Department for Transport failing on Active Travel say Public Accounts Committee

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) have warned that cuts in funding made by the  earlier this year are likely to hold back objectives to increase active travel, including cycling and walking.

The report also suggests that the government has no real idea of the impact of £2.3bn in active travel funding it provided between 2016 and 2021.

The DfT told the committee that their targets to increase active travel were ‘deliberately ambitious’ but the committee found progress to be disappointingly slow, pointing out that instead of increasing the number of children walking to school by six percentage points, levels of activity now are lower than when the targets were set.

The DfT stated that ‘funding constraints’ mean it can no longer promise to deliver all 33 actions that were set out in Gear Change in 2020.

Those 33 actions are divided between four themes: infrastructure quality; integrating active travel with other transport and planning policy; improving capability within local authorities, and improving safety.

In June, the National Audit Office report on Active Travel England (ATE) found that ‘progress to date suggests it will not achieve three of its four 2025 objectives for increasing active travel, and progress on the fourth is uncertain.’

In their report, the PAC have shown patience with ATE, acknowledging that it is still a young organisation and that achievements have been made: the proportion of cycle scheme designs submitted by local authorities that comply with national guidance has increased by 14 percentage points due to training sessions and design surgeries held between ATE and local authorities. They also highlight the fact that ATE are now statutory consultants on large development schemes.

They recommend that the DfT reviews what ATE has achieved in its first year and whether it has adequate funding to deliver its objectives and maintain momentum going forward.

The report regularly alludes to a perception that the DfT are not monitoring progress against its objective. It knows too little about the active travel schemes undertaken by local authorities, who are only required to monitor or evaluate schemes that cost more than £2 million, while the average grant per project in the most recent traches of the Active Travel Fund was £750,000.

Active travel funding for Local Authorities is a widely acknowledged problem and the committee focus on it, suggesting that the 36 active travel-related funding streams LAs currently have access too, need rationalising into a more coherent structure. ‘Funding is often available in the short-term or provided annually, rather than through multi-year settlements and this instability is not conducive to delivering large or innovative schemes that would have a significant impact on active travel rates.’

The full list of recommendations made by the Public Accounts Committee are as follows:

Recommendation 1: DfT should review what ATE has achieved in its first 12 months in operation and whether it has adequate funding and support to deliver its active travel objectives and maintain momentum as it continues to develop. This should include reviewing the available capacity within its different functions and if this is sufficient for it to have impact.

Recommendation 2DfT should include in its response:

  • its review of its objectives for active travel in England, setting out what it expects to achieve with the funding now available for active travel to 2025;
  • how it plans to improve the monitoring of progress against its objectives. This should include better measures that can track progress on cycling rates where there has been local investment.

Recommendation 3: DfT should, by December 2023, update the Committee on progress with:

a) its plans to evaluate active travel interventions and how it intends to use findings from its evaluation activities to inform its ongoing and future active travel activity and investment decisions;

b) how it intends to comprehensively identify and measure the benefits of active travel across all government policy areas; and

c) how ATE will improve the collection and standardisation of data from active travel schemes.

Recommendation 4: DfT should, by December 2023, set out to the Committee how it will lead a proactive and coordinated approach with other stakeholders to: better promote the benefits of active travel; identify and address safety concerns; and encourage more people to participate in active travel.

Recommendation 5

a:) DfT and Active Travel England should, by April 2024, develop a clear and consistent approach for ensuring greater integration of active travel infrastructure with the public transport network.

b) In its Treasury Minute response, DfT should set out how, and by when, it will increase the number of public transport stops that can be safely accessed by foot, in both urban and rural areas.

Recommendation 6: DfT, working with other departments including HM Treasury, should set out in the next six months how and when local authorities will be provided with greater certainty about the funding available for active travel to enable them to invest in and deliver long-term, ambitious active travel interventions. This work should include an examination of whether the number of grant schemes available for active travel can be reduced or simplified.

Recommendation 7: As an urgent priority, and within three months, DfT needs to set out a clear plan for its Bikeability Programme with a revised business case, including the funding it will make available to the programme over the remainder of the investment period to March 2025.

Dame Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Committee, said: ‘The Government itself estimates that every pound invested in active travel reaps around £4.30 in benefits, in health, in air quality, in decarbonisation. If true, these are significant levels of potential value for taxpayers’ money to be realised. But close monitoring is required to understand what works and why in active travel investment, and coherence and stability of funding is crucial should these schemes be given a chance to succeed. Our inquiry found these sadly lacking.

‘The Government’s executive agency Active Travel England is off to a good start, but needs firm backing for it to maintain momentum. Local authorities also require closer working and support to deliver successful schemes. Billions in taxpayers’ money appears to have been parachuted in by DfT on active travel without its impact properly tracked. Without the evidence-based, collaborative and holistic approach now needed, the Government’s ambitions in this area are likely to continue to go into reverse gear.’




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