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?

Illegal road permission rescinded

Gabriel in the Hollington Valley

Local residents are celebrating after Hastings Borough Council agreed that it had made an error in law in granting planning permission for the £15 million Queensway Gateway Road (another new road opening up the countryside for yet another empty business park).  Somehow the Council forgot to mention to councillors taking the decision that the road would have breached EU air pollution limits.

The Council has agreed to cancel the permission and the High Court case brought by a local resident, Gabriel Carlyle (pictured above), will not now go ahead.

A few days after permission was granted, and despite the fact that the Council knew it was likely to be challenged, tree-felling started in the valley, destroying ancient oak trees and a valuable habitat – destruction that should never have taken place.

The Combe Haven Defenders report on their blog that: “The agreement between the council and Gabriel’s lawyer still has to be formally approved by the court, but we understand this is likely to be a formality.”

But they also warn that the road’s promoters – SeaChange Sussex – may come back and apply for permission again.  If that was not enough, developers (and it’s probably SeaChange Sussex) want to build yet another new road, called the North Bexhill Access Road, linking the A269 Ninfield Road with the Bexhill Hastings Link Road.

Cars cost the economy dear

IMG_4828

That’s the finding of recent research in Copenhagen by Lund University. It discovered that it is six times more expensive for society and for people individually if they travel by car than by bicycle.  The study looked at a range of cost-benefit factors in drawing their conclusions:

  • air pollution
  • climate change
  • congestion
  • health
  • noise
  • road wear
  • travel route

These are the same factors that the local Copenhagen municipality uses to assess whether to build infrastructure or not.

The study found that the cost to society and individuals is 0.50 Euros per kilometre driven compared to 0.08 Euros per kilometre cycled.  If you just look at the cost/benefits to society, then a car costs society 0.15 Euros for every kilometre it is driven, whereas a bicycle earns society 0.16 Euros for every kilometre it is ridden.

This doesn’t mean that everyone should ride a bicycle for every journey and we all give up the car, but certainly for urban areas it demonstrates why there needs to be a step change in investment in cycle infrastructure in this country.  Indeed, it is scandalous that so little is invested in cycling in West Sussex when south of the South Downs, it is coastal plain and virtually flat.  East Sussex fares little better, while Brighton & Hove is still to complete a comprehensive cycle network despite having spent years building cycling infrastructure.

Given the pressures on the public purse and with local government facing further cutbacks it is essential that Local Enterprise Partnerships and local authorities prioritise spending on sustainable transport and not yet more road building. As this study shows, what’s good for the planet is also good for the economy.

Views from the Arun Valley

There was a good turnout for the environmental hustings in Arundel this week, with over 140 people attending.  They saw a lively debate and heard a wide range of opinions from both the candidates and the audience.  Interestingly, the Conservative Prospective Parliamentary Candidate (PPC) Nick Herbert, who had said he wasn’t attending turned up at the last minute. While his interaction with the organisers left something to be desired, it was good that he attended as such an important issue deserves the full engagement of all political parties.

Recent research from the polling organisation YouGov found that voters wanted to hear more from politicians on the environment.  Indeed this was the top option alongside education, and its pertinent that both are incredibly important for our future.  Yet all we have largely heard is how much money they are going to shower us with should we vote for them.  It’s as though the election has turned into a rather farcical public auction, where the parties know the price of everything and the value of nothing.  That may be a tad unfair but the very narrow focus within this election on the economy and the NHS is depressing given that there is so much else at stake.

While the hustings at Arundel was broadened out to include wider environmental issues, the debate naturally focussed back on the Government proposals to expand the A27.  Strong views were expressed and there were some voices in support of the proposals, but by far the feeling within the audience and the majority of candidates was that while something needed to be done, the proposals to date were unacceptable and more options needed to be considered.

Details of the debate can be found on the Arundel Bypass Neighbourhood Committee website which has produced a reasonably detailed summary of what was said by each candidate. There’s also a fairly full account of the evening on the CPRE Sussex website.

Countryside… or concrete? Arundel Hustings

Arun Valley near where a new dual carriageway bypass is likely to go if approved

Arun Valley near where a new dual carriageway bypass is likely to go if approved

Let’s get our landscapes back on the political agenda

Arundel SCATE and CPRE Sussex are holding a public meeting to discuss environmental issues in the Arundel area on Monday, 27 April.  All the prospective parliamentary candidates (PPCs) for the Arundel and South Downs constituency have been invited.  The meeting starts at 7.30pm (doors open 7.15pm) at St Nicholas’ Church, London Road, Arundel , BN18 9AT.

