Cargo Bikes: What do we actually want from Local Authorities?
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With much bemoaning of the lack of interest from Councils, JRtB asks, what is it we actually want from Local Authorities?
As people in the cargo bike arena, what is it that we want from Local Authorities? The main problem is we don't know. Much of our time is spent on meetings that do not include local authorities, bemoaning their lack of engagement when it comes to cargo bikes. “Local Authorities do not know what they are doing,” people exclaim; “they should support cargo bikes.”
Well, yes, probably they should. However, the question is not whether they should, but rather how they should. It seems that very few people know what they want from Local Authorities, or what they can ask Local Authorities to do. And vice versa. Why might this be the case? Let's try and break it down a little.
Firstly, the Local Authority hierarchy is a minefield of confusion. Are you dealing with the county, or district council, or do you have a unitary? Are they a borough, a London borough, a metropolitan borough, or a combined authority? Do you need the infrastructure people, or the planning people, or the place-making people? And what about the parish councils or the town councils? London is, as usual, a special case for transport, with Transport for London having its own legislation. And what about Sub-National Transport Bodies, are they worth knowing about? And this is, with apologies, England only. Wales has the Active Travel Act (good luck with that). Scotland has....well, it is quite advanced in terms of active travel, but as you might have guessed, it is doing its own thing.
Are you targeting a councillor, are they the Lead Cabinet member, are they even on the cabinet? Are they interested in that kind of thing? And what authority do they belong to, because it might be more than one. They might be District and County. Are they worried about the next election? Are they quite comfortable? Have they a passion to decarbonise the movement of freight? Or are you working with officers? Do they have powers to make decisions? Who else do you need to include? Will you still need councillors?
Secondly, what do you actually want them to do?
There are as many ideas about cargo bikes as there are authorities, but many of the ideas in Authorities include 'not much'. But this is the nub of the issue. Local Authorities, despite appearances to the contrary in some places, have no money of their own. Yes they are about to have more money from council tax raises, but that will not result in more services, it will simply keep the minimum at its minimum rather than under it (with the exception of Croydon council who are effectively bankrupt and counties such as Kent and Hampshire that are nearly bankrupt).
What Local Authorities do have, is a mild willingness to invest to save. This does not mean, sadly, that they will dump money on you if you offer to save them a few quid. Rather, if you can deliver a sensible, interesting and locally relevant scheme, which needs some seed funding, but should deliver a certain amount of substantial savings, then Local Authorities could be the place for you. This, then, is to make sure you understand what a quid pro quo might look like, it is a two way process and both sides need to win.
Thirdly, it is about what you can offer and what you can deliver. Local Authorities do not need more consultants. You might be an excellent consultant, much smarter than those other big firms; good for you. That's of approximately zero monetary value to a local authority. You need to be offering to solve a problem, on the ground, which will look like it can actually deliver benefits to their residents, businesses and the environment. You need to have done your sums, and you need to be willing to back them up with the best evidence you have (not your best guesses).
Fourthly, it’s all about procurement. The sad fact of local authority life is that the organisations that are pre-approved for Local Authority contracts do not seek company. Because procurement is such a tiresome, laborious and fraught process (a lawsuit exists around every corner), most Authorities set up long term call-off contracts with a handful of the massive suppliers (you can guess who they are and please tell us if you think they are any good).
Small suppliers have to operate in tentative, shadowy spaces (niche things like school streets or partnerships with BIDs) which the big guns struggle to get into. But the big guys are wise to this. They are able to throw people and money at the problem to make sure their well-paying clients do not look at other suppliers for more cutting edge work. This is extremely bad for innovation, extremely bad for the market place and extremely good for the offshoring industry - Authorities pay millions of pounds every year to their international suppliers who ultimately extract the money from those places, whilst telling those places how to be more economically active. It's a lose-lose situation that no-one is tackling.
Fifthly, all is not lost. It does sound horrific and generally it is; it would be much better if there was a brighter future, but it's not to be. The small pockets of light in the darkness of the far too cosy relationship between authorities and global contracting firms, are about the best we can hope for. But some of these are definitely worth chasing. If we go back to point Three, then our role must be to go to Local Authorities - at the right level, in the right place, with the right people, with an understanding of their issues - and pitch them our exciting, innovative, sustainable, implementable cargo bike schemes.
They will not come to us, we have to go to them. Sure, we're all going to kiss a lot of frogs, but one of them might just be one that benefits from kissing.
Image copyright JRtB, 2018
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