Desperate bid to save hire-a-bike scheme

Blackpool's hire a bike scheme.
Blackpool's hire a bike scheme.
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BLACKPOOL’S hire-a-bike scheme was today in danger of being binned.

A desperate search is on to find someone to help fund the project or the resort’s dream of becoming a cycling mecca could fall flat because of costs.

The council has already cut its £75,000 subsidy and has closed the network – which when it was launched in 2009 was hailed as an alternative to using cars for commuters in Blackpool - for the winter.

Bosses today revealed it has failed to attract the number of riders needed to be able to fund it.

A new report into how the project is operated has called for a private sponsor to be found immediately in order to plug the funding gap.

London’s fleet of hire bikes – affectionately dubbed Boris Bikes after mayor Boris Johnson – is sponsored by Barclays in a deal said to be worth up to £50m over eight years.

The investigation by a panel of Blackpool councillors also recommends changes which might encourage more people to use the bikes and generate more revenue.

Figures for this financial year forecast the bikes will bring in income of £17,258 –compared to £20,000 which had been hoped for.

Costs are set to be £2,620 more than expected.

The total cost of running the scheme for 2012/13 will be £97,524 – which includes £80,266 taken from cash reserves handed over to the council by developers as planning gain.

But next year it is hoped to rake in sponsorship worth £100,000, according to figures included in the scrutiny report due to go before councillors on Thursday.

When the scheme was launched in 2009, Coun Maxine Callow, who was then cabinet member for tourism and regeneration, said there would be “no reason why people will not be able to jump on a bike from wherever they are” and more than 100 hubs were planned across Blackpool.

Originally funded by Blackpool Council, Blackpool NHS and Cycling England, Blackpool’s is one of the largest public cycle hire projects of its kind in the country and was designed to improve the health of residents.

There are 500 bikes positioned in 50 hubs across the resort and the network is operated on the council’s behalf by private firm Hourbike.

The number of hubs was reduced to 30 in July while the minimum price for hiring a bike was increased from £6 to £7.

Coun David O’Hara, who led the scrutiny panel, said next summer would be key to the future of the scheme.

He added: “We started the scrutiny 15 months ago, but Government cuts since then have affected the funding.

“The council has had to withdraw its subsidy, but even that was not enough to fund the scheme anyway.

“The idea is to see how it goes next year when it starts up again. The months from next April to the end of the Illuminations will be key.

“We suggest the council looks for sponsorship and ways of increasing membership.”

The panel concluded the scheme was important in terms of boosting the health and wellbeing of residents.

Coun O’Hara said in the report the project “was of great benefit to both the residents of and visitors to Blackpool”.

This year was the first year it had been fully operational after the Promenade was completely reopened following construction work.

August was a record month with 1,927 bicycle rentals, which included 228 people who hired the bikes to take part in the popular Ride the Lights 
Illuminations preview.

During the same month, more people than ever also signed up to the scheme with 413 new subscriptions bringing the total number of subscribers to 4,346.

The scheme was launched after Blackpool was named as one of 11 official cycling towns in the UK, a move which also saw a number of cycling lanes created on resort roads.

Coun Fred Jackson, cabinet member for streets and transport on Blackpool Council, said: “We are currently looking at the best way to get value for money for the town out of the Hire a Bike scheme.

“It offers a good service which is used by a good number of people, but we have to make sure the costs and benefits of it are regularly reviewed.

“There are a variety of different options on the table which we are looking at, including both private sponsorship and community involvement.

“The bikes are currently in storage to be kept safe in winter and we expect them to be back out again for use by Spring 2013.”

Alan Hawkins, secretary of the Fylde Coast Cyclists’ Touring Club (CTC), said it was disappointing the scheme had not been as successful as hoped.

He added: “It would be a shame if it was totally dismantled and I would suggest as a compromise, the council should at least maintain the bike stations on the Promenade as this is a great place for both visitors and residents to cycle.

“Cycling is a fantastic activity which keeps people fit whether by recreation or as a practical form of transport.”

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