In ‘Air Pollution video – what happened next? (Part 1)‘ (Get Sutton Cycling, April 2018) we considered the replies and acknowledgements received from councillors in response to the ‘Air Pollution in Sutton’ email that had been sent to all fifty-four councillors in the autumn of 2017 regarding our first short film.
All responses, that is, apart from one. We deliberately did not discuss the reply received from the council’s Cycling Champion Cllr. Manuel Abellan (Beddington South, Liberal Democrat; Vice-Chair of the Environment and Neighbourhood Committee). This was because it was clear from Manuel’s response that he was effectively writing on behalf of the council (the current Liberal Democrat administration). Therefore, we thought the response deserved to be discussed separately.
So, here in ‘Air Pollution video – what happened next? (Part 2)’ we present Manuel’s response in full, and add some commentary of our own (effectively our response to the council’s reply).
We would like to take the opportunity again to thank all the councillors, who took the time to respond to our invitation to view the film, for their interest. We would like to think that that the councillors who did not reply, found the film (and the statistics it contained (available here)) informative. As always, it is action, rather than words, that matters.
So let us begin by reminding ourselves of the email that was sent to Sutton’s councillors on the topic of ‘Air Pollution in Sutton’ in the autumn of 2017:
‘Air Pollution in Sutton’
31 October 2017 / 1 November 2017
Hardly a day seems to go by without another news item about air quality. People are worried and are asking questions about what can be done.
Get Sutton Cycling wants to contribute to the debate.
So we invite you to watch a short video (just under 4 minutes of your time) which you can find here on YouTube.
If you would like to discuss things further, please get in touch.
Get Sutton Cycling
representing the London Cycling Campaign in Sutton
Sutton Council’s response
Towards the end of January 2018, a full and comprehensive,response was received from Cllr. Manuel Abellan:
28 January 2018
Thank you for your email about air pollution and for sharing the LCC’s video.
I wholeheartedly support the general point of the video. Encouraging people to walk and cycle where appropriate can lead to improvements in both the health of the participants and others who live, work or visit the area as air quality will be improved.
As you know Sutton has the 6th highest level of car ownership and usage in London, and therefore suffers from traffic congestion. In the coming years, it is inevitable that if we want to continue to be one of the greenest and best places to live, work and raise a family, we will need to reduce our dependency on cars and use other sustainable modes of transport – public transport, walking, cycling etc.
South London currently lags behind other parts of London when it comes to public transport. That’s why my Lib Dem colleagues and I are actively campaigning and lobbying the London Mayor and Government to bring the tram to Sutton, improve our rail services and secure more funding to build better walking and cycling infrastructure in our borough.
We are currently working on a number of initiatives to improve air quality in and around Sutton Town Centre. This includes running a number of workshops with businesses to examine the steps that they can take to reduce emissions from the vehicle movements associated with their business.
Officers have also met a cycling group in Sutton to try to identify measures that would help to encourage cycling such as improved cycle parking, signage and surfacing.
We are also currently reviewing the Air Quality Action Plan and we aim to consult on the revisions in the spring of 2018. In addition to the measures to tackle emissions from motor vehicles, we also plan to take steps to improve energy efficiency so as to reduce emissions from heating and raise awareness including the promotion of AirText and the discouraging of bonfires.
In terms of cycling, one of my priorities since being appointed as cycling champion and more recently vice-chair of the Environment committee has been to make sure that cycling is a top priority for the administration and embedded in all Council departments. There is still a lot of work to be done, especially on the latter but I believe that we are progressing in the right direction.
I also made it a personal ambition to establish a positive and constructive dialogue between key stakeholders like cycling groups, officers and local political leaders. I am proud that in the last few years we organised Sutton’s first cycling summit, inviting the then cycling Commissioner Andrew Gilligan and Caroline Pidgeon AM, and published our new cycling strategy. This remains our key document, along with our Transport Strategy, other planning documents and the Mayor’s Transport strategy.
I believe that there is growing momentum and exciting projects like the works on Beddington Lane, the two quietways, a new North / South cycle route in Wallington, upgrade existing LCN route 75 and 29 to Quietway standards and extend the cycle lanes on Middleton Road. However funding and appropriate resources to deliver successful schemes remains a major impediment.
