How can we support towns like Batley?

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There are so many policy reports on transport and cities you could stack them up as high as the Beetham Tower. However, the pile of reports on transport and towns would struggle to get higher than the front step. Of course, getting big city transport networks right deserves attention. Wider city region economies, and indeed the national economy, won’t work if our biggest cities can’t move. However, the era is now over when all urban policy reports had to focus on cities. It is no longer okay for the de facto economic policy for post-industrial towns to be one of ‘trickle down’ from the growth of increasingly glossy and high rise city centres and for the message for towns to be ‘smarten yourself up, as realistically the best it gets is you may have the honour of becoming a dormitory town’.

The days of that approach are gone because city region mayors cover voting territories far larger than core cities, and because those places that felt left behind and unheard made themselves heard very clearly with the outcome of the European referendum. A sign of the times is that both the mayors of West Midlands and Greater Manchester now have specific towns policies and initiatives, and rightly so.

Last month we followed up our report, About Towns – How transport can help towns thrive, with a roundtable in Batley Town Hall to talk towns and transport with transport authorities and organisations, government reps, towns-focussed NGOs, academics and thinkers. It was a fitting place to have the event. Like so many of the many post-industrial towns in the city regions Batley has a history of graft, ingenuity, specialisation and boldness which has left behind a fabulous and dramatic built environment. In Batley’s case the town originally boomed out of the local invention of new cheap textiles (Shoddy and Mungo) which the world couldn’t get enough of. Indeed a magnificent avenue of showrooms (battered but mostly still there) was built from the station into the town. Among those who came to buy were representatives of both sides in various conflicts placing orders in bulk for their respective armies’ uniforms.

The attitude that ‘anything a city can do we can do too’ also persisted in towns like Batley well into the twentieth century. In Batley’s case some of the biggest stars in show business performed at the Batley Varieties in the sixties and seventies after a local magnate opened up this Vegas-inspired cabaret nightclub. Louis Armstrong, Shirley Bassey, Roy Orbison, Eartha Kitt were among the stars who came to town. Heady days. But the Varieties is long gone, along with the textile industry.

So what can transport do to help the many towns like Batley thrive in the here and now? Perhaps the biggest lesson of our report is that standalone transport capital projects are unlikely to be enough on their own to turn a struggling town centre around. That’s not to say that building a high quality interchange isn’t the right thing to do, but don’t just build it and walk away. It needs to be part of something bigger.

There are some good examples in South Yorkshire (like Barnsley and Rotherham) and Tyne & Wear (South Shields) where new or improved stations or interchanges have been, or will be, tied into wider projects to locate new colleges or training facilities close to, or as part of, the transport development.

So the South Shields 365 Town Centre Vision includes a new transport interchange alongside a new railway skills academy for the Tyne & Wear Metro as well as improvements to the market place and a new central library. Making the new interchange into gateway and key component of a wider investment will bring footfall and a buzz.

Batlet station grab

Ideally too capital measures need to sit alongside revenue measures to make the use of the public transport that serves these new capital schemes more affordable. So for example the ‘MyTicket’ offers for young people in the Liverpool City Region which offered unlimited travel for £2.20 a day led to a 142% increase in bus trips by young people.

The transport sector is also a significant employer in towns, including in distribution and logistics, taxis and private hire and on the buses. As a sector it can support people in towns by paying good wages, building skills and supporting career development.

The transport sector can also work with what have become known as local ‘anchor institutions’. This is a concept from the States which is that there are some large institutions which aren’t going anywhere else (usually, but not exclusively, public sector), such as schools and universities and which are therefore anchors for the local economy. They could be more so if they used their considerable purchasing power to buy more goods and services from local businesses.

The town of Preston is the most celebrated example of this approach so far in the UK with the council seeking to ensure that as far as is possible the local state buys local. Examples of this kind of approach in the transport sphere include the West Midlands Metro extension in the Black Country, where the scheme promoter is aiming for 80% of the project’s supply chain to be with local businesses.

Pulling back to the big picture, perhaps one of the best examples of thinking through a coordinated approach to maximising the benefits of new transport investment remains the Borders Railway. This rail reopening formed part of a much wider long term plan for revitalising the towns and places it serves through a long term, multi-agency strategy to create new transport hubs, provide new premises for small businesses, boost tourism and open up opportunity by providing access to employment and education opportunites.

At Batley Town Hall the fascinating roundtable discussion used our report as a jumping off point to range far and wide, including exploring how towns can adapt to an era where ‘transactional’ shopping is going online and the larger chains are pulling back to the biggest centres. Can towns trade on their strengths of manageable size and scale for walking around, an often very attractive built environment and a strong sense of identity to become places that offer something different and complementary to the cities, and something deeper than is available online? Their potential to offer a unique experience – with their own character, identity and local goods and services. Human places which offer opportunities for contact, kindness and connection in person which, in doing so, help to tackle loneliness and isolation. Places that are about doing rather than just buying. And not just the few towns which become the raw material for the incoming young, economically privileged and connected to energetically fashion into the next hipster haven – but the many more towns which more resemble hipster-free Batley.

Part of the answer to this could be providing more support for people like our host at the town hall, the outgoing mayor, and Batley born and bred, Cllr Gwen Lowe. Gwen is also the chair of the Friends of Batley station which is where we went after the roundtable for lunch at the community café she and the Friends have worked tirelessly to establish in what was a very run down station. It’s not been easy to get as far as they have in getting the café in place, as well as a garden in tribute to murdered local MP Jo Cox, alongside other improvements (like a painted mural in the subway).

