Summer consultation looms

After much rancour and debate, Highways England will be finally consulting on its options for increasing traffic flow along the A27 around Chichester.  These options will not include an A27 northern bypass after Highways England was firmly put in its place by the Department for Transport and told to get on and deliver what it had been tasked with doing.

Highways England has increased the consultation from the 6 weeks previously offered in the spring (and then extended to 7 weeks after much political pressure), to 10 weeks this time round.  However, given that the consultation is taking place over the summer months, when many people are away, this is no great concession.  It should be giving the public at least 12 weeks to respond.

Exactly what is in the consultation we shall have to wait and see, but most likely they will be the same or similar southerly options that were previously leaked to the press. For SCATE members, these plans represent both a threat and an opportunity.  Removing the bottlenecks at the junctions will improve traffic flow and that in itself will encourage more people to drive. So quite how long before congestion creeps back again is anyone’s guess, but it may not take long unless Brexit leads to an economic slowdown. Increased traffic levels also risk adding to pressure at Arundel and Worthing for bigger and faster roads.

Finally, HIghways England needs to grasp this opportunity to address the needs of pedestrians, cyclists and horseriders and remove the barrier that the A27 has become for people wanting to cross the bypass.  It has an opportunity to show how it is placing cycling and other environmental issues at the heart of its decision making and construction processes. These cannot be dealt with as bolt on afterthoughts but need to be central to the new design.

 

Air pollution hearing fast-tracked

ClientEarth action

ClientEarth, the group of environmental lawyers who have successfully challenged the Government to date about its sloth like action on tackling air pollution, are set to be back in court on 18 and 19th of October.  A High Court Judge recently approved their request for the process to be speeded up.

Last year they were successful in getting the Supreme Court to order the Government to produce an Air Quality Action Plan by the end of 2015.  The Government met this target but as expected produced an action plan that was underwhelming it is ambition and would fail to improve air quality “as quickly as possible”.  The plan was also based in some instances on dodgy data as it claimed air pollution in Brighton was already under legal limits when in reality it is still well above them, if improving.

Nevertheless, even though the process has been speeded up, it is likely that waiting for 4 months before holding the hearing will result in a further 13,000 premature deaths occurring in that period due to air pollution.  So even this speeded up process is costing lives and proceeding far too slowly.

Every Breath We Take

Too-many-cars-Clock-Tower-Btn-1

One of the most polluted places in Sussex: Queens Road, Brighton, not far from The Clock Tower

“Every breath you take, every step you take, I’ll be watching you…” is a famous lyric from 1980s pop band The Police, whose lead singer was Sting.  Whilst this song is about love, this extract from the lyrics summarises the current Government position on air pollution very well: it knows full well the impact air pollution is having on people but is doing very little to tackle the problem; it’s doing little more than watching.

That is why this new report, ‘Every Breath We Take: the lifelong impact of air pollution‘, from the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health is a welcome reminder that air pollution is not just killing people or ruining their lives, it is also costing the UK economy around £20 billion a year, or 16% of the current NHS budget.  While this Government doesn’t seem to get the environment or indeed health, in the true sense of the word, it does get economics.  When the NHS is under immense strain financially and overwhelmed by demand, this report gives a clear signal to Government that it needs to act urgently on air pollution. Doing so could help ease the pressure on the NHS on both these levels as well as improving the economy and people’s quality of life.

The report highlights that around 40,000 deaths a year in the UK are due to outdoor air pollution (which is mostly down to traffic) with more due to indoor pollution.  It states that this pollution has been linked to cancer, asthma, stroke and heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and changes linked to dementia which affect millions.  It also believes that the current pollution limits set by Government and the World Health Organisation are not safe as they leave certain groups vulnerable to harmful impacts.

To reduce air pollution one of the top suggestions in the report is for people to alter the way they travel and to try alternatives to the car, preferably taking the active option of a bus, train, walking or cycling.  This though is against a background of big cuts to supported bus services and still pitiful levels of funding for walking and cycling.  Only road and rail infrastructure are getting any significant investment at present and then the investment in road building is likely to increase air pollution and undermine active travel.

The report’s authors want people to be better informed of air pollution in their locality and for there to be more effective monitoring, the results of which should be communicated to the public in a clear and meaningful way.  In contrast there have been significant budget cuts in monitoring both nationally and locally and a lack of political will to take air pollution seriously.

