Cycle Groups Protest At Diversion Of Council Funding

Cycle East Sussex, a coalition of cyclist groups in Hastings, Rother and Eastbourne, is demanding that East Sussex County Council (ESCC) reinstate £5 million of public funding previously allocated to local cycling and walking schemes. This sum was part of a Local Growth Fund secured from SELEP (South East Local Enterprise Partnership, which channels government investment in the south-east region) primarily to build cycling networks in and around Hastings, Bexhill and Eastbourne. It was diverted by ESCC two years ago to cover an overspend on road building in the county.

PICTURE: Dave Young

Of this £5m diversion, £2m relates to Eastbourne and South Wealden; most of the balance of £3m was taken from a council programme for cycling and walking infrastructure in Hastings and Bexhill to meet shortfalls in its budget for completion of the Queensway Gateway and North Bexhill Access roads.

An online petition organised by Cycle East Sussex that has collected 581 signatures seeking urgent restoration of these expended funds was presented to David Elkin, Chair of ESCC, at County Hall in Lewes on 11th February  – though where fresh money could be found is not examined in the document.

The background to this issue is the Hastings Walking and Cycling Strategy document, developed by ESCC itself together with Hastings Borough Council and jointly approved in 2014, which proposed the construction of five cycle routes as follows:

• the Coastal National Cycle Network along the seafront Bexhill-Hastings;
• Combe Valley to Alexandra Park via Silverhill;
• Alexandra Park to Conquest Hospital;
• Alexandra Park to Ivyhouse Lane Industrial Estate and Hastings Academy via Ore Valley;
• Town Centre to Alexandra Park

These routes made their way into the Hastings Local Plan, and in the same year SELEP allocated £6m to ESCC “towards” implementation. This allocation was then transmuted into a Hastings and Bexhill Movement & Access Programme (MAP) to run from 2017 through to 2021. Internal SELEP documents, publicly available, show that the original budget for this MAP was set at £12m: £6m for road junction improvements in the area; the other £6m “towards a package of walking and cycling improvements”, to be spent in three successive years (£2m for each year) between April 2018 and March 2021. 

Within the latter package a figure for walking and cycling infrastructure was initially budgeted at a little over £4.78m. However, ESCC had failed to develop a “business case” (jargon for preparing detailed costings plus a matrix of notional economic benefits) for the Ore Valley route and, despite lobbying to the contrary from Hastings borough councillors and community groups, decided effectively to exclude it from the package. Having done so, they then persuaded themselves that the remaining  routes could be achieved with a saving of nearly 50%: in February 2018 the £4.78m figure was slashed to £2.76m and, with other adjustments, an overall surplus of £3m was identified for diversion to cover the road fund deficit.

ESCC appears unapologetic. A spokesperson denied last week that all five of the potential cycling routes set out in the original 2014 Strategy document were ever intended to be covered by the SELEP funding. “The business case for the specific Local Growth Fund money referred to only specified three routes. 

“These were Combe Valley to Alexandra Park via Silverhill, Alexandra Park to Conquest Hospital and a route within Alexandra Park, all of which are currently either being constructed or in the design stage.

“When we apply for this kind of funding, we make the best estimate we can at the time of the anticipated cost of carrying out the work, but as work on the proposals was still in the very early stages, the final cost was always liable to change. Since receiving the funding we carried out a more detailed analysis which showed that we can carry out all the schemes originally proposed for £9 million.”

Ian Sier of Hastings Urban Bikes challenges this explanation: “If a fair share of the original funding had been allocated for walking and cycling schemes in Hastings”, he maintains, “it would have enabled almost all of the Hastings Greenway and the cycling and walking routes approved by ESCC and Hastings Borough Council to have been constructed by 2021.

“The rate of progress on the three schemes that ESCC are working on is incredibly slow. One can only conclude that the LEP funding is being used to tackle an unnecessarily limited programme being delivered at snail’s pace to suit the working of the ESCC Transport Department.”

Read more: A Cycle Of Misdirected Funding?

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