Out and about in towns

Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire

It would be fair to say that I’ve covered a lot of ground, literally, in the 23 years which I have worked on transport in the West Midlands.

But it was during a recent secondment to the Urban Transport Group that I really hit the road (and rails) – travelling from Strathclyde to the West of England, and all city regions in between – while writing the report About towns: How transport can help towns thrive. Below are a few personal thoughts and reflections on what I’ve seen and heard as I’ve travelled the country for this project.

Firstly, like many urban areas the world over, the story of our towns centres around how people and places can make a living post-coal. Most of our city regions are on coalfields, and directly or indirectly depended on coal as they industrialised.

Some places have adapted, survived and are clearly on their way to prospering post-coal. There were signs of public investment and signs of private investment (the latter following the former perhaps); there were many examples of attractive high quality public realm; there were people busy going about their business, clearly with money in their pocket; and in some places a real sense of community spirit, or “gemeinschaft”, as the Germans call it.

Some places though are still struggling to achieve this change, with wealth fizzling out the further you travel from the buzz and activity of the regional centre. These places are characterised by unemployment, low education and skill levels, hollowed out high streets and low productivity – all of which, as our report argues, transport can help to overcome.

Thriving towns through transport

So how does transport help people in these towns lead more prosperous lives?

The overarching thought is that transport has a role to play as part of something bigger: concerted, long term efforts to make towns good places to grow up and live, good places for businesses to invest in and provide good work, and places where neighbouring towns and cities and the countryside, which are all just down the road, are within grasp of all residents.

One of the issues to tackle is how to get people to contemplate visiting our post-industrial towns in the first place. Negative perceptions need changing but can be changed. Trendy travel guides have details of many cities and towns across Europe and the US which, 20 or 30 years ago, many people would have said “really?”

What was striking was how first impressions matter. When you get off a train in an unfamiliar town, if you see graffiti, tatty information displays, or litter, you get a sense that this is a place that’s been left behind. In sharp contrast, when you step onto a platform at a clean, bright station or interchange where the people responsible clearly care, it can make a big difference to your initial reaction – you feel welcome.

Many of the towns I visited were once grand old places in their prime. Much of the new work that has come to these towns in recent years hasn’t seemed to emulate those proud places of old where there was clearly dignity of labour. The timeless phrase of trade unionism: “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work” doesn’t seem to ring true for some of the new jobs which have been created in these towns on our coalfields. And there is a wider societal debate to be had on what are fair and acceptable levels of benefits for people not in work.

Beyond national legislation for statutory minimum wage levels, working conditions and benefit levels, transport has a role. It can help attract people to visit more interesting and attractive town centres. Transport gets workers to work and students to skills. It can get people in need of healthcare to doctors’ surgeries and all the other places where people need to connect up with one another. As significant local employers, transport organisations and businesses can be exemplary employers providing that fair pay for fair work, and act as anchor institutions, spending significant sums of money on local supply chains and support services.

The bigger picture

Taking a slightly wider look, a big challenge is to help people move across our city regions and towns to all the opportunities afforded by a bigger geography. And key to this is enabling movement in ways which don’t clog up our already congested motorways and main roads. We need cool, Scandinavian-quality designed, German-quality engineered, rail and rapid transit networks, which, while we’re at it, are integrated with decent local bus networks and are really easy and cheap to use through smart ticketing.

As well as this big investment, what is also striking is how important it is to get the smaller details right. I often found that local bus services in unfamiliar towns were a confusing mixture of different liveries, colours, numbers, tickets, rules and conditions. I needed to be bolder, or in receipt of a helping hand, if I were to venture across the threshold of one of these services.

I travelled extensively by rail as part of the project. My impression of rail in the UK from this experience is that we have a lot of rail services, with our main centres well joined up with regular services on the national rail network. What we don’t have is enough carriages, enough space for comfortable seating, and fast enough trains: some line speeds are dismal. What was also a bit irksome was that often trains would be a bit late, or a door wouldn’t work, or the coffee trolley wouldn’t accept cards that day – lots of little things that collectively add up – some operators seemed to be able to do these things consistently better than others.

As I worked on the project, a recurring thought I had was that it would be great if central, city region and local government were able to work together efficiently for the common purpose of inclusive growth and regeneration of our city region towns: a bit like some sort of painting of a picture. Central Government specifies the overall aims of the painting, the general theme of the work and the types of things to consider for the composition. The city region is then able to select the tools it needs and sketch the outline of the picture and put on broadbrush colours. The local level then completes the picture with the finer grain of detail, in accord with how a good picture will go down well with the local public.

It is this joined up approach that could put our post-industrial urban areas back on the map, and get people out and about in thriving and prosperous towns.

Jake Thrush is Associate Policy Advisor at Transport for West Midlands, and the primary author of the About towns report whilst on secondment to Urban Transport Group

Five things I learned for urban transport at Conservative party conference

Grayling’s plan for rail

Chris Grayling was expansive in setting out his thoughts on the future for rail at a rail industry fringe…

– He previously thought evolution not revolution was right approach for rail but recent events have shown that this isn’t the case. The system is broken and needs fixing.

