Ideas for Chichester’s bypass are trapped in the 1970s says Bill Sharp: we need a radical rethink.
Where Are We Now?
The various plans for the A7 bypass round Chichester were all recently pulled by the secretary of state. For some this comes as a blessed relief, because it gives breathing space for serious thought about how we could do things far better.
None of the proposals was a roaring success. Homes demolished (one a listed building), fly-overs hard against windows, fields and views ruined, and wildlife gone.
Then there’s the cost – between £47 and £280 million – much from funds levied from housing developers and supposed to benefit locals impacted by the new housing.
You might think that the first call would be on re-financing services our local councils are struggling to provide, following repeat slashing of central-government funding in recent years. Things like libraries, citizens’ advice bureaux, health and social services and public transport, not to mention our schools so stretched that they’ve launched the county-wide “WorthLess?” campaign.
All these services are being pushed ever closer to breaking point by the growing population wished on us from on high. But instead the lion’s share of funding has been earmarked for this blight on lives and landscape. Not just that, rubbing salt into the wound, County and District councils specifically asked to downgrade locals by prioritising through-traffic. So those living to the east would lose their direct route across the A27 and literally be “sent round the houses”, while those to the south, on the Manhood Peninsula, faced “no right turns” designed to relieve A27 congestion by, er, diverting more traffic onto it.
No wonder the local reception was chilly: from the County Council’s unenthusiastic ‘commentary’ to uproar across the Peninsula. Yet, for all the destruction and cost, not a single option offered more than a short-lived sticking plaster. Whichever was chosen, the roads were predicted to clog up again no later than 2035.
The reason? Induced demand. You just can’t build yourself out of congestion. As we’ve seen with the M25, if you build it, they will come. In the short term, if you free up the roads, people simply make more “discretionary journeys”. In the longer term, people move out to nicer places where the commute now covers many more miles but magically takes the same time as before. And, inevitably, developers too come and build houses in places that used to be inaccessible.
The now withdrawn proposals split the community too. In the north, the “Chichester Deserves Better” campaign came together to call for the blight to be dumped in the south; without a thought for “Turner’s View” across canal to distant cathedral.
For their part, the south responded with “Better for Chichester”, calling for a northern bypass that would rip through the rolling fields that inspired Blake’s Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, each of the options tears into existing green routes. Wherever a footpath or cycleway is reworked, it’s invariably worse. The well-used Bognor Road foot/cycle bridge is even removed completely! And how will a roaring fly-over keep the canal path a more attractive choice than the car?
Depressingly, the largest roads budget since the seventies comes with a mindset stuck in the seventies, when similar car-centred thoughtlessness created similar blight and short-term fixes and, as an unintended consequence, saw walking and cycling levels plummet and sedentary lifestyles rise, with disastrous effects on the nation’s health.
How did we get here?
The problems that brought us here are two fold. Firstly there’s the fixation on economic growth. At the District planning meeting, Councillors and officers alike tirelessly repeated the mantra of “the economic growth we want” despite a room-full of protesters saying “not at this price” and despite local businesses – from shops to the Canal Trust, a farmer and a riding school – contradicting the Chamber of Commerce respondents (all 11 of them), and saying that all the plans would anyway leave them worse off … if they survived in business at all.
Compounding the situation, those in our corridors of power seem wedded to macho ‘hard development’: outsized sheds, pack-houses, warehouses and housing estates that could be anywhere. Much like the bland “anywhere towns” that we suddenly discovered we had sleepwalked into a few years back. There’s scant acknowledgement that such featureless development erases Chichester district’s “special character” – supposedly protected by its Local Plan – or that this special character is precisely what gives the district its keenest economic edge. What the marketers like to call its ‘distinctive offer’ comes not just from pretty Georgian buildings but also the city’s compact size, walkability and easy access to its rural setting and quiet informal recreation – without first having to jump into a car.
We should be stressing the quality of life and prosperity this brings, not growth for growth’s sake. But even if we must go for growth, we’ve reached a fork in the road. We can continue to urbanise this rural district piece by little piece, and pretend we don’t realize what’s happening. Or we could go for ‘soft development’, harnessing the quality of life to attract those who appreciate what’s already here. The likes of software designers, website creators, authors, artists and designers – who don’t need to commute every day, and send their wares down wires not roads. This, incidentally, would also help re-balance the economy from over-reliance on agriculture – which is anyway becoming increasingly automated.
