A PLEA FOR SENSIBLE PLANNING POLICIES

In the common use of the term PLANNING means building permission, and whether or not I can paint my front door pink; but planning should be a much wider concept. “Planning” and “transport” are two quite separate concepts in popular usage, whereas transport should be the primary part of the planning process. Where to build new roads and how to make the best use of the existing railway infrastructure could not be more central to planning in the proper sense of the word. When we plan new communities they need schools and dentists, libraries and doctors, but above all they need transport.

This a short sighted approach to planning which seems to ignore these essentials. It extends to the planners themselves; road improvements are done on an ad hoc basis, and the integration of rail into the whole picture does not seem to be considered at all. It is true that there was no planning involved in the creation of the railways, and we had too many as a result; but the continued lack of planning now means that we have too few. For example, it is crazy that the direct line from Norwich to Kings Lynn was closed, while we still have a line to Cromer; I am glad that we do, but it is a relatively minor place. The line from Norwich to Lynn (the two major population centres in the county) also served the major market towns of Dereham and Swaffham. To be fair to him, the infamous Dr Beeching never intended to close the line between Lynn and Norwich; this was a later action by British Railways, seemingly even more keen to close lines than the good doctor himself.

East Norfolk's railways in 1923

East Norfolk’s railways in 1923

Nevertheless he still did a lot of harm. It is one of my gripes about Dr Beeching that he seems to have taken no regard to future planning possibilities, that could be provided by the rail network; maybe he had no mandate to do so, but this made his approach rather blinkered. He only saw the then current use of the railways, not the posibility future demand. He assumed the future belonged to the motor car, but in the past two decades car mileage has fallen, while the desire for railway journeys has soared.

You may maintain that the future is unknowable, but surely that is a reason for keeping railway lines open rather than closing them. I saw the folly of closing so many perfectly good corridors of communication. Surely I was not the only person to do so. You may say that these railways lost money, but even with the much reduced railway network we still possess, without subsidies there would be no railways at all. Because of the past folly of railway closures, we are now going to great expense to reopen some lines that Dr Beeching closed. The 30 miles of the Borders line in Scotland has cost a quarter of a billion too reopen; the first trains for half a century ran in September 2015 and it has been a great success. Work is progressing on the reinstatement of part the Varsity Line between Oxford and Cambridge, but there is no projected end date nor final cost. At least a few hundred metres of new track has opened a brand new route from Oxford to Marylebone station.

Take an example from my own neck of the woods of what I mean by this planning blindness. Thorpe Marriott is a recent development a few miles from Norwich; it already has thousands of inhabitants and there is space to build many more properties. Right through the middle of this settlement runs Marriott’s Way, a pleasant place to walk your dog or go for a stroll; but only a few years before this development was begun a railway line ran along this path, making a direct and uninterrupted communication with the centre of Norwich. What a perfect arrangement for a tramway! Most of the expensive infrastructure required was already there. If only the planners had employed joined-up thinking this could have been a major centre of much-needed development, with superb communications. Instead we have a minor footpath, yet more buses and cars at rush hour, and ever greater difficulties in parking them in the city.

The opportunity for building a tramway for Thorpe Marriott has been lost, but we still have a number of railway stations which are isolated and poorly used, despite Dr Beeching. Spooner Row outside Wymondham has under two passengers a day on average, and Buckenham on the Yarmouth line has less than two passengers a week. These are extreme cases, but there are other village stations with very moderate passenger numbers. Why not concentrate development on those places where a rail connection already exists? The residents should have a choice; accept the new housing, or lose your railway station. It is quite absurd to maintain a regular train service with so few people to use it, but with more passengers the train operating company would make higher profits, and this might even be passed on to the public in lower fares. (That is rather unlikely however.)

John Betjeman made a short film about the town of Diss in South Norfolk back in the 1960s. It is a typical Betjeman documentary, with particular emphasis on the town’s architectural heritage and its most famous son, the poet John Skelton.  But Betjeman was also complaining bitterly about the proposed New Town which the planners intended to build there.  It is true that the New Town would have changed the nature of a quaint corner of South Norfolk, but with a growing population, there was even then pressure for more housing. Today we need many more dwellings in Norfolk, as we do in many other parts of the country. In the end no New Town was built in Diss, but what a perfect location for one it would have made. It would have had speedy and regular rail connections with London, Ipswich and Norwich, and the line has now even been electrified. Nobody relishes the prospect of losing farm fields to tarmac, but people must live somewhere and where better than a place like Diss?

This a slowly dawning on some planners; a major feature of the proposed Rackheath Eco-town is the provision of a re-located station on the Cromer line to give the residents an eco-friendly route into Norwich. There is much local opposition to building on a greenfield site; but should a place with a railway station really be regarded as  greenfield? This designation of greenfield is even more suspect in the case of Rackheath, as much of the proposed Eco-town would be on a former USAF airbase from the war years. It is a brownfield site in all but the most legalistic use of the word. There can be no objection to Rackheath Eco-town; the objectors demonstrate the most blatant form of  Not In My Back Yard.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE BLOG FOR EAST ANGLIAN LIFE

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