Tuesday 1 February 2011

Waltham Forest council: the ‘grey fleet’ scandal and the suppression of cycling

"And it was all grey..." The view from the Transport Planning department at the Town Hall, Walthamstow.

Let’s ignore for now the reasons why most people in Britain won’t cycle. Let’s look at the other side of the coin: the reasons why people prefer to drive. These are numerous and variable but obviously include comfort and convenience plus infrastructure (all of which are signally lacking for cyclists in Britain).

Under ‘infrastructure’ you’d need to include car parking. For many workers (teachers, for example) workplace parking is free and generally exceeds demand.

There’s also perceived cost. Once you’ve bought a car it makes sense to use it. Buses are slow and often follow circuitous routes. Cycling is widely perceived as unattractive and unsafe. Train fares are notoriously high in the UK. Travel by car often seems more convenient and attractive, sometimes just as quick, and, on the face of it, very much cheaper. And apart from perceived cost, driving is, by any objective measurement, getting cheaper, with the current total cost now only around 85% of its 1997 level.

What’s more

the costs to society of motoring exceed the costs to the individual, which will lead to a level of motoring that is both inefficiently high and inefficiently cheap from a social perspective. The [fuel] duty is therefore a way of forcing the private motorist to take account of these social costs.

(That said, international variations in cycling rates have nothing at all to do with the price of petrol.)

One consequence of mass motoring in Britain is, as we know, the suppression of cycling. Everybody agrees that there is a massive suppressed demand for cycling, even if traditional U.K. cycling campaigning has demonstrably failed to unlock that potential. Part of that reason is the cycle campaign establishment’s disinclination to adopt a holistic approach to cycling. If you believe that the bicycle is a vehicle which belongs on the road and that cyclists must adapt to vehicular cycling, then the volume of cars on the road and issues like car parking become irrelevant. Let me once again cite Dave Horton’s observation that We’ve got a cycling promotion industry in the UK which refuses to contemplate the act of deterring driving. It’s always promoting cycling around the edges, not seeking to dismantle the central system of mobility in the UK, which is the car.

Today I want to consider two aspects of how driving by employees of the London Borough of Waltham Forest is encouraged by the Council both financially and through the availability of car parking.

These reflections are prompted by a couple of revelatory passages in the council’s newly-published Waltham Forest Local Implementation Plan (LIP). At present this still seems to be unavailable on-line; the one currently available on the internet is only the 2005 LIP. So much for transparency (the new LIP is dated December 2010, it is now February, and responses must be in by 25 February). Luckily Freewheeler has contacts and has obtained a rare hard copy. Mind you, I can see why the council wouldn’t want pesky, troublesome people like journalists or bloggers reading it, as it does contain some illuminating raw data. But now let’s cut to the chase and the scandal of the ‘grey fleet’. And bear in mind that these issues apply to all local authorities, so if you care about them it’s well worth using the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) to extract the facts from your own local council.

On p. 82 I learned that transport accounts for 28% of the council’s overall emissions and that

staff commuting levels and use of its grey fleet are significant sources of its transport-related emissions of 385 tonnes in 2009/10.

What’s a council’s ‘grey fleet’? This is the term used for staff using their own private cars while on council business and being financially rewarded for doing so. What's defined as 'essential car use', which can either be full-time or 'casual'.

This hidden can of worms is only opened-up for scrutiny some thirteen pages later, in section 4.3.5

Here it is revealed that the council employed a consultancy (the Energy Saving Trust) to review the borough’s grey fleet. The EST made three fascinating discoveries.

Firstly, ‘the Council’s grey fleet emissions relative to the size of its fleet…are high compared to other London Boroughs.’

Secondly, ‘the report concluded that the Borough currently pays very high rates for its grey fleet provision.

Thirdly, and perhaps most revealingly of all, ‘The grey fleet is not managed; there is insufficient data to address the high costs

The deficiencies in the existing operation of the grey fleet (which has presumably been in this state for years, perhaps even decades) are underlined by the EST recommendations, which include

Setting a grey fleet management system

Consolidating all grey fleet related information into a single, frequently updated database from which a full profile of individual staff travel, including car details, insurance information, driver licence verification, miles travelled, costs of claims, can be established and monitored.

The LIP fails to supply any financial figures, even though the EST report will undoubtedly have contained some, so plainly there is scope for a variety of FOI requests, number one being: what is the total annual cost of the operation of the London Borough of Waltham Forest’s ‘grey fleet’?

And how many officers enjoy the luxury of 'essential' car use?

What has been exposed is plainly a form of car dependency run on behalf of council officers, by council officers, which has been allowed to get completely out of control, with apparently lavish sums being squandered on car travel, without even rudimentary checks on whether or not drivers have a licence, are insured, genuinely need to use cars for their journeys, or are putting in false or exaggerated mileage claims. Scrutiny of this swamp of officer self-interest by the elected members seems to have been non-existent; it has only been dragged out into the light of day by the council’s need to cut its spending.

The EST also recommended

Moving from National Joint Council rates to HMRC’s Authorised Mileage Allowance Payments, making a short term saving of over £500,000.

