Active travel – making journeys in physically active ways like walking, wheeling (using a wheelchair or mobility aid), cycling, or scootering – should be a positive opportunity for us to invest in our transport network. Instead, it’s become short-hand for a city-oriented campaign to get cars off the road.
As conservatives, we know nobody is solely a motorist, cyclist, pedestrian, or public transport user. We all use a wide variety of transport, so the debate shouldn’t focus on supporting one solution for all our transport needs. Instead, we need to talk about flexibility and choice, and we know there’s not enough of it outside London.
Let’s focus on the facts. Good transport links spread opportunities, enabling people to apply for jobs and get training further afield. In turn, they bring more workers and customers to our towns. Cars are here to stay. Fewer homes are ‘car or van free’ than 10 years ago, according to the census, and most people in rural North Nottinghamshire could not manage without them.
We also know that they aren’t able to meet all our transport needs, they’re not cheap, take up a lot of space and can pollute our environment. We’d all love to have the brilliant local public transport we need to be able to ditch the car more often, but outside of major cities, we simply don’t have it.
That’s why improving public transport, supporting active travel, and accelerating the transition to electric vehicles were placed at the heart of this Conservative government’s agenda. This shouldn’t be an ‘anti-car’ but a ‘pro-choice’ approach to deliver for people.
Unfortunately, it’s been hijacked by people who want to push cars off the roads, with policy dictated from the centre in a way that doesn’t make sense for our local areas. It sometimes feels like the policy is deliberately designed to make life hard for car users – the majority of people outside of cities. All this can lead to people like me viewing ‘active travel’ with suspicion.
Active travel needn’t be controversial. When schemes are put in the right places they can be positive. Fifty six per cent of people support government schemes for active travel, including new cycle lanes, to encourage people to cycle and walk more. In order to get those ‘right’ schemes though, there needs to be local decision-making. You can’t build something bespoke for a community when the criteria are so tight and inflexible.
My constituents in Mansfield want a pragmatic approach to improving transport locally. That means improving bus routes, as well as boosting walking and cycling and doing it without penalising drivers. We simply do not have the public transport networks right now for people to be able to ditch their car. It’s not practical.
Done right, there are no losers. If more journeys can be done by foot, bike or bus, there will be fewer cars on the road, easing congestion and freeing up the roads for people who need them. It will also give people cheaper transport options and help create greener communities filled with people, not cars. That’s all good stuff. What is absolutely clear to me though is that if we are to achieve this, it can’t be dictated to us from Whitehall.
If the Government is to get value from its active travel funding and implementing the ‘Bus Back Better’ strategy, it needs to trust local authorities to deliver the infrastructure that’s needed locally. Whitehall-led initiatives are often too disjointed, or simply not set out with unique and different communities in mind.
What is right for Nottingham City Centre is rarely going to be right for rural North Nottinghamshire. It’s too rigid, and too often can’t be spent on what we need. The Government needs to trust Councils to decide.
Councils regularly have to bid for funding, but this has become a huge burden, taking up precious time and resources. In the end, if it’s so tightly ring-fenced that I can only spend it on schemes that Councillors and residents don’t want, then nothing will happen. We need to make sure the process is simple, and that it has enough flex for us to be able to make adjustments locally, and quickly.
The Government should also reconsider its preference for easy-to-deliver schemes rather than much-needed but more complicated improvements. A cycle path that is easy to introduce does not necessarily mean that it is the best initiative to fund. There is no point in spending money on the ‘easy’ scheme that links nowhere to nothing.
So far, the total £2 billion of funding for active travel promised in the Conservative manifesto hasn’t been offered, with relatively small pots of cash emerging sporadically instead. In recent days we’ve learned that Government is currently only committing to £100m more, bringing the total up to £950m so far.
If they want to get this right, we need to be able to plan strategically and know how much money we’ve got! The uncertainty means Councils can’t implement a wider strategy, only bits and pieces. It’s not effective. Ministers should reconsider their approach, and fully deliver on the funding pledge, but give us the local flexibility to do it properly and make the right impact.
As conservatives, we need to be the voice of common sense when it comes to local transport. Cars aren’t going anywhere, but people need alternatives. If we are going to deliver for communities by cutting congestion, tackling air pollution, and connecting places and people, we need to invest in active travel with both the funding, but vitally also the ability to spend it wisely.
To level up through transport we must acknowledge that it’s not the car or active travel: it’s both.
First published by ConservativeHome. Cllr Ben Bradley MP (Mansfield) is a member of the Conservative Environment Network.