Another recommendation is that local authorities must have the power to close roads or reduce traffic levels when air pollution levels are high, particularly near schools.  This is probably a power that local authorities would be keen to have, but without the investment in adequate monitoring, it would be meaningless and do little to avoid harmful exposure to air pollution.

Whilst the VW scandal has undoubtedly raised awareness of air pollution, the incentive to do something about it seems to be falling away.  Much like the banker’s scandal when the bankers were villified for what they had done to the economy, years later hardly anyone has been held to account and the rules are being relaxed again.

It is also somewhat ironic that the current debate around the EU centres on bringing power back to this country, yet on air pollution we have all the powers we need to take effective action. Given that the Government seems content on doing very little to safeguard our health (and our economy) for both current and future generations, maybe we should be “sending out an SOS”.

 

All out in the open

The cat is well and truly out of the bag since Spirit FMChichester Observer and the Worthing Herald went ahead and published maps showing the 7 possible options for expanding the capacity of the A27 around Chichester.  These can also be seen on the A27 Arundel Bypass Neighbourhood Committee’s website and show that a northern bypass would indeed intrude on the South Downs National Park.

The publication of these maps at last allows the public to see for themselves, what Highways England is considering around Chichester.  While Highways England has apparently branded the publication of these maps irresponsible, it has been showing various people and organisations these maps for quite some time.  In that situation it can hardly claim they were secret or that the public shouldn’t see them.

People are perfectly capable of understanding that these are only indicative options and that the details may well change.  However, to treat the public with such disdain is unacceptable and undermines democracy.  At least with the maps out in the open, this will allow a full and frank debate of all the various options even before the start of the official six week consultation some time in the Spring.

In the meantime local campaign group Chichester Deserves Better has already attracted well over 3,000 signatures to its petition opposing a northern bypass.

Chichester’s future on the line

A northern bypass would cut through this countryside

A northern bypass would cut through this countryside

The last few weeks has seen a flurry of activity in Chichester as it becomes increasingly clear that Highways England has ambitions for a Chichester northern bypass.  This has come as rather a shock to many as it has long been thought of as accepted and agreed that the way forward to tackling the congestion (although that’s a bit like chasing the holy grail) was to upgrade the existing junctions with flyovers.

Quite where this has come from remains to be seen, but it would appear to be driven by a number of factors:

  1. Cost – apparently it would be cheaper (financially) than upgrading the existing road although that does not include the true cost of the damage it would cause.
  2. Ease of construction – it would be less disruptive to the existing A27 to build a new road offline.
  3. Local politics – perhaps the deciding factor here in encouraging Highways England towards this path. It would seem that somewhere within Chichester District and West Sussex County Councils there has been a strong push for a northern bypass.

Not surprisingly, a lot of people are unhappy, particularly those in the north of Chichester and Lavant and other local communities who will be impacted by the road.  It would bring a lot of fast moving traffic very close to and at one point into the South Downs National Park, causing significant harm, as well as cutting off the city from its countryside setting.  It could also have serious implications for the future of the Rolls Royce factory and the Goodwood Estate.

Another effect is that it could lead to infill development between the city and the new road. However, a bigger impact is that with the removal of traffic from the existing road there is likely to be a rash of new out of town car based developments around the south of the city. This would further undermine the city centre and lead to the existing A27, which would be de-trunked and renamed, rapidly filling up with traffic again.

However, the good burghers of Chichester are not taking this lying down and already there has been a local group established to oppose this madness. Chichester Deserves Better which says it all really, already has a website, Facebook and Twitter accounts and is urging people to sign its petition calling on Andrew Tyrie MP and local councillors to oppose a northern bypass.

New directions in LEPland?

It’s all change at the top of the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEP) in Sussex.  In the South East LEP, there appears to be some bad blood between the Board and Peter Jones (former leader of East Sussex County Council and supporter of the Bexhill Hastings Link Road and various associated roads and failed business parks).  In the summer, he reported to Government that he had been sacked after the South East LEP failed to reappoint him as chair.

To some extent this might be linked to the proposal to split the South East LEP into smaller and more manageable areas.  However, it would seem that there is more to it than that.  Local campaigners are hopeful that the ‘sacking’ of  Peter Jones will lead to the LEP appointing a chair with more vision who can deliver better public transport alongside real and sustainable jobs in East Sussex.

Less dramatically, Coast to Capital has just announced that Jonathan Sharrock will succeed Ron Crank as its new chief executive in January 2016, when Ron Crank is due to retire.  Jonathan Sharrock comes from the Department for Transport where he has spent the last three years developing the HS2 high speed rail project.