It offers the opportunity to quiz PPCs on their views on roads and transport, landscape and development, pollution and energy.  With many of the PPcs having already set out their position on the A27, this meeting provides a good opportunity to to challenge candidates and for you to express your own thoughts.

It looks like being an interesting meeting.

Pause for reflection?

Today saw the launch of the Labour Party manifesto, outlining its blueprint for the country should it be elected on 7 May.  Contained in the accompanying press release and press statements, it has announced that it would pause any work on the Arundel bypass and linked this with a rail fare freeze.

It said:

“Labour will deliver a fully funded rail fares freeze for one year, a strict cap on every route for any future fare rises, and a new legal right for passengers will be created to access the cheapest ticket for their journey.

The cost, of just over £200 million, will be fully funded by switching spending within the existing transport budget from delaying road projects on the A27 and A358 for which the economic case is still uncertain.”

It also that:

“…we intend to go ahead with the works on the A27 with the exception of the specific Arundel bypass – this is due to cut through a National Park and so raises a number of environmental issues that need to resolved before we give this one section of road improvement the go ahead.”

This comes on the back of the very good work by local Arundel, Binsted and Walberton residents who have been lobbying hard about having a say over what is brought forward in their area.  The Labour, Green and UKIP Prospective Parliamentary Candidates for the Arundel and South Downs constituency have all stated their opposition to a new dual carriageway bypass through the South Downs National Park and elsewhere.  These can be read on the ABNC website along with the Conservative statement in support of a new bypass.

So today is good news in that a major political party has at last recognised the potential damage that a new bypass at Arundel would cause the South Downs National Park and has questioned that it offers value for money.  Whether this means anything in reality of course depends very much on the outcome of the General Election, but there is at least the potential opportunity for a pause in the process to take stock of the issues.  We need to make sure that we get the right solutions for Arundel and not be bulldozed into accepting any old bypass solution, which is what has happened to date.

 

 

Breathing Bad

Today sees some of the highest pollution levels experienced across parts of Sussex this year as an area of high pressure traps pollution, mainly from traffic, combined with bad air from further afield and a pinch of Saharan dust for good measure. Yet the response of the Government and relevant bodies has been pathetic. Their suggestion is for people to avoid heavy exercise, such as walking and cycling, during the high pollution episode. The likely result? Possibly more people will drive instead!

In Paris, they had the sense to tell people not to drive if they could help it, so at least reducing the levels of pollution that will be experienced. In this country, no attempt was made to encourage people to drive less in the few days leading up to this pollution episode which would have helped mitigate its severity. It’s not as if it wasn’t known about several days in advance.

The problem is that the full public health impacts won’t be felt immediately and combined with the invisible nature of the pollution, it allows politicians to avoid having to tackle this serious issue.  If this were a disease, the number of deaths due to air pollution at 29,000 a year (and this is probably an underestimate as this is solely based on particulates (tiny smoke particles) and doesn’t include the impacts of nitrous oxides the other main vehicle pollutants) there would be a public outcry.

Yet we’ve barely heard a whisper. Instead it’s business as usual with Highways England busy planning how they can concrete over more the South Downs to widen the A27 and encourage even more cars onto our roads. Apart from the colossal waste of public money, it will lead to more traffic in the surrounding towns and cities, exposing people to higher levels of pollution.

Isn’t it time we stopped this madness, invested in the cleaner and more efficient alternatives and encouraged people to walk and cycle more? The coastal railway, which runs parallel to the A27, is crying out for investment and there is a desperate shortage of high quality facilities for walking and cycling. Invest in these and people’s quality of life will improve, it will be better for the local economy as a fitter and happier population is sick less often and all this helps reduce pressure on the NHS.

So next time someone knocks on your door and asks for your vote, ask them what they’re going to do to stop us breathing bad air and to reduce the huge number of deaths and other problems that this chemical cocktail causes. The good news is that soon the Government and local authorities might have to take this more seriously as ClientEarth will be at the Supreme Court on 16 April, 2015, for a one day oral hearing where they will be asking the Supreme Court to order the Government to produce a new plan to tackle air pollution.  In the meantime, don’t hold your breath!