We could also attract more tourists, as recently recommended in a District Council report. And if it’s tourist growth we want, it’s baffling that Chichester has not latched on to the Centurion Way like Cornwall did the Camel Trail which some years ago was estimated to contribute around £3 million annually to the Cornish economy – and, unexpectedly, turned out to be one of Cornwall’s few year-round draws.
It’s equally baffling why no-one acknowledges how badly the Whitehouse Farm development will sterilize the potential for the Centurion Way (and hence Chichester generally) to act as a “green gateway” to the South Downs National Park, let alone that a northern bypass would scotch that potential completely.
The inconvenient truth here is that roads can suck away as much as they bring in. What drives one form of development, drives away another.
We’ve had one local example of the wisdom of holding out against doing the “obvious” thing that everyone else is doing. Namely West Wittering beach. In the twenties, while everyone else was “developing” the coast, in the Witterings they did … well precious little. And now the atmosphere and “special character” of the beach and its setting make it one of the south coast’s prime attractions. It’s a nice earner for the shareholders too. This long-term thinking has ultimately far outperformed the fast buck attitude that would have had the fields there turned into houses.
We’ve also had a more recent warning about trying to have our cake and eat it, about mixing “special” with “anywhere”. In 2014, Rolls Royce commented on a proposal for their neighbouring fields, saying ‘Rolls Royce will effectively be located within a housing estate that is indistinguishable from any UK urban location; exactly the situation we sought hard to avoid’.
It’s easy to have ‘issues’ with special pleading from a car factory plonked in green fields, however mossy the roof. But it’s also easy to see that a company like Rolls Royce wouldn’t have come here if we’d already had ‘anywhere development’ scattered around, and that, if we continue making self-inflicted wounds, they might eventually make good their veiled threat to move on. And neither tourists nor low-impact businesses will find much distinctive to attract them here either.
Ultimately, if you try “special” and it doesn’t work you can always try “anywhere”. If you deploy “anywhere” first, there’s no plan B.
The other half of the “two-fold problem” lies in Highways England’s narrow remit. If you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If you run a roads problem past Highways, all solutions look like roadworks. So now all options focus on speeding up A27 traffic, albeit by a few minutes at most, and all singly fail to deliver other government policies – public transport, walking and cycling, and home working.
Is the best on offer really roads which, if uglier, at least flow no worse than before … for a few years?
Where could we go instead?
Let’s ponder if a similar amount of money to what’s on the table could be used to more lasting benefit. Some ideas follow. A number require a degree of subsidy, which to some is a dirty word. But the massive road-building budget that we have somehow found in the midst of a recession is, in effect, a huge subsidy to commuters over home-workers, and to the private motor vehicle to the detriment of almost all other forms of transport, and this subsidy indefensibly ends up propping up road-reliant businesses against those – like the Canal Trust, the shops, farm and Riding School – which are positively better off without road intensification.
So why not instead consider spending the money on:
- Park and Ride Both the County and the District Council failed to ask Highways to investigate P&R. So we just don’t know how much P&R might help ease the congestion.
- New Selsey Tram Today’s congestion could be vastly reduced by a modern version of the tram. Namely a dedicated route for local journeys, requiring just one A27 underpass (or bridge) to
completely do away with the existing cross-traffic conflict. (In an indictment of our short-sighted planning system, some of the old route has disappeared under “economic growth”, but alternatives remain to keep the idea viable.)
- Driverless Pods The pods currently shuffling around Heathrow Airport are soon to be trialled on the streets of Greenwich, Bristol, Coventry and Milton Keynes. Why not Chichester next? Running the route of the “New Selsey Tram”,
or as modern shuttles for the park and ride. (Since pods have no drivers, they have a lower staffing cost than conventional P&R. Better still, in a well-run system there’s no wait for the bus, there’s always a line of pods waiting when you want one. Also, since they drive themselves away to where they are next needed, they require no extra parking space in town.)
