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If Active Travel England is set up right it could increase walking and cycling for residents of new homes

On 28 July 2020 the UK Government announced the creation of Active Travel England, a funding body for walking and cycling provision in England and also an inspectorate of the work of highways authorities. This formed part of the Gear Change: A bold vision for cycling and walking plans set out the same day.

The document endorses our findings. It notes that “developments often do little or nothing meaningful to enable cycling and walking. Sometimes they make cycling and walking provision worse”, and includes the welcome statement that “we expect sustainable transport issues to be considered from the earliest stages of plan-making and development proposals, so that opportunities to promote cycling and walking are pursued”.

Transport for New Homes welcomes the creation of Active Travel England to put these ambitions into practice, and in particular the powers it will have over the planning of new homes. It will be vital if the government is to release the potential of walking and cycling to achieve their transport decarbonisation plan.

We’ve been acting as an active travel inspectorate of sorts ourselves for the past few years with our many site visits to new housing developments. We’ve learned a lot from what we’ve found and have some tips about how to do things right.

The new body will be a statutory consultee for new developments over an as-yet unspecified volume of homes. Very large single applications are rare. When we looked at the garden village proposals we saw applications in the low thousands. And in the larger garden towns the area is divided into smaller developer areas, each with their own applications. The threshold needs to be set low enough to capture enough applications.

There is also the question of resources. The organisation has many functions and will need to be properly funded to deal with the volume of work anticipated. We’ll have some sense of how serious intentions are when the new National Cycling and Walking Commissioner is announced. They’ll need to be a true active travel advocate prepared to fight for the money and people required to do the job right.

Responding properly to planning applications takes time and expertise. The organisation will need to be properly funded and have the right skills to fulfil its town planning and transport planning role. The task of reviewing every highway authority annually is a substantial undertaking. Reviewing planning applications, as we’ve found, can eat up a lot of time.

There is concern about the weight Active Travel England consultee responses will be given. The planning authorities cannot ignore the rules of planning no matter what a consultee says. Planning rules are getting more light touch, with an expectation of further deregulation on the way. It would be a shame to set up an effectively powerless new body.

That said, the greatest power of Active Travel England could be its grant giving. We know from our recent report Garden Towns and Garden Villages: Visions and Reality that the number one thing holding up good active travel provision in new housing isn’t the planning system or stakeholder will. It is money. If Active Travel England can step in at the planning stage to fund active travel in new developments it could be transformative.

The plans for Active Travel England suggest it will have £2billion to give on walking and cycling grants. This sounds a lot, but will soon get used up. If you divide by the number of highways authorities it isn’t very much per area at all. The plans talk about further funding being available down the line. It would be transformative if some of that money was committed to new housing developments.

Perhaps one of the more interesting roles of Active Travel England is the envisaged role as a centre of excellence, providing both technical advice and expertise on stakeholder management. These are appropriate but resource heavy undertakings that will require a number of skilled practitioners within and perhaps outside Active Travel England. We’re available if they need a hand!

By Steve Chambers, Sustainable Transport Campaigner