Over the last few years, Conservative Government cuts have forced Sutton Council to reduce its annual budget by around 50%, essentially forcing us to find £74 million of savings between 2010 and 2019. It has also forced us to reduce our capital budget. Unfortunately local Conservatives continue to support every wave of cuts to our Council.
This austerity has caused a dramatic reduction in the money and resources (staff reductions) available to deliver transport infrastructure. Sadly, the future looks even worst with draconian cuts to our LIP funding on their way. I refer you to item 7 and 8 of the upcoming Environment and Neighbourhood committee for a more detailed picture of the funding situation for Sutton. Discussions are still ongoing but as it stands, the only money Sutton would receive in future years is £100k per annum distributed to our six local committees. I hope that you will agree with me that this figure falls significantly short of what is required for Sutton to deliver its ambitions to improve the quality and safety of our roads.
I hope that the LCC will join us in lobbying the Mayor and Government to change course and that this letter reassures you of our continuing ambition to make Sutton one of the best boroughs in London for cycling.
Councillor for Beddington South Ward
What to make of the reply from Cllr. Abellan?
Cllr. Abellan’s thorough response has a lot to commend it.
In particular, Manuel notes that:
- the Air Quality Action Plan is currently being reviewed with an aim to consult in the spring of 2018;
- that there is a need to reduce our dependence on cars;
- that a priority has been to ensure that cycling is a top priority for the administration and embedded in all Council departments (while recognising that there is still a lot to be done).
- lack of funding and appropriate resources is an impediment to the delivery of successful schemes, and puts the blame on the government for this.
But are these just the usual apparently good sound bites? Self-justification as a reason why more cannot supposedly be done?
It is good that the video has forced the council to reply, and for the council to acknowledge the needs of bike users. Arguably, however, the reply is typical of the kind of response that we have come to expect.
For example, take the following sentence (our emphasis): ‘Officers have also met a cycling group in Sutton to try to identify measures that would help to encourage cycling such as improved cycle parking, signage and surfacing.’
Firstly, the video makes it quite clear that a few cycle racks are not what is wanted. The council have always offered racks, signs and surfaces (and, to be honest, have not delivered particularly well on any of them).
Secondly, there is the reference to “a cycling group”? This reads like a press release or a council statement rather than a letter to members of that cycling group (us).
The overriding argument appears to be that:
- the council has not been able to do anything through a lack of money, and
- the council have actually done quite a lot.
Lack of money
Manuel blames the government for taking away money. But, as noted countless times elsewhere on this website, the council and its councillors and employees do not need money to change the way they think, which is the real issue. In that regard (as evident from the Cycle Forum meetings), their thoughts and processes appear not to have changed one iota.
A recent example of what can only be described as an inability to change the way of working relates to the Middleton Road proposal put forward at the Cycle Forum in January 2018 (essentially paint on the carriageway). Manuel refers to this proposal (i.e. paint on the carriageway) in this response as one of the current “exciting projects”. Painting lines here, as originally proposed, is simply old thinking. And yet, Manuel writes about this as if such an intervention would be successful scheme, a good thing. (Fortunately, our disquiet at the prospect of just paint on the carriageway may, as reported at the January 2018 Cycle Forum (post in preparation), have stopped this idea form being progressed for something better).
While on the subject of funding, it is also worth reminding our councillors that the current Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan (Labour) is committed to providing “record investment in cycling“. A great opportunity for boroughs (but only if they are willing and able to deliver).
Whether the current record level of funding is sufficient is, of course, is another question. The simple answer is no. Much more is required. In delivering the best local services, local authorities need to be highlighting the fact that investing in cycling would make a massive difference to all of society. All the evidence needed to support investment in cycling is set out in the academic paper ‘Benefits of Investing in Cycling‘ by Dr Rachel Aldred available from More cycling will benefit all Brits says Boardman (British Cycling, October 2014) and countless other publications, including the Value of Cycling (Phil Jones Associates, DfT, University of Birmingham (2014), and the Conservative government’s very own Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy (DfT, March 2016).