- Smarter New Developments Developers spend huge amounts to simply rework surrounding roads (often, like at Whitehouse Farm, reworked for the benefit of cars and at the expense of even existing quiet walking and cycling routes). Why not instead fund car clubs (or soon “pod clubs”). And why not re-allocate finances for better on-site facilities like doctor’s surgeries, community shops, sports areas, after-schools clubs and community halls, which reduce the need to travel in the first place and ensure more social interaction and vibrancy on site?
- Building on City Centre Car Parks instead of on far-flung green fields. This again eases the roads by reducing the need to travel, and is suggested in the Cathedral Cities in Peril report by the Foster Partnership and English Heritage (2015). The idea needs caution, but if the alternative is millions of pounds on a temporary fix?
- Goods Consolidation Centre The recent Road Space Audit suggests this idea, which involves consolidating freight into smaller vehicles for “last leg” deliveries. Unloading from one vehicle and re-loading onto another inevitably creates inefficiencies that hauliers don’t relish. But overall efficiency is increased as large lorries don’t spend forever sitting in congestion, and contributing to congestion, just to drop off a small fraction of their overall load. Consolidation centres on a city’s edge also allow “just in time” delivery to the city centre, which finally allows the centre’s shops to fight back against what suddenly seem relatively slow delivery speeds of the Internet.
- Green Infrastructure The Selsey road is positively dangerous. The problems here are just as pressing as on the A27. Residents have been campaigning for a safe cycle route for over two decades. They’ve recently had it costed … at roughly the price of a single roundabout on the A27! Infrastructure like the Selsey Greenway can greatly reduce motorised traffic on and off the Manhood Peninsula. More so now than ever before, given the arrival of electric bikes. There’s also the potential to stimulate low-impact tourism. But where’s the political will?
- Green Infrastructure (Contd.) In countries such as Holland, it’s standard to put a cycle path alongside any new stretch of roadworks. The marginal cost is minimal given that workers and machinery are on site anyway. Again, with electric bikes, the rationale for doing this is greater than ever. But, here too, this country has yet to move on from the seventies.
Wait for Future Trends Driverless Pods have already been mentioned, but the future almost certainly also lies with driverless cars and driverless lorries. When reviewing traffic and parking in the city centre, the Road Space Audit finished by recommending a “wait and see approach” precisely because future changes are unclear but, at the same time, likely imminent and radical. It would be smart to adopt the same approach for the A27. After all it would be pretty ironic (not to mention an epic waste of money) if, after all the blight and expense, it turns out that “platooning” of lorries allows us to squeeze more freight into the same road space, and that platooned or driverless lorries allow far more freight to be transported outside peak hours, when the A27 still has massive spare capacity. And, irony of ironies, what if autonomous cars mean that in the near future it is actually more efficient to get stuck in congestion, as you can then spend a bit more time working in your car, which doubles as your mobile office (or even as your gym).
- Traffic Smoothing While waiting to see what the future brings, there is one line of attack that’s so comparatively cheap and straightforward that we could try it immediately. And that’s traffic smoothing. Some drivers have commented “It’s not the speed of my journey, it’s the predictability that matters to me“. In some areas, such as parts of Bristol, the dual carriageway is limited to 50 mph – which increases car-carrying capacity. Such speeds also lead to less stop-start movements and hence immediately less pollution. In addition it seems likely that, on the A27, traffic-light timings could be set to send traffic along the road in pulses, leaving gaps for similarly pulsed North-South traffic. Pulsing works with cars in New York and bicycles in Copenhagen. Admittedly, the winding A27 is less straightforward than the grid pattern of New York, but it still has few enough junctions that the idea is likely workable. And that would be the “intractable” A27 problem largely solved, for slightly less than £280 million. The main problem seems to be lack of the necessary modelling expertise within Highways England, and lack of interest in sourcing the expertise from elsewhere. Far easier to “just get on with doing what we’ve always done”.
