Eight ways transport can put post-industrial towns back on the map

Huddersfield station, with Harold Wilson. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

Cities, as major drivers of the UK economy, have rightly been the focus of much of the debate about urban transport policy. But this shouldn’t be at the expense of the many post-industrial towns which also form part of wider city regions. And with the move to city region mayors and the outcome of the EU referendum, greater attention is now being given to how towns can realise their potential.

The UK’s 900 odd mid-sized towns are home to 9m people, around 13 per cent of our total population – so it’s time for towns to be given their share of the policy spotlight.

The Urban Transport Group has sought to do this in its new report About towns, which highlights how transport initiatives can play their part in helping them to thrive. Here are eight ways in which better transport can help post-industrial towns.

1. Reinforcing civic pride and identity

Post-industrial towns are often characterised by a history of innovation and graft, and the exceptional quality of some of the built environment that has survived is testament to their achievements. Towns can reflect and capitalise on this unique built environment by reinvigorating stations and public transport interchanges which bolster and reinforce local identity as landmarks or symbols of a town’s industrial past or its future ambitions. Huddersfield’s grand neo-classical railway station, for example, is a monument to the town’s rich textile heritage, impressing upon visitors who path beneath its columns.

Stations also have wider uses for community purposes and local enterprises. The revitalisation of derelict spaces in Scotland’s Kilmarnock Station, for example – complete with bookshop, event space and café – has transformed it into a vibrant community hub and led to passenger growth. It has also been part of the wider revival of the town centre, including links with a new town centre college campus.

2. Reinvesting as ‘anchor institutions’

Transport organisations can also act as local ‘anchor institutions’, using their considerable purchasing power to procure goods and services from local suppliers, and, in doing so, make a significant contribution to towns’ economies. Midland Metro Alliance, which is behind the extension of the West Midland’s tram network, is doing just that, aiming for 80 per cent of the project’s supply chain to be from local businesses.

3. Opening up access to jobs

Transport is vital in enabling people to find and sustain work in and beyond towns: after all, commuting accounts for the second highest number of trips the average person make each year, after shopping.

But aside from ensuring the provision of transport to and from jobs, there is also a need to overcome financial and perceptual barriers. Job Access Schemes, which provide information on how to get to job interviews, as well as support for the cost of travelling to interviews and new jobs, exist in a number of UK towns.

4. Providing access to education

It’s hard to improve your skills or education if you can’t physically access the colleges, campuses or universities which provide them. And a staggering 72 per cent of students take the bus to college.

Where the further education sector has located new facilities in town centres close to new public transport interchanges – such as in Rotherham – It has breathed in new life and vibrancy by making education highly accessible. Fares initiatives for young people have also proved successful, with the ‘MyTicket’ offer leading to a 142 per cent increase in bus journeys by young people in the Liverpool city region between 2014 and 2017.

5. Offering access to social and leisure activities

Given that most journeys are for other reasons than work or education, transport is key to ensuring that people in towns can travel for social and leisure purposes. The 12-mile circular New Town Trail for pedestrians and cyclists in the Scottish towns of Irvine and Kilwinning is one such offer, taking in many local landmarks and areas of interest including castles, nature reserves and a country park.


6. Opening up investment opportunities

Towns that are “open for business” require good local transport connections. The Kingsway Business Park in Rochdale – built by the public and private sector to provide a site to boost local employment – has access to the M62, a new Metrolink stop, a Local Link flexible bus service, as well as walking and cycling routes.

Additionally, transport investment can benefit towns when it is considered as part of wider cross-sector initiatives such as employment and education. Nexus, which operates Tyne and Wear’s Metro, has begun building a £8.4mn learning centre in South Shields town which will deliver rail training for its staff, and boost skills and access to jobs for the local community.

7. Meeting housing demand

With rising pressure to build more homes, joining up housing and transport strategy is vitally important to ensure new homes foster the kind of lifestyles which support the viability of towns, rather than draw people away from them. Known by the American term ‘transit-oriented development’, a number of towns are embracing this approach of situating high-density housing near transport hubs which can make them more attractive to residents, limit urban sprawl, and reduce car dependency and congestion.

8. Improving health and wellbeing of residents

Creating pleasant, attractive and safe street environments within towns can improve the health and wellbeing of residents; so does ensuring they can access work, learning and social opportunities, as well as healthcare facilities.

Transport can play its part in creating healthier towns by providing more space for walking and cycling, creating inviting public spaces for people to linger and interact, and offering transport options that reduce noise and air pollution – and which are affordable, too. NHS England is creating 10 ‘healthy new towns’ across the country, where the design of the built environment is being linked to the provision of health care services to combat the challenges of obesity, dementia and community cohesion.

At the same time as highlighting these examples of what transport can do, the report’s overarching message is that flagship, capital investment schemes are unlikely to be enough on their own. It is different types of initiatives, knitted together under a coordinated approach, that are needed if towns are to truly thrive.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group. ‘About towns: How transport can help towns thrive’ is available to download here.

 
 
 
 

In New Zealand, climate change is driving an eco-nationalist revival

The green and pleasant land of the South Island. Image: Getty.

