On another blog I recently published quite a quite long post triggered by two recent TV programmes about the dominance of London. In that poste I looked at how investment in transport infrastructure across the North of England could create the right conditions to develop an alternative economic hub to that which is currently
ruining dominating our lives in the form of London.
Now obviously Devizes is not a major metropolis. It isn’t even a large town compared to say Exeter, or Weston super Mare. It is what it is, a small market town. Even so there are lessons to be learnt from London’s growth, or if you watch the second of these programmes, from Hebden Bridge. That lesson is one of connectivity. It is connectivity that drives economic growth – the growth of London and if it were to be implemented the growth of a new, world scale, city running from Liverpool across to Leeds. Improvements in connectivity could also drive economic growth in Wiltshire.
Five Towns Initiative
Seeing these programmes reminded me of some work done for the former West Wiltshire District Council that led to the creation of what was called the ‘Five Towns Initiative’. The starting point was a study carried out for West Wilts by a consultancy called URBED which looked at the five towns of the district generally stretching down the A350 – Melksham, Trowbridge, Westbury, Warminster and Bradford on Avon. My memory is hazy now but I think this followed on from work for Wiltshire County Council published as ‘Revitalizing the Towns and Villages of Wiltshire’. One of the basic ideas behind the Five Towns Initiative was that individually the towns of West Wiltshire are too small to support very much in the way of services but collectively have a population approaching 100,000, the size of a significant town (by comparison Exeter had a population of 117,000 in 2011.) URBED explicitly linked this to the ideas of Ebenezer Howard and his concept of a group of linked towns set in a rural landscape.
Unfortunately the Five Towns Initiative degenerated into a series of small projects, with each town competing for money from the District Council and no attempt seems ever to have been made to develop the core principle of improving connectivity between the towns.
One council for Wiltshire was supposed to offer better integration of local services, not just savings. So far we’ve seen lots of the latter but in planning and development terms not much of the former. No big Vision for Wiltshire has emerged. Opportunities to improve links between the towns of Wiltshire towns are still there, although Wiltshire Council appear to be on the point of cutting its support to public transport, rather than increasing it. Even so, with some creative thinking, there is still a chance, both to improve links between the market towns of Wiltshire and to improve connections with the larger cities and towns of the region. I don’t know of any reason why agglomeration benefits should not hold true for the towns of Wiltshire as it does for London or Liverpool/Manchester/Leeds, even if those benefits are at a much smaller scale. Improved links between towns that provide reasonable journey times would create a much larger pool of workers for employers and a larger pool of jobs for workers to mutual benefit.
What is needed?
Clearly we would be talking about different levels of investment to what is required in Northern England, but at a minimum I think we need to be looking at:
- ‘Trunk’ bus routes between towns. Town to town services seem to meander all over the place, the Chippenham to Devizes bus for example has a substantial dogleg towards Calne. The Trowbridge to Swindon route Trans Wilts Express 49 service is a good example.
- Services within and around the towns provided by a mixture of linear services where population allows and a demand responsive service (as with the ‘Wigglybus’ in the Pewsey Vale) for areas of lower population density.
- A minimum service frequency of an hour, preferably half hourly.
- Services running from at least 7.00am to 11.00pm.
- Maximise use of rail services. The TransWilts Community Rail Partnership might usefully get involved in wider rail issues affecting Wiltshire.
- Swindon to Bath rail link – this would require the replacement of the missing link at Staverton.
- Swindon to Salisbury rail link (TransWilts line)
- Refurbishment of stations like Melksham plus improved bus links into town centre.
- Reinstatement/new stations for towns like Marlborough, Devizes and Corsham.
The diagram below shows how this might work.
There would probably also be a need for other infrastructure improvements, perhaps in the form of bus gates, short stretches of bus only road or road and junction improvements favouring public transport.
Revenue support for public transport is being cut by Wiltshire Council. This needs to be reversed. In addition, the amount generated from s106 agreements for housing and other developments need to be boosted significantly. This income needs to be put into an infrastructure development fund. Larger employers could also be approached to make contributions to such a fund on the basis that it would increase their access to a much larger labour pool.
Wiltshire Council are currently considering the replacement of the Demand Responsive Connect 2 services (aka Wigglybus) in Pewsey Vale with traditional linear routes. Given what I have said above this would clearly be a mistake in my view. I’ve already posted my response to the consultation.
I would be very interested in getting views from others on this. We can’t go stumbling on as we are now.
NB – I haven’t considered here the other aspects of connectivity – fast broadband in particular. There is a programme for improvements but it is almost impossible to get details. Anyone who has information, please get in touch.