Previously responsible he was responsible for overseeing Government transport interests for the 2012 Olympics and also has significant experience working with the aviation industry. Whether he has the experience and knowledge to understand that large scale road building isn’t the answer to issues on the south coast and that instead we need integrated transport solutions remains to be seen.

LEPs are important as they are increasingly taking responsibility for spending public money on local infrastructure, much of that being transport and roads.  While they contain some council representation, they are dominated by business representatives and are not democratically accountable.

Lack of vision drives rail strategy

Have we lost that pioneering spirit?

Have we lost that pioneering spirit?

Network Rail recently published its Sussex Area Route Study following a rather low key consultation earlier in the year.  Whilst the study does at least acknowledge the strength of support for re-opening the Uckfield – Lewes line, like a stick of rock, it has the wording ‘No’ as a common thread throughout the document.

Fundamentally, it reiterates that what it has planned is the right thing to do and any suggestions for improvements such as Uckfield – Lewes, speeding up the West Coastway, a new station at Stone Cross, etc, are quickly dismissed as too difficult, impractical or not ‘cost-effective’.  In short it appears stuck in a mindset of a ‘cannot’ mentality, rather than a ‘can do’ one.

It also fails to fully explore the issues behind these requests or suggestions, looking at them in a very narrow economic perspective.  For example, there are no opportunities to widen the West Coastway to four tracks to allow faster trains to overtake slower ones because of the amount of development alongside the line, so they say.  However, to allow overtaking do we actually need four tracks or could it be done with three?  In addition, there are places where there isn’t so much development and some widening could be accommodated which would allow overtaking in those sections.  It might not be ideal, but if it allowed the services to be improved it should be properly investigated.

Finally, just because there is development near the line, it doesn’t mean that it cannot be widened.  Just take the A27 through Worthing for example, where Highways England has no such qualms of suggesting options which involve widescale demolition of homes along the A27 to accommodate a widened dual carriageway through the town.  Indeed, that is clearly their preferred option judging by what they offered up at a recent so called consultation event.

While it is clear that the rail network as a whole is dysfunctional and lacks accountability, whether a renationalised railway would resolve this is debatable.  Fundamentally, it is the lack of local or regional accountability and the absence of a holistic transport strategy (locally and nationally) which is causing so many problems and wasting so much public money.  There has to be a better way forward, but at the moment common sense appears to have hit the buffers as we appear to be travelling in completely the wrong direction.

Fantasy Jobs League

 

men-at-work

The latest job figures used by Parsons Brinckerhoff in their recent report [Fig 5-1] on the A27 for the Highways Agency (now Highways England) have a whiff of the surreal about them.  If taken from local authority figures, which they appear to be, history tells us that they are likely to be massively overstated.

When East Sussex County Council (ESCC) predicted that 3,074 new jobs would be created on sites ‘opened up’ the Bexhill to Hastings Link Road (BHLR), quite a few eyebrows were raised. The numbers were examined by the Department for Transport (DfT) who found a figure of a third of that would be more accurate. Their estimate was 900 – 1,000 jobs, 39% of which would go to people outside of the two towns.

According to Professor Alan Wenban-Smith, of Urban and Regional Policy, the ESCC figure is clearly speculative and unreliable. It is based on a report for ESCC by Genecon which estimated numbers of employees who could be accommodated in the given square footage of workplace planned for construction alongside the BHLR. It assumed that the premises would be fully occupied and their location would be attractive to businesses which, given far better locations in the south east, and existing empty buildings nearby, is a very risky assumption. In his words this was nonsense-on-stilts.

However, if this wasn’t bad enough, in February 2014 the Highways Agency Route Based Strategy report [Fig 3] shows the figures for new jobs predicted via the BHLR as being 3,837 – even higher than the ESCC figure from 2012. A year on, and the total has now risen to 5,278.

If the extremely simplistic methodology for calculating these figures still holds sway and sits unchallenged, that’s bad enough; but if similar approaches have been adopted along the A27 through East and West Sussex, then the latest report is not worth the paper it’s written on.  We cannot possibly have confidence that public funds are being prudently used or that we will end up with infrastructure appropriate to the accessibility needs of future generations and communities when it is based on evidence as flimsy and unreliable as this.

Going through the motions

View of Arundel from train landscape-1

Arundel’s setting

Last week saw Highways England hold two stakeholder meetings in Worthing and Arundel to supposedly get feedback on how to progress transport solutions for the respective areas.  The trouble is that Highways England are not looking to solve the transport issues in the area, purely looking at expanding capacity on the A27.

