Interview: Phillip Darnton, former chairman of Cycling England

By John Whitney in Bath, UK | Saturday, April 9, 2011 8.00am

Last October’s ‘Bonfire of the Quangos’ was something of a bloodbath; a ruthless cost-cutting exercise by the UK's coalition government that saw 192 public bodies – or 'quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations', to give them their full name – axed. Big-hitters such as the UK Film Council saw the guillotine fall, but it was the dissolution of Cycling England that'll have the biggest impact on the cycling community.

Set up in 2005 by the then Labour government and funded by but independent from the Department for Transport, its brief was to promote cycling in England and get ‘more people cycling, more safely and more often’. The emphasis was on new cyclists, rather than existing cyclists, doing more. Its dual focus was on Bikeability, launched in 2007 as a remodelled cycling proficiency scheme, and the development of 17 'cycling demonstration towns' and a single 'cycling city' (Bristol).

Despite evidence that it was successful in getting more people onto bikes, Cycling England was issued notice to wind-up and on 1 April, it closed its doors. Jobs have been lost, website have stopped being updated and the organisation's work has come to a halt. All future funding for cycling projects will come from the Department for Transport’s new £560 million Local Sustainable Transport Fund (LSTF). As the name suggests, this isn’t specific to cycling and won't provide the same resources or focus. All future decisions about cycling provision will be made on a local level.

At the helm throughout Cycling England’s existence was its chairman, Phillip Darnton. He's a former chairman and chief executive of Raleigh Bicycles, is on the board of the Bicycle Association and has huge experience of the cycling industry. His final message last week – a heartfelt, critical post on Cycling England's website – criticised the Government for its handling of cycling and accused Ministers of using it as a “party-political football to be played with according to fashionable ideology or dogma.”

Mr Darnton believes cycling will no longer have a distinct voice on a national level within the Department for Transport and will have to compete in a scramble for funds from the LSTF. BikeRadar caught up with him on Cycling England’s final day to discuss his time as the organisation's chairman, its successes and what he really thinks of the Government’s decision to call time.

Ideology, not cost-cutting

“Frankly, it’s all a terrible waste of talent,” said Darnton, referring to the people who lost their jobs with the demise of the organisation. “I just don’t think it’s a well thought out decision at all. It doesn’t bother me so much about the idea of disbanding Cycling England itself. What I'm bothered about is that all the skill, all the leadership, all the know-how and all the expertise has just disappeared, and we're back to where we started. It’s an ideological decision, born out of a belief that ‘quangos’ aren’t accountable to central government, and a dislike for the idea of money being ring-fenced.”

Each change of government brings new policies and visions. Short-term agendas are often favoured at the expense of long-term, cross-party plans and the reason why, according to Darnton, cycling has suffered in England compared to many of its European neighbours. “The cycle-friendly cities of Europe such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam all started with investment in cycling more than 35 years ago, most in 1973 following the first oil crisis,” he said.

“What's striking is the consistency with which they've continued to invest every single year since then. It's also striking that cycling has had no political issues at all; all political parties have continued the long-term strategy and policy to increase cycling and make it an integrated part of their transport policy. It’s this continuity and consistency above everything else which distinguishes these cities from those in Britain.”

With sweeping cuts hitting every aspect of the public sector, many would agree with the decision to abolish Cycling England. They’d argue that if the number of officers in the armed forces and the number of police on our streets is being cut, a body that spent £140 million over three years promoting cycling can't expect to dodge the bullet. But Darnton believes the decision was wholly ideological, rather than any considered effort to reduce spending. “Unfortunately we were classed as a quango and we had funds specifically for cycling. These two factors meant that we fell foul of their ideology,” he said.

Demo towns

The demonstration towns programme was developed to prove that an increase in funding could significantly improve cycling rates, and the results from the first period between 2005 and 2008 were encouraging. The initial six towns – Aylesbury; Brighton and Hove; Darlington;Derby; Exeter; and Lancaster with Morecambe – saw an average increase in cycling of 27 percent, while cycling to school doubled in towns where Bikeability training was in place.

Bristol, announced as the first cycling city in 2008, received a quarter of all funds directed towards the demo towns project up until 2011. Its focus included building and improving cycle paths, providing cycle parking facilities and improving cycling safety around the city. The results for 2008-2011 for all the demo projects have yet to be released, but Darnton is optimistic.

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“I believe it's been extremely successful," he said. "The difficulty is always that people expect to see change take place overnight and this hasn't happened even in very small towns, let alone large complex ones like Bristol. Change takes time. It requires vision and leadership, and needs consistency, dedication and a committed team putting it all together. Bristol, in particular, set some very high challenges, including the idea of doubling cycling within three years.

"This is fine as an aspiration but has the attached risk that if it isn't achieved it'll be considered to have failed. This is far from the case and I don’t believe there's a city in the world that has been able to double cycling aggregates in such a short time. It’s a great pity that this continuity has now been compromised. They (demo towns) worked really closely together to share and compare their successes and problems as they went along, and it’s this sense of a well co-ordinated and purposeful strategy that’s been lost.”

Many quangos saw their responsibilities transferred to government departments when the cull was announced, but this wasn’t the case with Cycling England. Everything it worked towards has effectively stopped being done, so the time put in by its staff and the considerable amount of public money that’s gone its way has arguably been wasted. Now the Department for Transport is in control, cycling may struggle to have its voice heard in an office that seems to be doing all it can to ease the pressure on motorists.

One positive bit of news is continued funding for Bikeability for 2011/12 with a budget of £11m – as high as it’s ever been – and the assurance that it'll be supported until the end of the current Parliament. As for Darnton, he'll remain on the board of the Bicycle Association, will continue to do what he can to encourage more people to get on their bikes and will help maintain the work of Bikeability. The Government found it easy to cut its ties with cycling; the same can’t be said of Phillip Darnton.

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