Over lunch Gwen told us about the challenges, setbacks and slow progress in getting the railway to pull together to provide consistent support in helping them to make the improvements they are volunteering to make to the station (as well, as on a more positive note, about how the work of the Friends has helped make Batley feel better about itself in general, and those who have been active in the Friends in particular). It wouldn’t take much from big organisations to put some rocket boosters on the work of the Friends so that they could give Batley the welcoming, friendly, greener station it needs.

And that perhaps echoes one of the big themes of the day itself. Towns can help themselves – but they need big institutions (including the transport sector) to think more carefully, and work more collaboratively, in order to support them.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

The blog first appeared in Passenger Transport Magazine.

When transport met housing…

housing roundtableYesterday we held a roundtable in parliament chaired (at different stages) by both the Chair of the House of Commons Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee , Clive Betts MP, and his counterpart at the Transport Select Committee, Lilian Greenwood MP. Round the table we had housing associations, developers, planning bodies, transport authorities, local government, Number Ten, DfT and MHCLG, politicians and reps from the public transport sector. All to talk about what good quality, transit orientated housing developments look like – and what’s stopping us from having more of them. More of the ‘good ordinary’ which is as common in the Netherlands as the dispiriting ordinary is common in the UK. It followed on from a report we produced earlier in the year on ‘The Place to Be – how transit orientated development can support good growth in the city regions’.

This is by no means an agreed record of the meeting but here were eight themes that came out strongly for me…and some potential practical next steps.

  1. One theme that came out again and again was think big. Think big on spatial plans, so there is greater certainty on where housing and transport provision can go together. Think bigger than housing and transport as there are plenty of examples of housing developments that have good public transport access but are still poor in many other respects (lack of facilities, poor provision for active travel, poor on carbon emissions and climate resiliance, lack of life, don’t meet social housing need). So it’s not just about making the connections between housing and transport it’s about thinking bigger on other other goals too. Think big too on accumlating the land necessary to do quality mixed developments at scale and in one go.
  2. If we want better places for people to live then we need to put more resources into local authorities’ capacity to shape places. Planning needs to be more than ticking boxes on a skeleton staffing basis it needs to regain the heroic status it has in other countries in making places that really work. And you can’t do that without resourcing.
  3. I don’t understand. The housing sector speaks a different language to the transport sector which speaks a different language to the planning sector. We need to find ways of helping each sector to understand the others…and what can be achieved through effective collaboration. Which brings us to…
  4. Sharing knowledge about the good stuff that’s happening out there because if people don’t know about it they can’t copy it. And there is a lot of inspiring things happening out there. RATP in Paris is a major social landlord with some innovative ways of not just coordinating the planning of housing and transport together. They are doing it together. Such as RATP’s redevelopment of Montrouge bus station in the south of Paris where an underground vehicle maintenance facility for 195 buses will have above it retail units, office space, 650 new flats, a primary school, creche, a social club for elderly people. The development will have also have a green roof creating a 1.2 hectare roof garden. TfL too are motoring on their housing programme of 10,000 homes and aim to be the biggest build to rent landlord in London.  And TfGM are undertaking some exciting work on getting more houses built around stations in Greater Manchester. One outcome for me from the event was the need to find better ways of sharing inspiring schemes like these – and critically how they are being achieved.
  5. There is lots of research into land value capture mechanisms (or land value sharing as it was suggested we call it) and applications of these mechanisms at scale in other countries. But has the time come for more piloting of different and ambitious applications in the UK? This could also be helpful in identifying any necessary legislative change.
  6. In all of this we need to recognise that as far as land value and property is concerned we live in a divided nation. In particular the London property market is a world away from much of that in the other city regions. One size does not fit all.
  7. There is shedloads of potential to achieve more from better coordination of rail and housing (including through more devolution of responsibilities for local networks and stations). If we want denser city centres but ones which have more space for people and less space for vehicles (a near universal urban trend nowadays and exemplifed by the City of London’s new transport strategy). Urban centres which also are decarbonising and enjoying better air quality – then expanded rail networks are needed. Rail too can open up brownfield sites (ex-rail sites and ex- industrial sitesthat were rail served) for housing. Stations can be built around and above, and rail can extend commuter range. To realise this opportunity we need Network Rail to have more leeway – not just to maximise returns to HMT but also to play its full part in making great places around some of the key national railhubs. We also need devolved authorities to have far more say over the station estate as it’s only devolved authorities that have the interest and the local knowledge to pursue the opportunities that exist not just at central sites in core cities but also across wider conurbations. Such as at Maghull North – a new station on the Merseyrail Electric network initiated by Merseytravel (who are the franchising authority for that network) specifically to serve new housing.
  8. The words are good, the reality is often not so good. There is stacks of guidance and planning materials setting out good intentions for what housing should look like (including good transport access) but how come all too often we see estates which are car dependent and some where the roads can’t accommodate a bus even if there was one? And where sometimes there isn’t even a pavement! The blind pursuit of housing targets, and local authorities weak negotiating hand were fingered as being potentially responsible for this. Whatever the reason – we need nonsense like this to stop and to ensure some better coordination across gov and the key NGOs and institutes (and perhaps Housing Associations in particular given their wider social remit) to get the right words ensuring the right outcomes on the ground.