Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Meeting with the Council

Following from my previous blog Renfrewshire Council - Delusional?, I e-mailed a link to the Councillor involved in the blog and the leader of the council. To my surprise, I was invited to a meeting with them both which took place this morning. I am not in either councillor's ward, so I appreciated them agreeing to meet.

In the end, Cllr Gilmour couldn't make it due to an urgent situation, and sent his apologies, so the meeting was just with Cllr Mark MacMillan, leader of Renfrewshire Council.

I had a presentation prepared, which I had hoped to start the meeting with. However, Cllr MacMillan started by discussing the aforementioned blogpost and questioning whether it was 'fair', primarily due to the cuts the council's budget has seen. I stood my ground, but it set the tone for a meeting that was livelier than I'd anticipated.

I'll split this post into a few themes.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, money was where the discussion kept returning to. The council, like all across Scotland, has had its budget cut by Holyrood over the last few years. Cllr MacMillan argued that Renfrewshire has been disproportionately hit. Of course, it's a position I sympathise with, but regardless of how big or small the budget is it'll always have priorities. My argument is, of course, that cycling should absolutely be a high priority, certainly within the transport budget.

My point that the cost of doing nothing about cycling is high (struggling town centres and health issues) was taken on board I think, but the statistic of £4 gain to the NHS for every £1 spent on cycling was deemed problematic since the council has to spend the £1 on cycling, yet it's the Scottish Government that fund the health service and so see that £4 dividend. Again, I sympathise with the problem, but it's a shame that this kind of bureaucracy stands in the way of investment.

CAPS 10% Target

The Cycling Action Plan for Scotland's 10% modal share by 2020 target was dismissed by the Councillor as not being worth the paper it's written on, since it hasn't been backed by money to make it happen. It's a position I'd struggle to disagree with - targets are easy to set and forget, and this certainly looks like one of them. No wonder the Scottish Government are back-pedalling on it, with the language of 'shared vision'. Of course, that shouldn't stop campaigners talking about it loudly, as Darkerside rightly says. I think it's fair to say that the odds on Renfrewshire meeting that target are zero.

'Raising the Profile'

The council leader talked a number of times about raising the profile of cycling, through mass participation events and the like. I argued, strongly I hope, that people who cycle on closed roads during such events will surely not cycle on Renfrewshire's roads as long as they are hostile to cycling and so won't be converted to cycling for everyday journeys. I've got no problem with sport cycling, the Tour de France etc, but they're as relevant to everyday cycling as Formula 1 is to driving to work.

He talked about London's increase in cycling, which I argued is more due to 'sticks' (congestion charge, cost of public transport) than 'carrots' (good facilities for cycling). I argued that for cycling to truly take off, we need both carrots and sticks - he said that he envisioned more carrots in Renfrewshire, but not sticks. I think that's a pity - we need both.

Benefits for Towns

One point I made was rebuffed very quickly - that cycling would help revive our town centres. He claimed that Paisley town centre provides well for pedestrians (I largely agree), perhaps over-provides (I disagree entirely), but that people want places to park and so are going to out of town centres such as Silverburn and Braehead. I'm not sure I articulated my arguments against this point well enough, to be honest. Suffice to say, all evidence suggests that provision for cycling benefits towns and cities.

We also spoke briefly about Renfrew, which he said had been recently remodelled as a shared space, yet no-one seems to like the design. I don't like the design - it's crap for pedestrians, crap for cyclists, crap for drivers, crap for businesses and good for those who like fancy paving. Its fundamental problem is that it's not only a town centre, but also a through route for people travelling from Erskine/Bishopton/Inchinnan towards the eastbound M8, and a through route for people travelling from Paisley to Braehead. That traffic is hurting Renfrew, and different coloured paving has unsurprisingly done absolutely nothing to fix that. Hopefully the acknowledgement that this scheme hasn't been well-received means we won't be seeing more of the same, but nevertheless it's a lot of money that was blown only a few years ago (remember, we don't have money).

Clyde Valley Investment

The proposed investment in infrastructure across the Clyde Valley was brought up a number of times, in terms of it helping modal share shift away from private cars towards public transport and active travel. It was claimed that the plan includes cycling at its core, not an add-on (I think we agreed that a lick of paint on the road wasn't terribly useful). Without having seen the plans (they're not in the public domain as far as I'm aware) it's hard to comment on their quality and to what extent they'll benefit cycling.

However, this optimism was mitigated by the mention of road-building potentially being part of the plans, since the M74 extension hasn't alleviated traffic as expected (more roads, more car journeys - should surprise no one). I pushed this one quite hard, that building more roads leads to more traffic. He argued that the new Fastlink buses will need roads, but that they won't be dedicated to public transport. I think there's a very big 'watch this space' on this topic.

Working Together

The final, and positive point, is that the council leader agreed that the council should be working with and consulting people when making plans, rather than spending money on cycling facilities for people like me to then write blogs about it, claiming that they're crap and seeing no modal shift. He's agreed to keep in touch, and I hope I can positively contribute to any dialogues.


We spoke for a full hour, yet I feel there are issues we didn't manage to fully address, and I think the discussion could have easily lasted another. Ultimately, I think the leader of the council would like more cycling in Renfrewshire, but I'm not convinced that he's willing to give it the funding and priority it deserves. There are a lot of players in getting cycling modal share up, including the UK Government, Scottish Government and local government: campaigners need to be applying pressure and winning the arguments with all of them. Unfortunately, it's all too easy for local government to blame national government, and vice-versa, with no accountability when targets are inevitably not met. 

If you haven't already, please consider shaping the Renfrewshire Cycling Campaign, write to your local councillors about #space4cycling and take a look at the excellent Pedal on Parliament and Cycling Embassy of Great Britain websites, as well as the City Cycling Glasgow forum (thanks to members there for help in making the presentation there, especially joel_c and sallyhinch). I tweet about cycling too.