- Incentives to think outside the box If we can combine some of the above to solve the A27 problems for less than a middling figure between the lowest and the highest cost options, say a “modest” £100 million, then the money saved should be divided up, with half going back to the DfT and half going to our local councils. That should provide incentive to think differently, and move on from the mentality that forgets to reinstate pedestrian bridges and regards green infrastructure generally as an afterthought instead of a key part of the solution. The windfall would buy a lot of school equipment, mental health services or what have you. If we had more joined-up government (remember that?), the windfall could even pay to preserve our disappearing Law Courts – so avoiding the farce of one government department tearing its hair out about how to solve congestion on the roads and overcrowding on trains, while another department puts more strain on those same roads and trains by converting journeys, that for many used to be a stroll across town, into long-distance trips to Portsmouth, Brighton or even Hastings.
- Going Dutch If we must have “grade separation”, better to bury the road than raise it. Visual intrusion is less, and so is noise carry. And don’t let anyone say that the water table is an intractable problem. It wasn’t for the Dutch at the Veluwemeer Aqueduct (which carries boats from one side of the road to the other). Note also the cycle path alongside the road – as a matter of course
Are these ideas pie in the sky? We’ll never know, because Highways England wasn’t asked to investigate anything other than roadworks, so guaranteeing that we get “improvements” that are short term – and in just over 15 years we will have to plough more money better spent elsewhere into yet more roadworks – funded by yet more blight. That’s a vicious cycle well worth stopping in its tracks.
Is there light at the end of the tunnel?
It was claimed earlier that the problem is two-fold. In fact it is three fold. The third problem is ourselves. If anything of lasting benefit is to emerge from the present mess, we must do more than suggest clever ideas for other peoples’ travel choices. We must take a hard look at our own. Can Chichester rise to the challenge? It definitely can. But for that to happen, we must all come together to call for smarter options. The northerners must stop calling for the trashing of Turner’s View, and the Southerners for the ripping up of Blake’s “pleasant pastures”.
Since the original plans were pulled, strong promise of a new beginning has come in the initiative from County Council to try to pull all sections of the community together in a series of workshops.
That said, there’s more than a hint that seventies thinking is still strong when the name of this new initiative is “Build a Better A27”, and when, at the first meeting, passionate voices still called to “dump it in the north” or “dump it in the south”, depending on where they live.
To encourage more flexibility and dialogue between the die-hards, it’s worth pointing out that, under the present growth agenda, if southerners do get a northern bypass, their now more accessible fields, vistas, walks and wildlife will be ripe to fall to more sheds and housing than ever they imagine. While if northerners hold the line to the south, the road will clog up and the northern bypass will raise its ugly head to haunt us again in little more than 15 short years’ time.
Oh, and more positive things like the Selsey Greenway still won’t be built!
Induced Demand Induced demand, or latent demand, is the phenomenon that after supply increases, more of a good is consumed.City planner Jeff Speck has called induced demand “the great intellectual black hole in city planning, the one professional certainty that everyone thoughtful seems to acknowledge, yet almost no one is willing to act upon.”
Car Dependency and Health ‘The average distance a person walked for transport purposes has fallen from 255 miles a year in 1976 to 192 miles in 2003, while car use increased by more than 10%. Although people are travelling further to get to work, one in five journeys of less than one mile are made by car’ The UK among worst in western Europe for level of overweight and obese people
UK air pollution ‘Each year in the UK, around 40,000 deaths are attributable to exposure to outdoor air pollution which plays a role in many of the major health challenges of our day’ according to research undertaken by the Royal College of Physicians
Cathedral Cities in Peril A report published by Foster and Partners in 2015 to help inform the debate about the expansion of cathedral cities and historic towns
How healthy is cycling? ‘Do you need facts and figures about cycling? Cycling UK’s policy team continually analyses statistics, reports and research’ For example ‘People who cycle regularly in mid-adulthood typically enjoy a level of fitness equivalent to someone 10 years younger and their life expectancy is two years above the average’
Out in nature. Natural England noted that ‘Most studies show spending time in or being active in natural environments is associated with positive outcomes for attention, anger, fatigue and sadness, higher levels of positive affect and lower levels of negative affect (mood/emotion) and physiological stress. There is generally positive evidence relating to the impacts of activities in natural environments on children’s mental health and their cognitive, emotional and behavioural functioning’