-funded project calls to councils over the next five years, to kick-start the greenway development programme.

Support and expand the scope of the Active Schools Travel Programme.
A major capital investment is needed in physically protected safe routes to school for cycling and walking journeys across the country. On your watch, cycling-to-school levels bob between 0% and 1%, while childhood obesity grows to levels that threaten to destroy the Health Service in years to come.

£15m capital to develop the Belfast Bicycle Network within five years.
This plan has been in development hell partially because there’s no clout to drive forward cycling projects within DfI. A single project, delivered by a dedicated design and delivery team within DfI, is essential. Again, this is a relatively small investment with a high payback in terms of health outcomes and reduced congestion, the latter badly needed in Belfast in the short term.

Commitment to take forward the £7m Gasworks Bridge now.
This bridge, which has been pushed down the priority list by DfI over the last 5 years, is both the lynchpin for the Belfast Bicycle Network and a project to open up South and East Belfast to greater levels of physical activity. It needs to be built as a standalone capital project, not at the expense of the wider Belfast Bicycle Network Plan. If the York Street Interchange can be a floating exception, so can this bridge.


It’s all a choice

Yeah, about York Street. It isn’t necessary to rake over the myriad benefits which flow from active travel investment – I’d only be quoting back facts, figures and statements which DfI have published and appeared to be taking ownership of in various recent strategies.

If your instinct is to say “we have no money for active travel”, you’re missing the choices locked in to spend it elsewhere. That “average journey time on key economic corridors” outcome indicator is acting as a cuckoo egg in the PfG nest.

Take the York Street Interchange for instance. It’s not a priority project for DfI, but due to political commitments made as part of the £1bn confidence and supply deal in summer 2017, it’s hanging around the Flagship Project priorities pretending to be part of the in-crowd:

“Progression of Flagship projects – A5 and A6 roads schemes, Belfast Rapid Transit and Belfast Transport Hub, together with the York Street Interchange project”
DfI Key Deliverables (Budgetary Outlook 2018-20)

In times of great austerity, you cut your cloth accordingly. But DfI seems wedded to the York Street Interchange project in the same way that someone who has lost their job would rather go without food than miss payments on the luxury car sitting in their driveway.

It’s environmentally damaging, will be a blight on the urban fabric, locks in vehicle use at today’s levels and (worse) provides room for expansion, but the kicker (according to this budgetary outlook) is that it will all but eliminate investment and promotion to increase active and sustainable travel, one of the key draft PfG indicators for DfI.

It’s time for reality to bite – with an estimate of between £125m-£165m (but, let’s be honest, likely to rise above £200m) the York Street Interchange is an extravagance we can’t afford any more. Especially when everything else is being cut in order for us to keep up appearances.

Reallocate that York Street Interchange money – one quarter to active and sustainable transport and three quarters to health and education – and then you can come back and tell me how committed you are to improving people’s health and well-being through active travel.


Read the full document here:
Briefing on Northern Ireland Budgetary Outlook 2018-20

The deadline for responses is 5pm on Friday 26th January 2018 and you can email a response to budgetbriefing2018@finance-ni.gov.uk.

Leave a Reply