Urban Update 4 December 2015

Download Urban Update 4 December 2015


The Metro-town – an alternative to sprawl

Event report  - Campaign against urban sprawl in Essex

Essex is arguably England’s oldest settled landscape, and Colchester is its oldest recorded town. But there is nothing ancient about the challenge of substantial population growth.  New development sites must be found: - but where, and in what form?.  The main road network in Essex is dominated by Roman alignments, and much of the landscape may predate this. The area was already heavily populated by the Bronze and Iron Ages. There is evidence that surviving field boundaries were established during this time, and some of the lanes and routes also date from this period.  The minor settlements are similarly ancient. In the rural churches it is not uncommon to find recycled Roman brick and Saxon masonry.  Imposed on this landscape is a 20th century car-based sprawl.  In the villages on the most heavily used routes one sees 6ft fences erected to shelter frontagers from the incessant traffic.  The absence of a sustained national transport strategy has led to the direct Roman roads being turned into wandering circuitous routes through a series of local bypasses, piecemeal widenings and re-alignments. Added to this is the usual complement of out of town superstores and retail parks, and housing estates in totally unsustainable isolated locations. The impression gained that there has been no strategy for the development of this part of England, and the immense charm and potential of the area has been massively damaged, and opportunities squandered.

That is the present.  Looking to the future, a proposal has been put forward by developers, to build a 15,000 home new town around 7 miles west of Colchester, around Marks Tey, straddling the A12 and A120 trunk roads and adjoining the railway station on the main line from East Anglia to London.  The proposals have generated controversy.  Opponents of the scheme say that it will overstress local facilities, and operate simply as a suburb of London, adding more traffic to the already congested trunk roads and railway lines. In response to the proposals, residents in the Marks Tey area commissioned consultants to examine the scheme and to identify alternatives.   It culminated last week in the presentation of alternative proposals at a packed meeting last week.

The background to the event was the wish of the community for “something logical in my back yard”, and of asking and answering the right questions:

·         How can development be made popular and attractive?

·         How can a regional masterplan be created that will create housing near jobs and infrastructure?

·         How can an uplift in land values harnessed for infrastructure?

·         What type of delivery vehicle is needed ?

·         What should be the role of central government ?

In a keynote address Nicholas Falk observed that the cities in East Anglia were growing at a much slower rate than the population of the region as a whole, meaning that most of the growth was being accommodated in small villages, where people were obliged to use cars to conduct their lives.  There were alternatives in large development sites, or the “string of pearls” approach with development focused on stations on local railway lines.  He mentioned Holland’s Vinex suburbs of around 5000 people on the edge of cities, which have preserved the green heart of Holland, or towns such as Vathoorst which were built with green spaces, and play areas at their heart, helping children to socialise.  Children in Holland he stressed, were among the world’s happiest, and in England among the least happy; this, despite the close similarities in landscape and population.  He argued that the costs of developing an entirely new settlement with the need for new infrastructure, were significantly higher than urban infill, and urban extensions, which could use much of the existing infrastructure.

Transportation and Movement was the focus of Tim Pharoah’s presentation.  He was concerned that the area had been structuring around roads, cars and trucks.  He noted that the National Planning Policy Framework and many of the policies of the respective local authorities referred to sustainability and sustainable transport, quoting the county council’s cabinet member for Highways and Transport, who said on 15th July 2015 “Essex county council is committed to promoting sustainable transport”. Despite all these statements,   “nowhere” said Mr Pharoah “do you find an exposition as to how this will turn into action”.  He compared Innsbruck, population 124,000, and 4 tramlines extending 12 miles with Colchester, population 117,000, no tramlines, a confused arrangement of bus routes and bus stops, and streets dominated by through traffic.  Even compared with similar towns in the UK Colchester with its 2/3rds of journeys to work undertaken by car compared poorly with Brighton at just under ½, and Cambridge, 1/3rd.

The consultant team had identified the Colchester to Clacton line – currently offering between 1 and 2 trains and hour as offering great potential.  Analysis of train paths showed that this underused £1 billion asset, without any additional infrastructure investment, could run 4 local trains an hour and 2 regional trains and hour – a frequency that compared favourably with an urban metro.  The changes could be effected almost overnight.

Tim Pharoah’s summary points were:

1.     Plan for greater Colchester as a whole

2.     Plan new developments for transport sustainability

3.     Use existing towns and settlements as the focus for growth

4.     Use a transit based growth model – based on a 10 minute walk to railway stations and a 5 minute walk to bus stops.

5.     Clacton Walton railway is an underused resource

6.     Bus Rapid Transit corridors are needed into Colchester

7.     Rail and Bus integration is needed

8.     Colchester town centre traffic is a hindrance to trade.

Concluding the presentations Alan Stones argued firstly, for making use of the overlooked resource of the Colchester-Clacton electrified railway as the basis for sustainable settlements; secondly for developing around 5,000 homes east of Essex university, served by an express bus service and new railway station; and thirdly, at Marks Tey a modest development contained within 10 minutes’ walk of the railway station. “You can’t build a garden city from Scratch”  he warned. “The problems are insuperable.”

In the ensuing discussion, the role of supporting infrastructure came up, and the importance of expanded settlements being able to support primary schools and a reasonable range of local community facilities.  There were also complaints about the excessive cost of creating new railway infrastructure in the UK attributed to a dysfunctional Network Rail, institutional barriers, and a disproportionate safety culture. An example was the cost electrifying the Great Western Mainline which was 6 times the cost in real terms, mile for mile, of the electrification of the Eastern Region (1976 and 1991).  A more local example was the estimated £22 million cost of a new station at Beaulieu Park, part of a proposed development in North East Chelmsford.  These inflated sums made new rail infrastructure difficult to afford.   There was however a near zero cost alternative – looking at efficient timetabling to make better use of existing rail lines.  This potential was currently being overlooked.  

Objections were raised to the principle of financing national infrastructure (the dualling of the A120) through local development gain (the Marks Tey development proposal),  National infrastructure should be funded from national resources.   


Proper regional and sub-regional plan needed

Last to speak was local MP Bernard Jenkin, (also chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee) who acknowledged that there was a real problem in Whitehall about thinking strategically and out of the box.  Civil Servants had lost a lot of confidence.  There was an opportunity to bring confidence, willpower and leadership. “ It is leadership that such a vast challenge requires.” he added.    Wise words, but words are not enough.  As Tim Pharoah stressed, what government has failed to do is to come up with a proper regional and sub-regional plan.  Let us hope that Bernard Jenkin carries this message back to Westminster.