So the confidence and supply deal is done and the DUP have brought home the bacon – £1.5 billion for Northern Ireland in exchange for propping up Theresa May’s minority government. And a whack of cash is listed under infrastructure, but will active travel continue to live off scraps, or can this critical policy area move from the fringes to the mainstream?
Part of the financial package has been specifically earmarked for “infrastructure development” to be delivered by the Department for Infrastructure (DfI):
“The UK government will allocate £200m per year for two years and with sufficient flexibility as to the choice of project to ensure the Executive is able to deliver the York Street Interchange Project and other priorities.”
UK government financial support for Northern Ireland (GOV.UK)
Transport-wise, eyes will be lighting up thinking of the big-ticket road and rail possibilities. Setting aside the £120m–£165m York Street Interchange, which will take up a big chunk of the cash, off the top of my head the priorities might be:
- A5 and A6 road projects into the west of the province
- Widening the Sydenham bypass east of Belfast
- Newry Southern Relief Road
- M1/A1 Sprucefield Bypass
- Transport Hubs in Belfast and Derry~Londonderry
- Rail links to our three international airports
- Upgrading the Belfast-Dublin Enterprise rail service, with possible electrification
Over on Slugger O’Toole, Andy Boal gives a realistic assessment of how the £400m in chips may fall on a road-and-rail blinkered transport investment strategy. For a long list of roads projects in early planning or likely to evolve following this announcement, you’d do well to consult the excellent NI Roads site. For rail options check out the consultation paper on the Railway Investment Prioritisation Strategy from 2014.
Undoubtedly some of these projects will now progress quickly with additional investment available, and dormant road schemes will have the dust blown off.
What is less certain, as always, is where active travel fits in.
With a few exceptions, active travel hasn’t featured in the headline discussions of where to spend the windfall. Why would it? Investment in walking and cycling has always been the poor relation of the high-prestige ribbon-cutting road projects. And yet the mood music seems to have changed in the last few years.
Belfast regularly features as one of the worst cities for congestion in the UK and Europe – and our politicians and planners seem to be accepting that building roads isn’t going to solve that problem.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the York Street Interchange – and it’s clearly going ahead – while it may smooth traffic flow around the city, it certainly won’t solve Belfast’s systemic congestion. There are simply too many people driving too many cars through too small a space in the city.
The last Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard put this clarity to the front of policy discussion – talking of the stark choice between demolishing rows of houses on our arterial streets to widen roads for cars or investing in public and active travel to move more people.
A £90m investment in Belfast Rapid Transit will see a genuine alternative to private motoring debut in the city by September 2018, as long as sense prevails through the maddening stupidity of the taxis in bus lanes issue.
Yet cycling investment still, stubbornly, has not advanced as hoped.
To make everyday cycling a viable option for people in Belfast, in other urban centres and along potential greenway corridors, the Executive needs to be putting around £20 million a year, every year, into active travel.
It doesn’t even come close at the moment, despite the constant chorus of support.
In two successive Assembly elections in 2016 and 2017, The Election Cycle campaign run by Cycling UK, Sustrans and Bikefast saw around three quarters of returned MLAs pledging their support to fund cycling at this level.
The incoming Minister will have the numbers in the Assembly to back them – but will they have personal, party and Executive colleagues’ commitment?
Of course, there is still one more critical deal to be done – getting that Executive up and running after a six month hiatus. While the numbers say the next Infrastructure Minister is likely to be from either the DUP or Sinn Féin, any of the five main parties could conceivably take the portfolio depending on decisions about forming an opposition.
The DUP Deal has whipped the media into a frenzy looking at infrastructure shopping lists as if hundreds of millions of pounds is burning a hole in our pocket. There are some projects such as the traffic-free Gasworks Bridge which are shovel-ready and should be part of the windfall discussions.
But, in general terms the £400m infrastructure boost is a distraction for cycling. We shouldn’t be chasing it.
Cycling and active travel has long suffered from being seen as an area suited to short-term boosts, holding out for crumbs from monitoring rounds or dedicated projects. What we need is a carved-out place within the annual DfI budget, capital and resource, which allows for long-term planning.
What the DUP Deal does do is free up pressures on that annual budget, taking some big-ticket items off the table and allowing a realistic discussion on the level at which consistent annual funding for cycling should be set.
