This is a tale of two Midlands cities: one going places, and another stuck in traffic. The former is Leicester, busy adding a mile a week to its active travel infrastructure, with plans for a COVID and post-COVID transport revolution that so impressed the Department for Transport that they were awarded more funding than they applied for.
The latter is Worcester – the city in which we live, shop, and work: a city congested, it seems, in body and mind. The city’s highways are the remit of Worcestershire County Council, an organisation struggling to come to terms with a changing landscape. Their desultory last-minute bid appeared to involve a bit of cash for some white paint, and a proposal for a baffling white elephant of a smartphone app. They are yet to reveal their allocation, but Bike Worcester understands that they secured just half of the requested first phase funding.
To understand the disparity, it is worth looking at how the councils operate. Leicester is a unitary authority. This means that, within its area, Leicester City Council is responsible for all local authority services. Bins and buses, social care and schools, records and roads, it’s all one organisation. This makes city-wide changes relatively straightforward. Want to get more people walking and cycling? Public health officials can sit down with planners, highways officers, community liaison groups, and all are working for the same goal.
Worcestershire is served by a two-tier system. District councils such as Worcester City Council run parks and green space, leisure, bin collections etc. But the city’s roads, infrastructure, public transport systems and public health are the responsibility of Worcestershire County Council. Each Worcester voter is represented by a City Councillor, and a County Councillor. Councillors are “responsible for making sure that the services that the Council provides meet the needs of residents and those who work in the county”. In Worcester, the fine political balance of the City Council necessitates a collaborative approach, in which a committee system ensures representation across the political spectrum. But in the County Council, individual Councillors, appointed to the Cabinet, have responsibility for certain services.
The transport brief is held by Cllr Alan Amos. The economy and infrastructure brief is held by Cllr Ken Pollock. Both are experienced, educated men. Oxford-educated Amos has, in his 67 years, been an Economics teacher, a Conservative Councillor, a Conservative MP, a Labour Councillor in London, a Labour Councillor in Worcester, an Independent Mayor of Worcester, and finally a Conservative Councillor once more, serving on both Worcester City and Worcestershire County Councils. He is no stranger to controversy, having voiced his forthright opinions on the reporting of rape, on child refugees, and on “dangerous and selfish cyclists… wretched people”. He is outspoken, certainly, but if there’s one thing apparent from his 42-year career as an elected politician, it’s that he’s open to changing his mind.
Pollock, a former academic who taught Agricultural Engineering at Newcastle University before a successful career in media production (including Farming Today and Top Gear), has likewise packed a lot into his 75 years. He, too, is famously outspoken, broadcasting a twitter feed that amplifies a wide range of fringe political commentary, including retweets of posts defending White Lives Matter protestors, and a long-standing commitment to exposing anthropogenic climate change as a hoax.
Worcestershire’s cycling infrastructure has long been cause for concern. The county, like many comparable shires, has large rural areas served by market and industrial towns. The cathedral city of Worcester has a population of around 100,000 people within an area of 33km2. For comparison, Leicester grapples with a much higher population density, with more than triple the population (329,000) in an area of 73km2. There are few dedicated routes built for bikes in Worcestershire: in rural areas, pedal-powered traffic tends to share the road with motor vehicles. Within Worcester and other towns, many of the cycleways are shared with pedestrians in busy riverside routes. There are a handful of stretches of shared bus and cycle lanes. People on bikes are banned from Worcester city centre. “Cyclists and pedestrians do not safely mix”, argued Cllr Alan Amos in pushing for the ban, which rather raises the question of why so much of the Council’s investment in active travel infrastructure has gone on shared foot and cycle paths.
Members of Bike Worcester have long campaigned for a more coherent and considered active travel network. But COVID-19 has changed the landscape. It has given people the opportunity to stop and consider how they want to get around. And the Chief Medical Officer expects the virus to be circulating in significant levels until at least Spring 2021. To their credit, the Department for Transport has reacted decisively, making funding available for Councils to install temporary measures to help people get around their local areas without putting themselves or others at risk. Grant Shapps, addressing the Transport Select Committee (24th June 2020) was clear on the hierarchy: walk and cycle. If you can’t, then drive. Public transport should be a last resort.
People are heeding the message: bus use, outside London, was down 86% from pre-COVID levels in May. People are leaving space on buses and trains for those who have no other option. This has shifted pressure back onto the road network: even with just a small fraction of the county’s schoolchildren back in class, and with much of the workforce furloughed, traffic levels are already back to 80% of pre-COVID levels, according to Cllrs Pollock and Amos.
1.3 million bikes were sold in the UK during lockdown. Many more have been hauled from the back of the shed, dusted off, and enjoyed. As bus travel plummeted, cycling rates more than tripled in May. As society and the economy grind back into gear, many of those people would love to continue cycling. It’s enjoyable, cheap, healthy, and crucially, it’s what the government are asking us to do. It takes the pressure off the road network, freeing up space for those who can’t walk or ride a bike, and need to drive.
So the public have been asking questions. A plea to improve cycle parking on Foregate Street by moving an underused existing mobile cycle rack was refused by Cllr Alan Amos. The request, backed by a petition of 173 signatures, argued that the gain of 10 bike parking spaces would benefit local businesses and the City Council coffers — with the loss of a single free 45-minute car parking space offset by the release of a revenue-generating space in the nearby car park where the bike rack currently stands. This episode, though minor, was telling; there were no conceivable drawbacks: Worcester would get more convenient bike parking at no cost, and have the same number of parking spaces, and more car parking revenue. The proposal’s refusal sent alarm bells; it suggested that Worcestershire County Council’s approach to Active Travel was far from evidence-based, and far from meeting the government’s expectations.
