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Joe Charlesworth

Technical Director (Local Government Transport Planning, Advisory and Planning)

Active Travel Capability Fund announced to build network of active travel experts for better engagement


Active Travel England (ATE) put out an announcement on the 2nd January bank holiday, which may have gone unnoticed in the new year fug. Although the details are still a little sketchy, the £32.9m Capability Fund appears, on the face of it, a very positive announcement which will hopefully lead to the development of higher quality active travel schemes in the future.

Highlights of the Active Travel Capability Fund in brief:

  1. Creation of national network of experts to work with communities, enhance high streets and make places truly walkable and cyclable for everyone
  2. Up to 1,300 new green jobs created across England
  3. Support for local authorities across the country to train and retain local engineers and planners, creating a skilled active travel workforce able to collaborate effectively with local communities and conduct high-quality engagement and consultation sessions.
  4. Funding also to be used to give travel choice to a wider demographic by engaging under-represented groups, provide cycle training and bike rental schemes

The announcement does not have the glamour of announcements usually beloved of some ministers which often follow the “X billion pounds to be spent on Y thousand miles of cycle lanes in Z locations” script, but it is to be hoped a sign of a longer-term commitment to investing in the development high quality active travel measures.

Planning and design of infrastructure has at times had an air of putting the cart before the horse. Money is often announced without necessarily knowing what it will be spent on. This leads to a local authority scramble to secure funding with a premium on schemes that can be delivered quickly. The question of do we have the skills and capacity to develop good quality, coherent proposals that deliver progress towards objectives such as 50% of all urban journeys being by an active mode by 2030 is rarely asked, at least publicly.

Furthermore, a proposal that can be delivered quickly is often one that presents ‘minimal friction’ and a failure to hear the voice of communities these initiatives are supposed to improve. A scheme’s chance of ‘success’ when it is being designed and developed in a top-down fashion without consultation and ultimately buy-in from the community is much reduced.

Sweco expertise is set to integrate active travel along a key part of the strategic road network on the A47 North Tuddenham to Easton.

This announcement follows the publication of the framework document for ATE last July, which amongst other things set outs ATE’s role in “inspecting and publishing reports on highway authorities for their performance on active travel particularly dangerous failings in their highways for cyclists and pedestrians. In these regards, the commissioner and inspectorate will perform a similar role to Ofsted from the 1990s onwards in raising standards and challenging failure.”

Active Travel Capability Funding follows a process last year where local authorities were asked to self-assess their capability to “deliver on all things active travel.” Where it was stated “Like anyone with a big target to hit, we (ATE) need to work with the willing and that means sharing our faith and the majority of our funding with councils that have the highest levels of leadership, ambition and ability to deliver…no authority that is properly committed to this agenda will be left out in the cold. For example, we will offer training and support to councils that have ambition but do not yet have the relevant level of technical ability. Our goal is to enable councils to be able to deliver more complex and higher quality projects over time.”

Active travel as part of multi-mode transport is central to Sweco’s input on the A641 outline business case proposals.

The announcement is the first realisation of this commitment, although it is not clear what, if any investment authorities that are deemed uncommitted will receive. Reference is also made to using Capability Funds on activities such as LCWIPs, network design and feasibility studies. Hopefully the money is available for upskilling to complete these activities, rather than simply a source of revenue funding to complete these as ‘business as usual’. It will be interesting to see how local authorities split the funding between recruiting, training and retaining of existing engineers and planners and providing training to local communities, but the move certainly appears a positive step. In a time of skills shortage in transport planning and engineering, it is hoped this will put funding in place for a prolonged period.

In fact, the training of skills is only one aspect, existing professionals may also need something of a reframing of their mindset to move away from the idea of a car dominated urban environment. Resilience and persuasion are also qualities that will no doubt be required to excel in this type of role, when proposals meet resistance, whether that be from within local authorities or external stakeholders such politicians, residents or businesses. It is to be hoped that this funding will help in the sharing of best practice and maybe even a ‘support group’ of sorts. Whilst the proof is always in the pudding and I have highlighted a number of concerns above, it is certainly an encouraging sign to see tangible backing for this type of initiative coming from Active Travel England.