Wednesday, 21 October 2015

How to misappropriate funds and ignore legislation

There are two things you need to understand before I can start this blog post.

Firstly, the South East Wales Metro project is a £2bn project to improve public transport in the South East Wales area. The main project is the electrification of the Valley Lines, but the scheme will also improve bus services. Wales Online has a nice overview here, and there is a page about it on the Welsh Government website here.

The other point is that in Wales we have the Active Travel Act. Among other things, the key part of the leglislation is Section 9(1), which states -

The Welsh Ministers and each local authority must, in the exercise of their functions under Parts 3, 4, 5, 9 and 12 of the Highways Act 1980 (creation, maintenance and improvement of highways, interference with highways and acquisition of land), in as so far as it is practicable to do so, take reasonable steps to enhance the provision made for walkers and cyclists.
This essentially means that cycle and walking facilities must be improved on upgrades to and the creation of new road schemes.

A background

This brings me to the start of the blog post, and an introduction to the Upper Boat Gyratory. The gyratory is a large roundabout, connecting 2 main arterial routes, 2 roads for more local access (although still carrying large amounts of traffic) and a small dead end that contains a few houses.

Those of a nervous disposition look away now
This gyratory currently has no provision for cycling, bar a shared use path on either side of the road to the South East of the gyratory, which ends abruptly at the roundabout. And while there are pavements, all crossings are uncontrolled, including the one signalised arm of the roundabout, which only just manages tactile paving and a dropped curb.

On 15th September this year, Rhonnda Cynon Taff council announced it was to start work on the gyratory, with £6.9m from the Welsh Government and other sources, and a newly obtained £2.4m from the South East Wales Metro project, to reduce bus journey times.

Great, you might think. With Active Travel Act legislation in force in Wales, and with a specific funding source to improve bus journey times, this might be a chance to improve this gyratory for people and public transport users.

Your right to information

Ha! Call me cynical, but with the lack of consultation, and the track record of my local council when it comes to provision for cycling and walking (that could be a blog post in itself), I decided to submit a Freedom of Information request, to get the plans for this scheme and to see if cycling and walking had been catered for here. At this point, I had no concerns about the way in which this scheme was funded, although I knew money for bus improvements had been sourced.

And after a long delay and having to get the Information Commissioners Office involved, I finally received the information I had requested, 37 working days after the initial request (the Freedom of Information Act says I should have a response in 20)

And having looked the response, everything is worse than I expected.

Intended side effects

What would you do to prioritise buses? The obvious answer is of course bus lanes, meaning buses can bypass traffic congestion in the general traffic lanes. What is currently being done at Upper Boat is that extra traffic lanes are being constructed. With money for public transport. The logic being that if there is less congestion, buses don't get caught in it.

The purple dashes indicate the part of the scheme paid for by public transport money

This is extra capacity for private cars, paid for by public transport money. Nothing has been constructed for buses here, yet the gyratory has recieved £2.4m out of a fund for them. This isn't the first time that funds for sustainable transport have been misued in the UK, Mark Treasure has a blog post about LSTF fund money being misused in West Sussex, but in those examples, they at least tried to make it look like they were using the funds for cycling.

This is an incredibly blatant misuse of funds. But bear in mind that this was not only applied for by Rhonnda Cynon Taff Council, but approved by the Welsh Government. A government which is proud to have world first legislation for Active Travel, but when it comes to action instead of words, fails to go by its own standards. Which brings me onto...

The Active Travel whatnow?

Remember the Active Travel Act? In a scheme such as this Rhondda Cynon Taff must take reasonable steps to improve provision for cyclists and walkers. I guess 'reasonable steps' is open to interpretation. But it is clear these reasonable steps have only been taken where it creates no disbenefit to motorised traffic.

For example, Rhonnda Cynon Taff seems proud of the signalised pedestrian crossings it will introduce, stating:

"Benefits of signalised pedestrian crossing upgrades (included in this scheme at the base of both A470 offslips) are that signalised crossings are preferred by visually impaired people, people with learning impairments and other groups of pedestrians including older people who have difficulty in crossing the carriageway in the existing informal crossing arrangements.

Other crossing design features will be tactile paving and rotating cones and audible signals for visually impaired pedestrians and adequate visibility to the crossings to ensure that approaching motorists can see a pedestrian or dismounted cyclist about to cross the road"
Great for blind people? I'm not blind myself, so maybe I'm underestimating the ability of a blind person. But there is no point having a great pedestrian crossing if all it does is lead you to a uncontrolled crossing point of a 70mph slip road. I don't think a blind person could cross a 70mph slip road unaided, but at least they can get to the crossing and then turn around.

70mph slip road, with two lanes. All you get is some tactiles. But at least you have a signalised crossing to get to it
We are adding a lane, but also adding tactiles. Hooray for balanced transport policy!

And cycling?

While my Freedom of Information response tries to justify the provision for pedestrians, cycling gets nothing at all.

Shared use cycle paths are outside the scope of this scheme. The footways are of inadequate width and the land beyond the back of the footway does not belong to RCTCBC. There is also insufficient room to create a cycle lane however, the existing cycle paths either side of Main Avenue have been retained.
Certainly, my interpretation of Section 9(1) of the Active Travel Act means this scheme is illegal in Wales. But the lack of consultation with the public means that there was no opportunity for this to be raised. And I hate to be a conspiracy theorist, but my Freedom of Information request may well have been delayed so that the illegality of this project couldn't be raised until construction had started. To me that seems entirely plausible.

What now?

I'm not sure. This scheme cannot be stopped, it is already half complete. And if Rhonnda Cynon Taff council continue their policy of not consulting with the public then there is little chance of schemes like this being stopped in the future. The Active Travel Act is great and all, but with no enforcement, it means very little on the ground.