Matters continued in the same vein; residents pleaded for School Streets schemes to reduce congestion and allow children to safely walk and cycle to school: requests refused by Cllr Amos. People have asked for yellow lines near schools to reduce school-run congestion: requests refused by Worcestershire County Council Highways. Under mounting pressure, Amos clarified his priorities in a Council meeting on June 4th, stating that he felt the rise in cycling was just a phase. In support, he cited some dubiously low statistics on cycle commuting that appear to have been derived from a bus users forum. The Worcester News reported that:
Cllr Amos said public transport – particularly buses – was the only real alternative to using a car for many of the people in Worcestershire. “We have to get people out of cars but my approach is to do it by encouragement not by forcing people – by closing roads or blocking off this or blocking off that,” he said. “I do believe in freedom of choice and I do think people will weigh up what is in their own best interests in terms of how they travel to work or for leisure.”
The problem is that people have listened to government advice and abandoned public transport in droves. And residents of Worcestershire are exercising their freedom of choice, and weighing up what is in their own best interests. And having done so, many of them have decided they’d like to walk and cycle more. We know, because we asked them: members of Bike Worcester surveyed 170 Worcestershire residents in April and early May. 12% cycled to their local town or city before COVID-19, and 22% said they intended to post-COVID: an increase of 59%. But of these people, 85% worried about road safety, and 70% saw lack of cycling infrastructure as a barrier.
There is no shortage of data showing investment in cycling infrastructure boosts the economy too, quite apart from the health gains and lower congestion. People on bikes spend more money in shops. But Councils are strapped for cash, and the crisis in local government funding will be exacerbated by COVID-19. In such a scenario, it would be perfectly understandable for Worcestershire County Council to plead poverty. Fortunately, the Department for Transport has made £250 million available in grants for precisely the sort of measures to help people get around safely: widening walkways, pop-up cycle lanes. Councils can apply for what is effectively free money, and experiment with a whole range of temporary measures without breaking their own budgets.
After considerable prevarication, Worcestershire County Council submitted a last-minute bid under the scheme. It appeared to be largely cut-and-pasted from existing travel plans, and fell somewhat short of expectations.
Cllr Amos, meanwhile, had gone somewhat quiet on the issue. He did find time to ring up the Worcester Observer to defend Cecil Rhodes’ statue, 60 miles away. Local residents took to social media to plead for help from the Councillor in charge of Economy and Infrastructure, Cllr Ken Pollock. They got rather more than they bargained for, as Cllr Pollock has taken the opportunity to air his forthright views on topics ranging from public health to electric buses. The latter would, admittedly, be a wonderful idea… were we not in the middle of a pandemic with a government advising against public transport. Cllr Pollock’s pronouncements have done little to allay fears that Worcestershire County Council is, at best, lukewarm in its enthusiasm for Active Travel.
Desperate for more detail, residents submitted a number of questions to the County Council’s Economy and Environment Overview and Scrutiny panel on 19th June. Any public participation in these meetings is rare: that 12 people submitted detailed questions is an indication of the strength of feeling. The Council Officer in charge of Economy and Infrastructure (including Highways) is John Hobbs. As anyone who has met him will know, Hobbs is proud of his military background. One might therefore expect a degree of sympathy for those wishing to safely lead active lifestyles. Such hopes were dashed when he opined that people on bikes are “fairweather friends”. We face hurdles insurmountable to even this man of action: namely, that Worcestershire has several hills, and sometimes it rains.
Many of us wouldn’t call ourselves cyclists. We’re rarely seen in wraparound shades, and some of us ride bikes that belong in a museum… but we ride everyday. School run, work, shopping: in all weathers. Even up hills. Cllr Amos does not like hills. Council employees, who have long been urged to reduce congestion at County Hall by cycling up the same hills that Amos decries, are understandably fuming. But, I hear you cry, not everyone can manage a hill. That is true. And Bike Worcester exists to help people of all ages, shapes and sizes enjoy pedal power, which is why we think e-Bikes/Trikes are wonderful. There’s even a shop in Worcester that will let you try one out!
Cllr Alan Amos’ appearance at the scrutiny meeting was uncharacteristically subdued. “You don’t want to hear too much from me”, he said. He waved a sheet of paper, saying he had prepared written answers to those detailed questions. He promised to send them to everyone. It has been nearly two weeks since that meeting. No answers have been forthcoming. Perhaps they never existed. Perhaps his dog ate the paper. Or perhaps he had every intention of providing them, but has — once more — changed his mind.
We hear almost daily from residents crying out for measures to help them do their bit, as the government have asked. They want to travel in a healthy and sustainable way, and to free up space for those who cannot do without their cars. But if this active travel momentum is to be sustained, people need to feel safe and supported. Up and down the country, from Leicester to Herefordshire, councils are doing their best to study the evidence, canvass opinion, and try things out. Some experiments will work; others will not. Some measures will last, some will be temporary. At the Council Meeting on the 25th June, Cllr Alan Amos was heard to say “if closing roads cuts congestion, I would have done it”. Well, there’s plenty of evidence stretching back 60 years to suggest that it can, and is exactly the sort of innovative, counter-intuitive thinking that can help make our cities more pleasant for everyone. But both Councillors and Officers of Worcestershire County Council appear to be hoping they can muddle through until all of this has blown over, and we’re back sat in a traffic jam with the new bike gathering dust in the shed.
Cllrs Amos and Pollock are experienced, able political operators who are rarely backward in coming forward. It is time for them to show some leadership. And in the meantime, as residents struggle to get even basic answers from their elected officials, people continue to suffer on Worcestershire’s roads, and trust in local democracy ebbs into the tarmac.