Northern Ireland minister accused of reneging on safe cycling pledge

Cycling UK say John O'Dowd pledged to introduce an Active Travel Act, something he has now walked back

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A Northern Ireland government minister has been accused of reneging on a pledge he made to support legislation on safer cycling in the Northern Ireland assembly.

Cycling UK have released correspondence showing that the minister for infrastructure of Northern Ireland, John O'Dowd, promised to support an Active Travel Act ahead of his election as an MLA (member of the legislative assembly) earlier this year.

Now, the cycling charity has learned the Minister is now reneging on his pre-election pledge and will not commit to an Active Travel Act.

Andrew McClean, Cycling UK's spokesperson in Northern Ireland, said that O'Dowd was "neglecting Northern Ireland's future as he locks us all into a fossil-fuelled dark age".

The Sinn Féin minister was one of of 53% of sitting MLAS who committed to Cycling UK's pledge before election. It stated: "If elected, do you pledge to support; Investment in Cycling, Walking and Wheeling – introduce an Active Travel Act.”

In a letter to McClean from the office of the minister, his private secretary revealed that while he was considering supporting legislation to support active travel, he was not committed to an Active Travel Act.

"The minister has a wide range of complex and competing priorities and these need careful consideration, taking account of the resources available," the letter reads. "The minister will communicate through the Assembly and media, as appropriate as he determines the way forward. 

"Active travel is one of these competing priorities, and you may be aware that the Department's priorities for active travel are laid out in various publications, such as the Cycling Strategy, Greenway Strategy and most recently the Belfast Cycling Network Delivery Plan. 

"Currently the Department's focus is implementation of the Climate Change Act which will have a significant impact on active travel, and for clarity, the minister’s commitment is to consider taking forward legislation to support active travel, not to an Active Travel Act per se."

McClean said it was "baffling" that O'Dowd was not focusing on cycling and walking.

“Minister O’Dowd, who is responsible for our roads and the way we move, is dithering and locking us all into future car dependency," he said in a statement. "In rejecting his pre-election promise of support for an Active Travel Act he is neglecting Northern Ireland's future as he locks us all into a fossil-fuelled dark age.

“Across Northern Ireland, we’re facing the burden of a cost-of-living crisis with driving an expensive necessity for many. Making cycling and walking more accessible gives us all a choice, a choice to make cheaper, healthier and more environmentally friendly trips for those local essential journeys.

“It’s baffling the minister and his department can’t see the short and long-term benefits of encouraging more cycling and walking.”

There is currently no government in Northern Ireland, as after the last Assembly elections in May, the DUP refused to assent to the election of a Speaker as part of a protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol (a piece of Brexit legislation that governs the movement of goods between mainland Great Britain and Northern Ireland), meaning an executive could not be formed.

However, Cycling UK argue that the minister could still be doing more to help active travel in Northern Ireland.

“To date Cycling UK has received flimsy excuses as to why the minister is doing nothing to help people travel cheaply,” McClean said. “He’s signed off on new road schemes, so the very least he could do is begin scoping or beginning the consultation process on an Active Travel Act.”

To date the minister has approved two new road building projects and has guaranteed funding for a Greenway Project which his predecessor at the DfI, Nicola Mallon, had set up.

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Adam Becket
Senior news and features writer

Adam is Cycling Weekly’s senior news and feature writer – his greatest love is road racing but as long as he is cycling on tarmac, he's happy. Before joining Cycling Weekly he spent two years writing for Procycling, where he interviewed riders and wrote about racing, speaking to people as varied as Demi Vollering to Philippe Gilbert. Before cycling took over his professional life, he covered ecclesiastical matters at the world’s largest Anglican newspaper and politics at Business Insider. Don't ask how that is related to cycling.