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Olympic champion Chris Boardman is to be the first head of a new body that aims to encourage cycling and walking.

Active Travel England will seek to improve infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians as well as funding projects to improve air quality.

Mr Boardman, who was previously commissioner for Transport Manchester, is to become the interim commissioner of the York-based organisation.

It comes as ministers pledged £5.5m of investment in cycling and walking.

Active Travel England also has a role in inspecting the standards of local highways and ensuring that major planning applications cater for the interests of cyclists and walkers.

In his Manchester post, Mr Boardman helped to set up the first phase of the city’s Bee Network for cyclists and walkers.

He said high levels of cycling and walking had positive benefits which are “clearly visible in pockets around the country where people have been given easy and safe alternatives to driving”.

Mr Boardman, who won Olympic cycling gold at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, said: “Perhaps most important of all, though, it makes for better places to live while helping both the NHS and our mission to decarbonise.”

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the body would ensure schemes met a national standard “so you would feel comfortable letting your kids ride or walk to school in the mornings”.

“A lot of the time we haven’t got a consistent standard so we can’t trust what we see. And sometimes it’s, ‘let’s get people who want to ride bikes out of the way of the car’ and it’s not convenient and it doesn’t make people feel safe.”

Duncan Dollimore, from Cycling UK, told BBC Breakfast his organisation had been campaigning for separate infrastructure for active travel for many years but that needed investment.

However, for places such as rural roads, where new infrastructure is unlikely to be built soon, he said it was also important to change the behaviour of drivers and raise awareness about how to keep cyclists safe.

Active Travel England begins its work in the summer and Mr Boardman said it was time to “enable the whole nation to travel easily and safely around their neighbourhoods without feeling compelled to rely on cars”.

The Department of Transport confirmed its funding for England, which was previously announced, will include £3m to boost cycling infrastructure around railway stations and £300,000 to subsidise 250 electric cargo delivery bikes for small businesses.

A total of £2.2m is also being made available to local authorities to explore making cycling and walking part of NHS “social prescribing” schemes, which sees patients being referred to non-clinical services for support.

Health Minister Maria Caulfield said: “This vital investment in cycling and walking schemes is providing new ways to improve the health and wellbeing of the nation.”

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