Northern Ireland

Department for Infrastructure reverses funding cut for schools travel scheme

Sustrans says the Active School Travel programme has been saved as DfI has reversed its funding decision
Sustrans says the Active School Travel programme has been saved as DfI has reversed its funding decision

A decision to scrap funding for a scheme that encourages active travel on the school run has been reversed.

Walking and cycling charity, Sustrans said the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) has reconsidered its decision to cut funding for the Active School Travel (AST) programme.

It comes after it was revealed last month that the scheme was in jeopardy as DfI was set to remove its half of the funding.

Jointly funded by the department and the Public Health Agency (PHA) and costing approximately £450,000 per year, it is the only initiative for tackling the dominance of cars and encouraging active travel on the school run in Northern Ireland.

It encourages children to walk, scoot or cycle; improving their health, road safety and congestion at the school gates.

Sustrans has delivered the programme to more than 460 schools across Northern Ireland over the past decade.

The DfI decision was part of a series of cuts due to budgetary pressures on Stormont this year.

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But it has now emerged that the programme has been saved after DfI reversed its funding decision.

Sustans said that "following a campaign, DfI reconsidered its decision and confirmed that it will continue to fund the programme, albeit with a smaller contribution".

It said that the PHA has agreed to provide an increased amount to ensure the programme can continue across Northern Ireland.

Sustrans said its campaign with Cycling UK Northern Ireland led to more than 500 responses to the department, from schools and parents across NI who protested that the funding cut decision discriminated against children and people with dependants, and praised the programme’s wide-ranging benefits.

Sustrans has delivered the programme to more than 460 schools across NI over the past decade
Sustrans has delivered the programme to more than 460 schools across NI over the past decade

Caroline Bloomfield, Sustrans NI director said: “With stringent budget cuts across government and acutely so for Infrastructure, we did not expect to receive the full funding and proposed cost-saving measures for a reduced programme for 2023/24.

“We are grateful for all those who responded to the campaign and especially the support from Cycling UK and the All-Party Group on Cycling to see this decision reversed.

“We are delighted to continue one of our most successful programmes and that we will be able to recruit new schools into the programme from the autumn.

“The Active School Travel programme is helping to change travel habits, encouraging children and their parents to walk, scoot or cycle to school which has profound implications for their health, the environment and safety around the school-gates."

Andrew McClean from Cycling UK said it was a "victory for common sense and will benefit the future generations of Northern Ireland".

"Cycling UK applauds DfI for listening to parents, schools and individuals on the impact and importance of teaching cycling and walking to children across Northern Ireland," he said. 

“Civil servants are having to make difficult decisions in the face of budgets cuts and in the absence of a minister and an assembly, but this reversal is the right decision for a greener and healthier Northern Ireland.

"Officials have recognised minor savings from cutting the Active School Travel programme is disproportional to the huge benefits it delivers in schools and local communities.

“Cycling UK hopes this is a sign of positive change within DfI, as Northern Ireland needs to see investment in active travel as a long-term saving."

A DfI spokesperson said: “As previously outlined, around 95 per cent of the department’s resource budget delivers essential, front-line services; the vast majority of which are regulated, statutory, or contractually obliged. 

"This leaves very limited scope to make the kind of cuts to spending that are required to live within the 23/24 budget allocation.

“In that context, the funding allocation from DfI for the Active Travel School Programme for 2023/24 has therefore been reduced.

"Work is underway to ensure the programme delivers best value and specific programme activity for schools across Northern Ireland within the scope of the current programme, whilst also delivering on the department’s climate change responsibilities.”