'No leadership', 'no change': What was the £351,000 from the Active Travel Fund spent on by Northamptonshire County Council?

"We want to make our voice heard and bring the town into the 21st century"
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A cycling and walking activist group in the town has slammed Northamptonshire County Council for showing "no leadership" when it comes to road infrastructure.

Living Streets Northampton has questioned where the Active Travel Fund - a government grant given to local authorities to implement greener ways to travel in light of Covid - has been spent.

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The group also point to the thousands of comments left on a county council consulation which asked members of the public to pin-point where they would like to see improvements to the town's roads.

The 24-hour bus lane in NorthamptonThe 24-hour bus lane in Northampton
The 24-hour bus lane in Northampton

Living Streets claim the majority of the public's recommendations were not followed up, which has led to them putting in a Freedom of Information request to the county council in to see where the funds were spent. They have not yet received a response.

Northamptonshire County Council stated on its website when it first got the funding: "We have received £351,000 to implement short-term measures to encourage walking and cycling.

"We have worked with borough and district councils to identify potential schemes. While some schemes are intended to be permanent, most are either temporary measures or experimental."

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Some of the measures which have come from the Active Travel Fund within the town include a wider path on St Giles Street, a temporary bus stop in Mercers Row, a controversial cycle lane in Rushmere Road, and another controversial 24-hour bus lane from Weedon Road to the town centre. There has also been countywide cycle racks installed.

But how much have these changed really cost the council? For most of the measures listed above, all there has been is extra cones put down to create a wider space for walkers and cyclists.

The man responsible for the funds, Jason Smithers of NCC, was forced to defend the county council's expenditure on cycle counters last year, which saw the authority spend £75,000 of the ATF.

A cycle counter tallies up how many people have biked into town that day; Living Streets has said this is putting the "cart before the horse" because the lack of infrastructure means there won't be many people cycling into town for the counters to count.

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A Living Streets spokesman said: "Our aim is to improve our infrastructure in the town so people will walk or cycle to complete short journeys instead of use their cars.

"Unless we are actually going to change the streets then nothing will change. There's lots of talk and documents but there has been no change. There is evidence that people do support making more space available for cycling and walking.

"We want to make our voice heard and bring the town into the 21st century."

The group particularly wanted to highlight the crossing at Abington Square and how it needs to be improved, which would add many benefits including "improving the economy" as more people would be able to walk into shops and buy things.

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The spokesman said: "2,000 comments were left from people recommending improvements. Abington Square was particularly interesting because it's not good for people on foot or cycling.

"There needs to be a pedestrian crossing from the old cinema to Abington Street in one go. It makes you feel the roads are being designed for people in cars rather than cyclists and walkers.

"Regardless of the consultation, this was an opportunity. This was a great opportunity to make the junction better rather than just having it designed for cars. The junction design was not even looked at."

One member of the public flagged the Abington Square as a "high priority" on the county council's consultation.

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They said: "The main access to town centre is very unfriendly. The existing crossing here has a long wait and is split into two, you have to wait on a small island that gets very crowded - it's very difficult for anyone with a disability."

Living Streets highlighted places such as Manchester, London, Paris, New York as busy areas which manage to operate effective green ways of travel.

If the busiest city in the UK can do it then why can't Northampton?

The Living Streets spokesman said: "These places have really strong leadership in local government to promote active travel. I think that is what we have lacked here, there's no leadership.

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"If you wanted to cycle from Spinney Hill to the train station, to London, to Canary Wharf, the scariest bit of that journey is from Spinney Hill to the station.

"It's quite scary isn't it? You can understand why people don't want to leave their car at home and start walking/cycling. They are in fear of their life.

"If people could feel safe when they cycle they would do it more. We are not saying we are anti-cars, or there can't be any cars in the town, but if we can make the town complete short journeys by bike or walk then surely that would be better."

The group highlighted a place in Denmark called Odense, which is roughly the same size as Northampton. The Danish town records 25 per cent of its journeys by cycling and walking, but in Northampton it is reportedly only one per cent.

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According to StateOfGreen.com, Odense has 545 kilometers of cycle paths, which is about three meters per inhabitant and the most in any Danish city. The bicycle paths are used frequently, because the inhabitants of the city are some of the most enthusiastic cyclists in the world – more than every fourth trip is done by bike.

The government published a significant document last year in the wake of Covid and the need to distance more. The document is called Gear Change and can be viewed here.

The Prime Minister said in Gear Change: "This document aims to kick off the most radical change to our cities since the arrival of mass motoring.

"We announced in May £2 billion of new funding for cycling and walking – representing a sixfold increase in dedicated funding, the biggest increase this country has ever seen.

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"That will pay for first hundreds, then thousands of miles of protected bike lanes, so anyone can ride safely; low-traffic neighbourhoods, to stop rat-running and make it easier to walk and cycle; bus and bike corridors on some main roads; and funding for a massive rise in e-bikes, all of which will open up cycling to more and different people and make places better for everyone.

"There will be vouchers to pay for bike maintenance, free cycling training for everyone who wants it, and parking changes to discourage the school run.

"I know not everyone can cycle, which is why we're investing billions in roads, buses and railways too – but many more of us can and should. Vast numbers of car journeys are very short and could easily be travelled by bicycle.

"People often think that encouraging bikes and walking causes congestion – but it doesn't, if you do it properly, and make the kind of changes we are proposing to streets to improve walking and cycling accessibility."

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Has the Prime Minister's promise been made a reality in Northampton?

The county council was asked:

- Where has the Active Travel Fund (ATF) been spent?

- How much is left of the ATF?

- To explain why cycle counters were bought first

- Why has there been "limited improvements", according to Living Streets, following the county council's public consultation?

- To respond to the "lack of leadership" which Living Streets claims there has been at the council

- If London can make their city a friendly place to cycle then why can't Northampton?

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- Why has there been no improvements at the Abington Square junction?

- The main reason people don't walk or cycle is because it is too dangerous. What is the council doing to address this?

This was the response this newspaper received.

A spokesman from West Northamptonshire Council said: “We recognise the health and environmental benefits that can be achieved by encouraging active travel choices.

"Going forward we will be looking at the current local cycling and walking infrastructure plans so that we can continue the work started by the county council to improve walking and cycling routes, making them safer and easier to use.

"This will include consultation with residents and other stakeholders and use this feedback to help us prioritise schemes.”