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No laughing matter: Shell UK, British Cycling and Active Travel England

April Fool’s jokes aside, the rows over petrochemical giant’s involvement come at a bad time for both organisations

By now, you’ll have hopefully realised that our piece this morning about Shell offering discounts on fuel to British Cycling members was of course an April Fool’s joke.

It was inspired by the backlash created by the governing body’s announcement last October that the petrochemicals giant had signed up as its lead partner, more than two years after banking group HSBC announced that it would be ending its sponsorship of the organisation four years early.

We explained at the time why the hole that the early termination of HSBC’s backing had left in British Cycling’s finances combined with the impact of COVID-19 meant that the governing body may have had little choice in agreeing to partner with a company that would inevitably prompt the accusations of ‘greenwashing’ that are levelled at organisations operating within industries that are damaging to the environment whenever they engage in sponsorship of the arts or sport.

> British Cycling and Shell: How HSBC pulling plug and COVID-19 hit governing body’s finances

But while our spoof was being written, the story took on a new twist with the revelation late last week that Shell UK’s chairman, David Bunch, had joined Active Travel England (ATE) as a non-executive member.

> “Greenwashing, pure and simple” - fury as Shell UK sponsors British Cycling

Again, the news was greeted with dismay by many cycling campaigners, and moreover comes at a time when, as outlined below, promised funding for active travel initiatives for England outside London has been slashed, the political will from the very top of government to support such schemes has all but evaporated, and a large section of the media has redoubled its attacks on cyclists.

ATE chair Chris Boardman defended Bunch’s appointment, telling that the body had deliberately appointed board members from outside the active travel arena, explaining that “If we want to give an entire country access to active travel as part of a genuinely sustainable transport system, we need to think bigger than we ever have before.”

He added: “I want our work to be guided by people who have delivered national scale infrastructure, are comfortable speaking to power, and are used to working on a massive scale. Anyone who knows me can vouch for the fact I’m all about the outcome and I’m delighted to have David on my team to help us deliver a step change in active travel.”

That’s all well and good. One doesn’t rise to the position Bunch has within a leading multinational business without having the skills that Boardman outlined, but the fact remains that the appointment would likely have passed largely unnoticed had that business not been Shell.

According to his biography on the ATE website, in his role at Shell UK Bunch “is tasked with driving the net zero agenda and supporting an orderly energy transition.”

Shell’s commitment to net zero has in the past been called into question, however – last year, the Guardian reported that the multinational, which publicly says it is committed to achieving net zero by 2050, had told its employees in an internal memo circulated in 2020 not to “imply, suggest, or leave it open for possible misinterpretation that (net zero) is a Shell goal or target.”

So you can perhaps forgive people for viewing his joining the ATE board – alongside other non-executive members including West Midlands Mayor Andy Street and Isabelle Clement, CEO of the charity Wheels for Wellbeing – with a degree of cynicism.

Budget cuts and No 10 changes put brakes on progress

While both Shell UK’s partnership with British Cycling and its chairman’s appointment to ATE’s board would always have attracted criticism from environmental and active travel groups, developments over the past six months or so have put the brakes on the slow progress that was being made in promoting cycling and walking as a means of getting around.

Until January last year, when Boris Johnson’s government announced the creation of ATE, there had been no national body with responsibility for cycling since 2010, when Eric Pickles unceremoniously tossed Cycling England onto the coalition government’s so-called Bonfire of the Quangos.

The body reportedly cost £200,000 a year to run, operating with a skeleton staff, and in its final year allocated £60 million in funding to local authorities outside London, as well as co-ordinating Bikeability training across the country.

So when, 12 months ago, the creation of a new national body to take responsibility for a promised £2 billion of funding over five years for walking and cycling initiatives was announced, there were hopes that finally we had a government serious about encouraging active travel, and one that was prepared to put its money where its mouth was.

Moreover, ATE had at its helm Chris Boardman, whom many saw as the natural candidate for the cycling champion role recommended by the 2013 Get Britain Cycling Report published in 2013 by the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group, and whose eloquent, well-reasoned arguments for why walking and cycling should be the default for short trips have won him plenty of fans.

It helped that Johnson was a Prime Minister who ‘got’ cycling, and who during his time as Mayor of London came to understand, with the help of Andrew Gilligan whom he appointed as the city’s first cycling commissioner, that painted cycle lanes did not offer adequate protection and that physical segregation from motor vehicles was the way forward, pushing through the capital’s two major cross-city routes despite significant opposition, not least from his own party.

And the legacy of Johnson’s time at City Hall is also reflected in two of the appointments to ATE’s board. CEO Danny Williams, who first came to prominence through his Cyclists in the City blog, was a member of the Mayor of London’s Roads Task Force, while expert advisor Isabel Dedring, engineering consultancy Arup’s Global Transport Leader, had served as Deputy Mayor for Transport and Deputy Chair of Transport for London under the Johnson administration. 

A stick in the spokes

But even as ATE was continuing to recruit staff and moving into its headquarters in York, two things happened in quick succession that threw a stick into the spokes of the fledgling organisation.

The first was Johnson’s departure from Number 10. During the Tory leadership election last August, supporters of both Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss insisted their candidates supported promoting active travel, but it was clear neither was likely to embrace it with the same enthusiasm as the outgoing Prime Minister.

Then, during Truss’s brief Premiership, came Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s disastrous ‘fiscal event’ which led to the Bank of England having to commit emergency funding to prevent the collapse of pension funds, as well as the cost of government borrowing soaring, the reported £70 billion hit to the economy made it inevitable that a new age of austerity would be ushered in.

Now lacking the political patronage it had previously enjoyed from the very top under Johnson, money set aside for active travel was always likely to be too tempting to resist when the Treasury was looking for areas in which to save money – but even so, the scale of the reduction announced ahead of Jeremy Hunt’s Budget last month came as a shock.

At the same time, the right-wing media has launched a renewed attack on cycling and active travel more generally, with hardly a week going by without articles – often based on the flimsiest of ‘evidence’ – criticising spending on infrastructure or efforts to curb car use and make our towns and cities more liveable, or accusing people who ride bikes of ignoring traffic laws.

And with active travel and initiatives to reduce motor traffic now co-opted into the so-called ‘culture wars’ by a vocal minority, some of whose more extreme members will think nothing of setting fire to planters restricting access to streets within low-traffic neighbourhoods or vandalising the CCTV cameras used to enforce them, there is a strong possibility that many local authorities will cave into pressure and water down their plans in this area or even abandon them altogether.

So, little more than a year on from its establishment, ATE’s task appears infinitely harder than it did then, with that much-reduced budget as well as the evaporation of the political buy-in essential to helping it fully realise its vision. 

Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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