“Ten years ago I would have called them settler f*****g land squatters,” Mike Smith, Maori-dom’s most tenacious activist, said last November as he reflected on the agriculture industry’s central role in driving climate change. “Now I have to try and get these people on board.”

Smith is infamous for taking a chainsaw to Auckland’s most prominent tree on a damp October night in 1994 in protest of the “Pākehā” – or white European –dominated government’s fiscal envelope restraining treaty settlements. Now he’s turned his hand to another cause close-to-home for the Maori, New Zealand’s indigenous population: the environment.

“We’re super vulnerable, like we are to anything,” Smith says. “When it comes to climate change it’s like the poorest people in the world are going to be hit the hardest first, and that’s a lot of us.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern appears, at least rhetorically, the most sympathetic leader to his cause in a decade. In her campaign launch speech late last year, she made the future government’s position clear: “Climate change is my generation’s nuclear free moment.”

This message should resonate with followers of her Labour party: the NZ left has long nurtured an environment-orientated “culture-of-protest”. So Ardern’s call to arms was bound to gain her loyal support among children of the 1960s and ‘70s, who led the march against nuclear ship visits, spurring on the government of the time to wriggle out from the US nuclear umbrella, and place a ban on foreign nuclear ship visits.

Now, it is to the tycoons of deep sea oil exploration they aim to close NZ’s ports.

In this, Smith is not short of support locally, with marches run by grassroots organisations and international animal welfare funds beginning to gain traction with every day New Zealanders. In this, Ardern’s prediction is correct: the Coal Action Network Aotearoa (CANA), is reminiscent of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), an earlier cluster of left-wing pacifists and nature lovers who drove the creation of the nuclear free zone.  

In December, 15,000 passionate protesters marched through the capital. And with the government’s recent ban of offshore oil exploration projects, Jeanette Fitzsimons, former Green party co-leader and the head of CANA, is optimistic about similar change to the energy and farming sectors.

The Labour-NZ First-Green party coalition seems focused on setting a new global precedent, weaning NZ away from a United States which has jettisoned the Paris Agreement. The move replicates another 20 years ago, when New Zealand’s anti-nuclear movement was central to an upsurge in New Zealand nationalism. Now, the same sense of going it alone on foreign policy is apparent both locally and in Parliament.

Dr. Gradon Diprose, a senior lecturer at Massey University, argues that this echoes an older expression of colonial nationalism, that saw “New Zealand as a land of natural abundance”. This: “eco-nationalism” is centered on “protecting certain visions of picturesque landscapes and unspoiled natural beauty”. The slogan “Clean, green New Zealand” is prevalent in popular culture and tourism marketing. The public seems to have latched onto it too, and ranked keeping NZ’s waterways “clean and green” top of a recent survey of of kiwis’ top concerns.

Three decades ago, it was the 10 July 1985 sinking of the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior that thrust local activists’ fears into the public eye, resulting in an almost nation-wide expression of climate-protectionism.


The bombing, a French intelligence operation sparked by Greenpeace’s calls for an end to foreign nuclear testing in the Pacific, galvanised a great deal of change to New Zealand’s overseas defence policies. A lack of censure from New Zealand’s Western allies drove Wellington to distance itself from the United States, while the shock of seeing a friendly nation violate NZ’s sovereignty left many at home seething.

Thirty years on, the foreign policy split throughout the Anglosphere, regarding Russian-Western relations, globalism, and the old international rules-based order, is becoming wider. Climate change is just the tip of the iceberg.

Most Kiwis you talk to will shake their heads in disapproval at US president Donald Trump’s scandalous outing last year in Helsinki. But US defiance of internationally brokered climate resolutions is something they can see clearly reflected in rural communities across the country.

The country saw records broken at both ends of the extreme weather spectrum last year. As 2018 kicked off, Kiwis sweltered through the hottest summer on record, while in Golden Bay, a small inlet near the northern tip of the South Island, residents endured the largest flood in 150 years. So, when President Trump tweets “So much for Global Warming”, the majority of New Zealanders look back fondly on NZ’s 1985 decision to boycott the “ANZUS” treaty, putting New Zealand at odds with its war-time ally America on defence legislation.

Public calls to take the same track on environmental regulation have become louder in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. The former US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, received a frosty “unwelcome” while on a flyby to the capital in 2017, with the New York Times’ Washington correspondent, Gardiner Harris remarking: “I’ve never seen so many people flip the bird at an American motorcade as I saw today”. Protests against President Trump’s stance on climate change are beginning to gain greater traction further still, with the hundred-strong “march for science” setting the tone for the new government later that year.

New Zealand certainly isn’t afraid of radicalism, and its activists are persistent. It’s already banned single use plastics in supermarkets. Plenty more is to come, Smith says.

And yes, reform is going to inhibit sometimes vital industries: “It doesn’t matter which way you spin the dice on this, whatever’s being done is going to hurt. People who are looking for a painless way of mitigating climate change, [but] I don’t think there is one.”

But among Smith’s troupe of climate agitators, the feeling is that, without drastic change, “the land”, the heart of the Maori ethos, is going to be hurt far more.

Back in Auckland, NZ’s financial hub, an electric scooter craze is gripping the city. This, too, has gained the support of local environmentalists. In New Zealand, a national sense of pride is always coupled with a certain eccentricity. In a country this size, change always starts small.