– However the rail review will not be about all aspects of the rail industry it will be a ‘validation exercise’ around different options for greater unification of tracks and trains plus a ‘guiding mind’ for the rail industry as a whole. He would be ‘very surprised’ if this isn’t the approach the review takes. ‘Something like the SRA is needed’ and ‘the DfT should do less than it does now after the review’. He referenced Japan which has vertically integrated regional train companies as one of the models for greater unification of track and trains.

– In the meantime he trusts Andrew Haines to make very sure that Network Rial gets its act together on timetable planning so there will be no repeat of the recent timetabling fiascos

– The rail review will also look at where it is appropriate to extend devo and where it is not. He said extending the Tyne and Wear Metro and Merseytravel taking the Merseyrail infrastructure were good examples of where it is appropriate and gave London taking over south east rail services as his prime example of where it is not appropriate. All of this boils down to that he is pro-devolution where it is about services within the area covered by the devolved authority and anti-devolution where a city region starts to take too many responsibilities for services in the surrounding shires

– The Rail Review will be formally launched following a statement in parliament when parliament returns

Vote leave, vote against HS2?

Grayling said at the same industry fringe meeting that no cabinet minister has said to him that HS2 should be abandoned or scaled back. However it’s clear that there are a number of prominent ‘Leave’ figures, in and out of the cabinet, who have said it publicly or are known to be floating it privately. Grayling’s line was that (as far as any major project of this scale can be completely on target in terms of budget and timings) that HS2 is on course, fully committed and it’s steady as it goes. However it’s clear that completing all of HS2, or not, is back in play as a wider political football. Also there’s probably a stronger political consensus now around Northern Powerhouse Rail than there is around building all of HS2. Some bigger, bolder HS2 advocacy will be required if the case is to be re-made, and re-won.

The devo dimension to Brexit makes a modest come back

One dimension to some Brexiteer arguments was that powers devolved from Brussels should go down to the regions not all go back to Whitehall. This dimension to the argument did make a modest come back in some quarters at the conference (including at some Centre for Cities / Core cities events from CLG Secretary James Brokenshire and George Freeman MP).

It may find fuller voice in a new framework for devolution which Brokenshire briefly trailed as coming out in the autumn at the Centre for Cities reception

Enough to fill the Albert Hall

Although much of what Grayling focussed on at conference was big infrastructure issues he did suggest there could be some better news coming on local roads maintenance (perhaps this reflects that poor local road maintenance is motorists’ number one concern according to recent RAC research)

Love for the Bus

Buses came up much more on our conference stand than in previous years at Conservative party conference and is seen much more through the prism of the key role they can play to improve transport provision more widely rather than the totemic deregulation v regulation argument that used to be more to the fore

Jonathan Bray

 

 

Time for transport policy to get in touch with its inner hipster?

Something is happening to our bland, branded up high streets in the same way that something fundamental is happening to our urban economies. The hipsters have arrived.

Sure, Greggs and Virgin Money and all the other high street chains have most of the prime spots locked up but springing up everywhere, and at quite a rate, are shops, bars, cafes, barbers (or a fusion of all of them behind one artful plate glass window) which are ‘artisan this’ and ‘craft that’.. valuing the authentic, the independent, and the culturally and digitally savvy.

And behind those shaken up high streets, in former industrial areas and repurposed office blocks, similar preferences inform the wider ‘flat white economy’ or ‘new economy’ (the communications, information, digital and media economy) which is also surging. After all, most people are on some kind of computer most of their work and leisure time – the digital natives, and there’s money in it.

And just as for those (that can afford the prices) who are shifting away from boring chain stores in the high street for shopping, so too is a linked shift away from dull isolated business parks for working – at least for the refuseniks or those with the skills the booming new economy needs. All of which helps explain why more new economy businesses want exciting urban locations where ideas and talent can spark off each other rather than fizzle out in sterile suburbs, malls and business parks. In doing so, the new economy also joins the financial and legal sector which has always preferred to cluster in city centres.

What does all this mean for transport? Urban Transport Group’s latest report Banks, bytes and bikes explores this issue.

Much of existing transport policy has been predicated on the economic value that can be derived from reducing journey times between point A and point B. The not unreasonable argument being that reducing the time and cost of moving goods, people and services is good for the economy. This in turn has tended to favour ‘inter’ rather than ‘intra’ urban transport projects. After all that’s what business says it wants isn’t it? It’s certainly what a lot of business wants. But not necessarily what all business now wants to give overriding priority to. It’s not just greenies that are now prioritising making places interesting and accessible by active travel and mass transit, over traffic speeds and volumes – it’s the Corporation of the City of London. And it’s not just in European cities that this is happening – it’s in the USA too – as a fascinating contribution from the American Passenger Transportation Association to our report shows.

But it would be wrong to replace one monolithic view of what business wants on transport with another. It would also be wrong to ignore the needs of the thousands of employers and millions of people who do not work in city centres and who also work in less celebrated or in vogue sectors of the economy (such as  retail, catering and hospitality). This is one reason why we will be following up this report with one on urban towns later this year. However, a valid challenge from this report remains – which is: is it time for urban transport policy to better reflect the priorities of the new economy, and as part of that get more in touch with its inner hipster?