Hugh Robertson, the Minister for Sport and the Olympics, celebrated the start of construction of the biggest cyclepark in the country, when he visited the site at Gravesend in North Kent, this morning.
He then climbed down out of the cab of the digger to extoll the virtues of this latest asset to cycling in the south east.
But he also said he hadn’t been fully aware of the concerns over controversial plans to change the Olympic Legacy Velopark road and mtb circuits, an issue currently worrying the sport on that other big project 20 miles away from Gravesend, on the Olympic Games site.
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Told of these issues, he said that any major changes called for would first have to cross his desk!
The Minister, who is MP for Faversham and Mid-Kent, said the Gravesend Cyclepark, which is backed by Gravesend Borough Council and Kent County Council, is “absolutely fantastic.”
The project on a 43-hectare site is larger than the OIympic Velopark. The landscaped site will have a 340-metre BMX track, a skate park, and a 2.9-kilometre road circuit, with some deceptive gradients.
It was his third visit to the site. “I have come at three very distinct stages in its development.”
He said he was very keen on the link between the achievements at elite level of GB cyclists – Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton and et all.
“I meet up with the squad very regularly. And will do so in the Olympic Velodrome in 10 days time.
I am very, very keen on the link between that level and community cycling. The great thing about this (Cyclepark) is it brings the two together.”
The Gravesend Cyclepark is to be ready in 12 months, well ahead of the Olympic Legacy Velopark which of course cannot be completed until after the 2012 Games.
Worry at changes proposed to the Olympic Velopark
Is the Minister aware of issues with the Olympic Park Legacy Company want to change part of that circuit, the road/mtb circuit?
The OPLC claim to have an idea for better use of that section. They have drawn up plans which everyone in cycling is wary of – because it might delay the opening.
“Well, I was in the velodrome on the Olympic Park on – let me get this right – on Tuesday afternoon,” said the Minister.
“It’s in fantastic shape. It’s the world’s best facility.
“Now I know there has been some negotiations over the route of the cycling circuit…”
Current plans, which have planning consent, show the circuit crossing the River Lee on two bridges. That is the piece of the land the OPLC say they have a better use for. The word is it’s wanted for housing. But OPLC say not.
OPLC have drawn up plans showing how the circuit would be redesigned and British Cycling and Lea Valley Regional Park Authority who will manage the Velopark, worry that changing the plans this late may delay the project. There is also concern that should the project be put to the back of the queue, there might not be the money to pay for it.
“I didn’t know there was a difficulty,” confessed the Minister. “But actually there is more rubbish, frankly, talked about funding at the moment than almost any other subject in the world.
“We’ve got all of GB cycling’s funding preserved not only to 2012, for the OIympic cycle, but we’ve got the whole sport plan funding confirmed.,
“The OPLC are fully funded for the duration of their time. They of course morph into the Mayoral Development Corporation, in a rather complicated way, post 2012.
“But the Mayoral development Corp is set up precisely so you have one body with ownership of the whole site. So, I think, from where I am sitting as the Minister, I don’t think there is any reason whatsoever why commitments made at an earlier stage should not now be fulfilled.
“It’s certainly not a concern that has passed across my desk. And I think if the Legacy plans are to be changed in a dramatic way, it would have to come through the minister.”
“I am determined to crack the issues facing road racing”
I spoke to the Minister about the encouraging progress made in talks with Home Office and ACPO aimed at solving the issues of road racing on the highway.
And I asked him how he was getting on in trying to simplify the means by which marshals may be granted legal powers to stop traffic.
“Well. They’re progressing pretty well. It’s been a long -running saga. The suspicion is that a lot of promises were made and nothing was done.
“I’ve seen British Cycling about five or six times since my election in May. and I see the Performance Director once a quarter.
“There was an original proposal to use the community marshal scheme – and it has a particular set of letters, which just escapes me at the moment – to use that to make road races easier to deliver.
“There is now a feeling that that is not the correct way and we’re going to do it in a different way. I have said as the Minister that this is a promise that I have made to British Cycling, I am absolutely determined to have this cracked as soon as possible. I wanted to try and get it cracked by the opening of the velodrome. It is currently going through the Home Office at the moment.
“I would very much hope that we will have some extremely good news very soon.
“When I came in office in May there were three things I had to do with them, the first was sort out elite level funding, so that not only can British Cycling continue with their programme to 2012, but also they were set fair beyond then.
“The second thing was to safeguard the funding in the Whole Sport Plan so that the community development – such as the Cyclepark here today – could come through.
“That has been done. The third thing was the sort out this knotty issue of marshals, that is the most difficult of the three because it is the only one that doesn’t entirely lie within my control – it involves the Home Office, the DfT and the rest.
“I asked specifically about this when the drafting for the new Olympic Bill – there is a tidying up Bill – I said I do not want that being introduced until we have got this tied down. And I hope that within the next couple of weeks we are going to have some very good news.”
What chance of saving Herne Hill track?
Finally, I broached the subject of the crumbling Herne Hill Velodrome, the venue for the 1948 Olympic cycling events.
About how a big campaign is under way to try and secure a decent lease from Dulwich Estate, to find investment to restore the track. Has the Minister been involved in that?
“I haven’t,” he said. “But the local MP for Herne Hill is my opposite number (Tessa Jowell, MP for Dulwich) . I would imagine she has taken that on and is dealing with it.
“One thing that may potentially help them is one of the new things we’ve set up, with the extra money we have put into the sport in the Lottery, a facilities fund on the back of 2012.
“That has two streams that deal with community facilities, a small grant of funding for £50,000 which will not particularly help HH. But then there is a larger one for iconic facilities that we are going to do up on the back of 2012. So I would have thought Herne Hill would be an obvious candidate to put in an application.”