Danish levels of cycling in the UK would save the NHS £17 billion within 20 years
Shifting just 10% of journeys from car to bike would reduce air pollution and save 400 productive life years.
‘Benefits of investing in cycling’ British Cycling (October 2014)
Meanwhile, Sutton failed to bid for the first round of Liveable Neighbourhood funding. Twenty-one boroughs (out of 33, if including the City of London) put in a bid in October 2017 (despite the six weeks application time-frame). And four of the seven successful bidding boroughs were in outer London (Ealing, Greenwich, Havering and Waltham Forest). Clearly willing and able.
Achieved quite a lot
To say a lot has been done is simply spin. The current ‘big ticket’ project for Beddington Lane, which although we are all agreeing is wonderful, is, in reality, distinctly marginal to most cycling in the borough. It could not be further from the main cycling routes in Sutton, although it may encourage some people to cycle more if they don’t mind the changing sides of road more than once and ending up abandoned in the middle of Mitcham Common.
Discussions with Carshalton Central ward councillors about Mill Lane (by Butter Hill) [Google Streetview | Open Street Map] have revealed the same refusal, or inability, to think about cycling. Councillors make choices which are not good for cyclists, and then falsely claim the reason is because of a lack of funds.
It is true that the piecemeal approach to funding, and the piecemeal delivery of schemes, realised through the annual LIP funding mechanism, has not helped over the last fifteen years or so. A paltry amount of money, coupled with the formulation “must be spent by the end of the year or it will be lost”, has failed us completely. Hopefully, the rigidity of this mechanism is set to change with imminent release of new LIP guidance (2019/20 onwards), plus of course bidding procedures for Liveable Neighbourhood funding.
Another example of how little has changed was a recent discussion with Sutton South councillors (two Conservative, one Liberal Democrat). We asked them whether they would consider a trial closure (or more correctly a ‘point-closure’, as residents would still have access) of Grange Vale (a street in the Sutton South ward that is currently listed as a ‘scheme’ on the Cycle Forum scheme updates) [Google Streetview | Open Street Map]. The purpose of the trial would be to monitor the impact this would have on traffic in the area (due to displacement (or evaporation) of ‘rat-running’ traffic). This research would (a) not cost very much to carry out (hardly infrastructure after all), and (b) would show the council’s willingness to look at the options. Needless to say, the responses received showed that the councillors really have not got a clue about enabling active travel or healthy streets. “The computer says no” comes to mind. (Or, “there is an election coming, and this sort of idea will queer the pitch as we have not made the case during the last four years. We are afraid of losing votes, and if we are not re-elected we won’t be able to continue doing nothing in the next four years”).
Manuel complacently says that he believes progress is being made towards embedding cycling in all the council departments. But there is no evidence of it. He is simply repeating the intentions from the Cycling Strategy which have not been progressed in two years.
Sutton’s Cycling Strategy, LBS, November 2015, is available on the Sutton Council website. The strategy, along with the first annual update of the Cycling Strategy Action Plan (LBS, June 2017), is also available on the Get Sutton Cycling publications page.
So, while this response from the council’s Cycling Champion is welcome, what does it actually tell us about the council’s commitment, ability and aspiration to deliver on improving air quality in our green borough? Or to enable cycling as a sensible, grown-up way of travel? In the summer of 2015, when the Space for Cycling petition was presented to the Leader of the Council, it was all about action and not words.
One thing is for sure. The new administration, of whatever political persuasion, will need to hit the ground running on 4 May if the current target to achieve 4% of all residents’ trips to be made by cycle by 2025 (up from the current 2%) has any chance of being met.
The 4% target of all residents’ trips to be made by cycle by 2015 was originally set in 2013, and recommitted to in the Sustainable Transport Strategy, LBS June 2015
And given all the evidence as to why doubling cycling levels (or increasing them considerably more) would be a good thing, from reducing the number of people suffering from breathing conditions to increasing the proportion of the population who are active, the question that has to be asked yet again is “what are waiting for?“.
v1: 6 April 2018