What does the budget mean for walking?

Gemma Cantelo is Head of Policy and Advocacy at the Ramblers.

From Whitehall to town halls, getting more people walking and cycling is increasingly recognised as ‘a good thing’. But, as the Budget proves, when it comes to investment, the car is still king.

In his autumn budget statement, the Chancellor committed to investing nearly £30 billion on the nation’s roads, most of it to upgrade major roads and motorways. That’s a whopping 40% increase in Highways England’s budget. For the ninth year in a row, fuel duty will also be frozen. While the government’s 25-Year Environment Plan, Childhood Obesity Strategy and draft Clean Air Strategy talk about getting more people walking and cycling, it’s our roads that receive the biggest budget boost. That’s a powerful message - and a missed opportunity.

The places we live and travel in are designed to get cars – rather than people – moving. This has resulted in walking environments that are less safe, less pleasant, more polluted and more congested. If we are to combat childhood obesity and climate change, and improve air quality, physical and mental health, we need to make walking the easy choice. This means investing in creating high-quality, well-connected, accessible networks of paths and green spaces. Reversing our reliance on cars will not be easy: it will take leadership, action and investment across national and local government. The Budget falls short on this ambition.

The Budget does contain good news, albeit not on the scale we need. An extra £680 million is earmarked for the Transforming Cities Fund (adding to the existing £1.7 billion pot), helping more local areas invest in sustainable travel. Other walkers and would-be walkers will be relieved that the provision of public toilets also received a boost. A further £650m will be invested in a Future High Street Fund, alongside a package of other measures aimed at regenerating our town centres. If we are really going to get communities moving and encourage people back into our town centres, we need to make sure that this investment is targeted at creating spaces that prioritise walking, alongside travel by bike and public transport.

There are already pockets of good practice that should be shared and promoted. Greater Manchester is investing in 1,000 miles of joined-up routes for walkers and cyclists. Once complete, the ‘Beelines’ network will be the largest network of its kind in the UK. In the same area, Salford City Council are revitalising old railway ‘loop lines’ for active travel by installing new signs, lighting, plantings and artwork to create green routes – on some loop lines, user numbers jumped from 12,500 to over 191,500 in just one year.

The announcement of the £60m tree planting fund – with £10 million for new trees in streets and urban areas – should help more communities follow suit. NICE guidelines recommend that green routes are provided for active travel, to shield walkers and cyclists from the worst effects of pollution. Green surroundings provide safer, more attractive and enjoyable spaces and help get more people walking, including small children and the least physically active. Touted commitments to creating a new Great Thames Park in the Thames Estuary also shows that government is thinking about green space.

But, the approach to improving walking environments continues to be piecemeal and limited in impact. Taken alongside the ongoing push to create new homes, that’s worrying. Just last week, research highlighted that new housing developments are trapping people in car dependency. Our own research with LGIU, highlighted the difficulties councils have getting developers to prioritise active travel and pedestrian-friendly spaces. And yet, against this backdrop, the autumn Budget statement focused more on potholes than pedestrians. That can’t be right. To realise the environmental, social, health and mental health benefits of walking, we deserve a financial commitment on a scale proportionate to our investment in roads. Maybe next year…

You can read the Ramblers’ vision for towns and cities that put pedestrians first in Paving the Way and Moving the Nation, produced in partnership with Cycling UK, British Cycling, Living Streets and Sustrans.