Their principal reasoning is that public transport isn’t able to solve the issues as Network Rail has no plans for the south coast railway.  Yet this is down to finances and priorities.  If this was seen as a priority and the Government wanted to invest money in the railway as it is throwing money at the roads, then the answer would be different.  As it is, the only reason that Highways England is even able to ponder this question is because the Government has pledged vast amounts of money for road building.  So the analysis is rather misleading.

More locally, West Sussex County Council has been pretty slow (and poor) at bringing forward sustainable transport schemes so that walking, cycling and bus connections with the rail stations are generally pretty bad.  This is reflected across the wider area too, with a few exceptions.  As a consequence, sustainable transport is a long way from fulfilling its potential and shifting people out of their cars.

At the Worthing meeting, although there was an option to just tweak the junctions, there were at least four dual carriageway options. Highways England’s ambition was clearly for a dual carriageway through Worthing, involving the demolition (in most options) of quite a lot of housing plus the loss of the corner of the cemetery (although no one is buried there at present). Other than perhaps influencing what happens around the dual carriageway, stakeholders are unlikely to have little sway on the outcome.  The other fear is that the dual carriageway comes at such a cost that little or no money is left to address severance, sustainable transport, landscaping and other issues.

In Arundel, the situation was similar.  One online do minimum option and four dual carriageway options, one near online and 3 off-line.  Again, the Highways Agency seems to have largely determined the solution it wants and stakeholders had to press quite firmly for a near online non dual carriageway option to be discussed.

In both cases, sustainable options were not really considered and there was a dearth of information to allow people to make informed comments.  For example, Highways England could have provided indicative noise pollution information so people could understand the difference that higher speed roads would have on local residents.  Some visualisation of a road across the Arun Valley could also have been mocked up to allow people to assess the difference in visual impact that the various options would have on the setting of Arundel.

In the meantime, everything is likely to go quiet for quite some time, with firm proposals not due until 2017.  Not much comfort for those living alongside the A27 in Worthing or around Arundel and Binsted, whose homes are now blighted for the foreseeable future.

Chancellor’s budget poses a threat greater than terrorism

Twyford Down I

Twyford Down – the tip of the iceberg?

The budget yesterday was the product of an extremely confused ideology.  It was not grounded in reality and most worryingly places the public, particularly their health and England’s countryside in the firing line.

As the Budget Statement says: “The first duty of government is to ensure the safety and security of the country and its people”.   Two of the biggest threats to the UK’s health and well-being are from climate change and toxic air pollution.  The former is already fuelling unrest and migration and causing economic damage, while the latter kills at least 29,000 people a year in the UK and that’s just from particulates (small soot particles) and doesn’t include nitrogen oxides and other chemicals.

Toxic air pollution is the second biggest killer annually in the UK and the vast majority is due to transport.  So you would have thought there would be big reforms to tackle this threat to the British public.  But no, the headline was about protecting the public through increasing military defence spending and spending more on counter terrorism measures.

While these measures may be important, putting it into perspective, we don’t lose that many people a year to terrorism and certainly nowhere near 29,000.

To add insult to injury, the chancellor has increased subsidies to fossil fuels and put in place more measures to encourage fracking.  However, it is his promise that all money raised by the new Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) in England from 2020-21 will be spent on the strategic road network that is most worrying.  By 2020-21 the VED is expected to raise over £6 billion across the UK, which would equate to around £5 billion a year in England.  Currently, Highways England spends less than £1 billion a year maintaining the strategic roads network, so this new Roads Fund could potentially unleash a tidal wave of new road building.

This would create considerable damage to rural areas, particularly National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).  Unless there is going to be an extensive commitment to long tunnels (at Arundel and Stonehenge for example) and to spending money retrofitting the existing strategic road network to repair some of the damage done to date, such as at Twyford Down and the Brighton bypass, more of our green and peasant land will be lost under tarmac.

Additionally, history tells us that building new roads creates new traffic and these new roads are just going to create more congestion and pollution.  This is going to undermine attempts to reduce air pollution below legal limits and perpetuate tens of thousands of premature and avoidable deaths every year.  It is also going to make it much harder for us to meet international obligations to reduce our carbon emissions.

So while the chancellor might be saving us from the threat of terrorism, he will oversee a system that inflicts much larger death rates due to air pollution and causes the destruction of our countryside.  In short, what will there be worth saving us for?