A spoke in the wheel

Bicycle chained on seafront railing.
Photo credit: Matt Seymour, Unsplash

The figure of Sisyphus in Greek mythology is a poignant one − condemned by the gods to push an immense boulder up a steep hill only for it to roll down every time he nears the top, repeating this action for all eternity.

His story of endless attempts and endless setbacks must seem only too real to the members of Bespoke, the group campaigning for safe cycling routes in Eastbourne. They have spent many years talking to other interest groups in the town; they have issued detailed and authoritative reports on the different options available; they have enlisted expert opinion to back their case – and yet every time a breakthrough is close, somehow all their efforts run into the sand.

The story begins way back in 1994, when the first proposal for safe cycling routes in Eastbourne was drawn up by Mark Strong, the Sustrans campaigner behind the enormously successful Cuckoo Trail. After a number of years, when it appeared that his recommendations had been sidelined, campaigners formed Bespoke to revive plans for safe cycling in Eastbourne.

“Most seaside towns are spread out along coastlines, so the seafront tends to be an obvious route between different residential areas,” says Robert McGowan of Bespoke. “Every other Sussex seaside town has a cycle lane along the front. Eastbourne is the exception and generally lacks safe cycling routes. So, given the town’s size and shape − 100,000 people spread over a large area − it has become very car-dependent.”

Bespoke achieved a significant breakthrough in 2015 when Eastbourne Borough Council voted through a scheme to create a seafront cycleway. There was one final hurdle to clear. As the scheme involved changing a 19th-century bylaw prohibiting cycling on the promenade, it had to go to Whitehall for what is usually a rubber-stamping exercise. “At that point a deluge of letters went to the secretary of state from pedestrian groups and people in Eastbourne who just don’t like cycling at all,” Robert McGowan told Sussex Bylines. “And Whitehall refused to sign off the change of bylaw. It was incredibly disappointing because we had put loads of work into the plans and it had the approval of our elected representatives on the borough council.”

With admirable determination, McGowan picked up the challenge once more: “I thought, let’s have a look at the problem area, the narrow pinch point between the Redoubt Fort and the pier, and put forward a positive solution.” He devised a plan that would have provided for a bike lane along the sea wall, which gained a lot of support locally, even from groups that had previously put up the strongest opposition. Further ammunition was provided in a Sustrans report that proposed a similar solution. “And then four years passed,” says McGowan wearily, “and nothing happened.”

The big question has to be – why? Contrast Bespoke’s experience with that of campaigners in Brighton, just along the coast. Becky Reynolds, Cycling UK local representative for Brighton and Hove, enthuses about the response of the city council to the pandemic and lockdown, when exercise and safe use of outside space became even more vital. The council established temporary cycle routes, reallocating road space and providing segregation from traffic. It has been immensely successful in its bids for funding, winning more than any other unitary authority.   

The clue to the contrasting experiences of Brighton and Eastbourne campaigners lies in the two words ‘unitary authority’. Councillor David Tutt, LibDem leader of Eastbourne Borough Council, points out that in East Sussex there is a two-tier system of local government, whereas in a unitary authority everything is within the gift of the one body.

“The highways responsibility is with East Sussex County Council,” Tutt goes on to explain, “whereas Eastbourne promenade falls within the remit of the borough council. We’ve been told by government that until there is a walking and cycling strategy for Eastbourne, they will not approve cycling on the seafront.”

Easy, you would think. Draw up a strategy. There is, of course, a snag. “East Sussex County Council is the strategic authority,” Tutt explains, “so that is their responsibility. We sent our proposal in to ESCC and it sat with them for ages. I have repeatedly asked when they will be publishing the plan.” But then in the summer of 2020 there appeared a glimmer of light. The government was offering money to local councils to create what became known as “pop-up Covid bike lanes”, and ESCC won £500,000 to create a cycling route along Eastbourne seafront. When they published their plans, local people were incredulous. “It was a sort of advisory bike lane,” says McGowan. “Pathetic. It was just basically a painted white line on the landward side of the main seafront road, just where all the hotel coaches stop to drop off their passengers, just where all the roads intersect.” Tutt adds: “It would have been a nightmare.”

“After all these years this – this! – was their proposal,” McGowan says in understandable frustration. “The plan didn’t even meet the government’s criteria. I was at the point of wondering what on earth is up with ESCC? Have they deliberately set this up to fail? Or are they having a total meltdown?”

Neither he nor David Tutt are waiting for answers. They are already returning to the fray, talking to local hoteliers about alternative parking schemes for their guests so that space on the seaward side of the promenade road can be cleared, and persuading local interest groups to support a new plan. Remember Sisyphus? Perhaps ESCC’s inertia will finally prove easier to overcome than that mythical hill.

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