I assume this figure applies to an annual saving. And this very substantial figure will result simply by switching Waltham Forest mileage allowances from the standard local authority rate for ‘essential users’ of 50.5p per mile for the first 8,500 miles for a car of 1200-1450cc (topped up with an annual lump sum of £1,239) and 65p a mile for ‘casual users’ [source] to the lower approved mileage rates used by the inland revenue, namely 40p a mile for the first 10,000 business miles (as outlined here). (Incidentally why is the public sector enjoying more preferential car mileage rates than the private sector - isn't this something any Conservative opposition at a local level would want to be pursuing?)

The EST gets to the rotten heart of the Council bureaucracy’s car-dependency when it recommends

Establishing a travel hierarchy where use of a private vehicle is used only after more cost effective and less polluting [modes] have been considered. This would provide the Borough with a template for codifying how staff travels.

Yes, yes, yes. The whole question of ‘essential car use’ by council employees needs to be dragged out into the open and rigorously scrutinised. The London Borough of Waltham Forest is relatively compact and there seems no reason why almost all journeys within it should not be made by bicycle. Of course any car user will bluster that their journey is essential (important papers to carry, couldn’t take a laptop on a bicycle, and other nonsense).

Definitions of what genuinely constitutes 'essential' car journeys need to be made by people other than fossil-fuel-addicts, for whom car travel is as essential and natural as a daily bottle of gin or whisky is to an alcoholic.

Not that I am optimistic that the Council is capable of seriously addressing its grey fleet scandal. We are told only that the Council is ‘considering’ the EST’s recommendations, of which only ‘some’ are ‘likely’ to be implemented ‘in the short to medium term’. Which is all delightfully vague. The officers are plainly not going to remove their snouts from their troughs of oil and petrol if this can be avoided (and many bureaucrats are experts in obfuscation, delay, procrastination and policy evaporation).

The LIP also contains some evasive blather about the Council ‘consolidating its workplace estate on fewer sites thereby minimizing travel between sites’, even though it is perfectly possible to cycle between ALL the council sites in the borough quite easily and quickly.

There is, naturally, also lots of blather about ‘encouraging the use of electric vehicles’, which will plainly be the travel mode of choice for the next generation of non-cycling well-paid workers. No doubt there will be extra advantageous mileage rates and other financial incentives for those whose ‘essential’ journeys are in future made by environmentally-friendly electric cars.

The other side of the coin is car parking for Council workers, which is usually either free or, when there’s a charge, very inexpensive. Take a look at the scenes below: Waltham Forest Town Hall is basically a vast car park containing some council offices.

The final bleak irony is the absence of cycle parking. There are half a dozen over-subscribed stands by the Town Hall entrance and that’s it. No other visitor cycle parking is supplied. And the LIP itself is issued by the Transport Planning department, which is situated in Sycamore House to the rear of the main Town Hall building. This building is open to the public but contains no cycle stands for visitors. Which symbolizes everything I have ever said about this Council and its bogus credentials as a Green, cycling-friendly local authority.

(Below) More scenes from the Town Hall, Walthamstow. There are some special reserved bays for ‘Green Badge’ users, who, judging by the flash cars, are management. You know, the people in charge of sustainability and stuff like that.

And now, for just one example out of many, let us cycle off to Gainsford Road E17, not all that far away (but doubtless a car would be 'essential' for many LBWF officers making this journey). Here there are council offices shared with the NHS. I’m always coming across tosh like this in documents about ‘encouraging cycling’:

Working in partnership with NHS London and local healthcare providers to promote cycling in Outer London can contribute to a more active and healthier local population.

Yet the NHS in Waltham Forest is car-sick, with extensive car parking at local NHS sites and cycle parking either non-existent or inadequate.

It's no surprise at all to learn that

The NHS produces nearly as much carbon dioxide annually as Croatia

But not to worry – its fossil-fuel-addicted management has come up with some marvellous Green ideas, none of which involves cutting back on car dependency by the NHS’s car-sick workforce. For example

older patients with leg ulcers will be sent to flower arranging classes - improving their mobility and helping them heal faster, saving on carbon emissions for travel to hospitals.

Here at these joint NHS and London Borough of Waltham Forest offices on Gainsford Road there are no signs indicating any cycle parking, and presumably there isn’t any as I couldn’t see any bike stands at all. But there is extensive free car parking for NHS employees, council employees and visitors. At least three of the vehicles parked here are 4X4s and one has a child-killing bull bar attached to the front.

The probability is that most of the drivers parked here will have driven less than two miles, and almost all less than five miles. If drivers were charged £10 a day to park here they would suddenly find the costs of motoring too great. They would be unable to park on local streets because this building is surrounded by Controlled Parking Zones. These drivers would then be forced to consider other transport modes – walking, buses or yes, even cycling.

But as long as the NHS and Waltham Forest Council supply free parking to their employees car use becomes attractive for short journeys. And everyone who has driven to this building has helped to deter cycling. Two out of every three drivers here will, on average, never have cycled, and their driving standards in proximity to a cyclist may well be intimidating, reckless or careless. And some of these drivers (for all I know, most of them) will be getting paid 50p – 65p a mile for their car use, topped up by an annual payment of £1,239 for depreciation/wear and tear.

The Council issues grand documents about ‘sustainability’ and ‘encouraging walking and cycling’ but it is itself, along with the NHS, actively involved in promoting car dependency, subsidising car dependency, and discouraging and deterring cycling. In this it is probably no different to any other local authority in Britain.