Swindon’s transport ‘vision’

Swindon Borough Council has produced a consultation document, “2030 – a Transport Vision for Swindon”. This is Swindon Trades Union Council’s submission to the consultation.

The basic contradiction at the heart of Swindon Borough Council’s consultation document is the assertion that massive expansion of the town can go hand in hand with “sustainability”. The document recites the mantra of sustainability but it accepts an expansion of the town which is not the result of deliberation and decision by the local population but a ‘target’ imposed upon us by national government and an un-elected Regional quango. Such growth would have drastic social and environmental consequences. Already the current infrastructure of the town is struggling with the level of car use resulting from the increased population.

The document talks of a “compact” with the government in which the Borough accepts “economic and housing growth” and “expects government to recognise its shared responsibility for enabling investment”. However, as the recent dispute over the amount the government is offering for infrastructure shows, there is little chance of such a “compact”.

The population of Swindon has grown from 151,000 in 1981 to 184,000 in 2005.This has obviously impacted on the growth of road journeys. In the last 15 years the number of kilometres driven on roads in the Borough has increased from an estimated 897 million to 1025 million. In the last five years alone traffic on the outskirts of town has increased by 27%, principally as a result of commuting to work. During the morning peak our roads carry 50,000 vehicles. The capacity is estimated at 60,000. If no action is taken, says the Council consultation document “there will be significant congestion on the roads by 2016”. After 2026 they predict that the congestion will spread to beyond the traditional peaks and average speed of traffic could decline from 27 mph to 18 mph in the morning peak.

This increase in traffic has taken place in the context of a 21% population increase over 25 years. Imagine what is likely to happen if the target population of 250,000 were to be reached by 2030; a nearly 28% increase in 23 years. We believe that the local population should campaign against this imposed growth target.

Historically, of course, the growth of Swindon has been at a much slower pace than expected. In the famous Silver Book of Swindon Council in 1968 the population of Swindon was predicted to 296,000 by the year 2000. We do not believe that 250,000 will be reached by 2030. However, any transport strategy has to answer the question of whether we should aim to stop or reduce the number of car journeys or simply mitigate the impact of their continuing increase resulting from further expansion of the town. The Council appears to chose the latter course, which fails to face up to the challenge of global warming. Amongst the ten local objectives listed in the Council’s Transport Plan we read:

“Manage the impact of traffic growth in Swindon by implementing sustainable mitigation measures.”

Mitigation, of course, means to limit the results of traffic growth rather than stopping it.

Road Transport accounted for an estimated 22% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2005, according to DEFRA. The only larger component, with 37% is the energy industry. In addition road transport is a major source of pollution which has a detrimental impact on health. It is now a commonplace that in order to tackle climate change there is a need for a significant shift away from cars to rail and buses. The House of Commons Transport Committee has said that “Modal shift from car to bus is vital if the United Kingdom is to properly tackle congestion and reduce carbon emissions.” Yet despite much talk of ‘sustainable development’ the radical action which is required to achieve this shift has not been taken, largely as a result of the dominant conception of economic ‘growth’ (any increase in economic activity is automatically a good thing) and a belief that ‘market mechanisms’ can address the crisis.

Whilst in Swindon we have the advantage that the Council effectively still owns the local bus company, deregulation of buses instituted by Thatcher, remains an obstacle to radically improving bus services. Local authorities were no longer permitted to provide ‘blanket support’ for bus services. Whilst Thatcher’s legislation enabled some routes to be subsidised, today only 16% of services receive subsidy. Moreover, it has become a common feature for companies to pull out of providing services in some areas where the rate of profit is not considered high enough, only for them to tender for them when a local authority has to step in, in order to provide a subsidy for a socially necessary service.

It is instructive that whilst in most of the country bus usage has declined from 2,660 million to 2,315 million (since 1995-6), in London they have increased from 1,193 million to 1,810 million. This is the result of a £550 million subsidy (on a £1.4 billion contract). Spending on buses per head is £660 in London compared with £230 outside!

Whilst Swindon Borough Council talks of increasing bus usage, it does not explain how it will achieve this. It requires social subsidy to improve the service provided and to cut the cost of fares to attract people. Whilst the document mentions increased bus lanes, in a meeting earlier this year with the Director of the bus company we were told that there were no plans for more of them.

Public transport should be run as a public service rather than a commercial business. That requires a campaign to end deregulation and to facilitate public subsidy. Local companies should also be approached to provide subsidies for work buses, as a social responsibility for reducing the numbers of their own staff who travel to work by car.

Planning obviously plays a big role in relation to transport because the geography of any town, the composition of developments, determines the level of travel which is necessary. Planning permission for massive hyper-markets, for instance, encourages car journeys. Likewise, other policies can impact on transport. For instance, the early morning school run is the result of so-called ‘parent choice’ and school closures. When children tended to go to local schools, most of them walked the short distance necessary to reach them.

So far as the town centre is concerned the best way to discourage car use is to further pedestrianise it and improve bus services.

The Council’s document is right when it says that:

“Trying to solve congestion by building more roads gives short term relief but it doesn’t solve the underlying problems.”

However, it is wrong when it asserts that an “incremental approach” will suffice. Even if you accept the inevitability of targeted growth to increase towards 250,000 by 2030, the Council should seek to halt the increase of car journeys rather than simply slowing the rate of growth. Only the provision of frequent, fast, and cheap public transport which serves the transport patterns of the populace will get people out of their cars.

We can agree with the aspiration for local train stations since this will take people out of their cars, at least so far as commuters to the town centre are concerned.

Martin Wicks
Secretary, Swindon TUC

December 30th 2007

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