Getting people travelling actively in large numbers over short distances must be at the heart of the next Executive. Few other investments bring such strong and varied paybacks in terms of combating congestion, improving public health, tackling fuel and income poverty, making more liveable urban environments, and straying into major economic payback in tourism spend and employment when we extend to building greenways.
The next Minister, with three quarters of the Assembly wanting £10 per head annual cycling investment – remarkable cross-party political backing – can begin the active travel revolution on day one. The DUP Deal makes things easier but don’t get distracted expecting it to transform cycling – ongoing mainstream government investment is the real goal and if it doesn’t happen now, it never will.
New Infrastructure Minister’s first 100 days
With the extra spending powers open to the Department for Infrastructure, it will be a popular portfolio when (if?) D’Hondt is run to decide the shape of the new Executive. It’s now or never for cycling and active travel, so here is Bikefast’s view on five priorities for the new Minister’s first 100 days by which we can gauge their seriousness.
Additional staff for a shrinking Cycling Unit
One of the key moves to embed cycling within our centralised transport planning was the creation of a Cycling Unit in late 2013. While from the outside other regions have looked on with envy, the sad truth is that the potential of this Unit is being squandered.
Since its creation, staffing levels have been gradually run down..
..while at the same time extra-curricular responsibilities have been piled on. The Cycling Unit official title is now “The Cycling and Inland Waterways Unit”, and based on the branding on the DfI website looks likely to be renamed the Active Travel Unit in the near future. It’s classic civil service “death by a thousand cuts”.
Strong Ministerial support is needed for this group and its core aims – embedding the bicycle within everyday transport planning and usage – with enough staff to allow them to create plans, deliver on schemes and drive forward the Cycling Revolution™.
Go-ahead for the Gasworks Bridge
This is a perfect fit for the windfall from the DUP Deal – it’s shovel-ready, with planning permission secured, and just needs a £7m capital injection. It’s the lynchpin of the (draft) Belfast Bicycle Network Plan, creating a range of new active travel journey options for Belfast, many away from roads altogether.
This is a bellwether project – if you see this confirmed in the first 100 days, you’ll know the Executive is deadly serious about delivery on active travel.
Prioritise a revision of the Belfast Bicycle Network Plan
The Belfast Bicycle Network Plan was launched in the teeth of the 2017 Assembly Election, and uncertainty over future government has somewhat stalled the subsequent consultation process.
Two clear issues which the public fed back need to be quickly addressed by a Minister confident in their vision for combating congestion in our city:
The new Minister will have the clout to steer a revised document down the difficult road which officials have been reluctant to tread. A new five year vision, which isn’t afraid to tackle vehicle hegemony, is a must in the short term – along with cycling funding mainstreamed in the DfI budget at around £7.5m per annum from 2018-19 onwards.
Launch the Greenways Capital Grants Programme
The Strategic Plan for Greenways was launched in November 2016 by Minister Hazzard. It’s a 25 year vision to create 1,000km of greenways across the region, with a suggested £150m price tag – less than the York Street Interchange but who’s comparing? 😉
The wheels are in motion on getting local councils to create feasibility studies and business plans through a DfI small grants competition.
The next phase is making capital available to match council-funded investment to actually start building the individual projects.
Ideally this should start high at around £5m a year available from 2018-19 onwards, when it’s possible the first projects could be ready to break ground. This needs to be a consistent annual capital budget line of around £3m stretching to 2040, but kick-starting it with a small lump sum from the DUP Deal would be a good sign of intent.
“3-five-10” plan unveiled
The tenure of Chris Hazzard at DfI was shaping up to be of great interest for active travel, before the Assembly collapsed in January 2017. One of the plans being worked on in the background was called “3-five-10”, aimed at prioritising investment and planning for:
- walking for journeys up to 3km
- cycling for journeys up to 5km
- public transport for journeys up to 10km
Bikefast reckons “2-five-10” would be a much better fit, but this plan has the potential to shake up the current obesogenic status quo where the car dominates across those distances.
At present though all we have is a press release and no meat on the bones. Whoever takes up the Infrastructure portfolio should get this strategy out to consultation asap to allow spending across the department (in this time of accelerated work) to be informed and directed by it.