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.

 
 
 
 

So why is Peterborough growing so quickly?

Peterborough Cathedral. Image: Jules & Jenny/Flickr/creative commons.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.  

The 2001 census put the population of Peterborough at 156,000. Some time before next spring, it’s projected to pass 200,000. That, for those keeping score, is an increase of about 28 per cent. Whether this makes it the fastest growing city in Britain or merely the second or the fourth – the vagueness of Britain’s boundaries means that different reports reach different conclusions – doesn’t really matter. This is a staggering rate of growth.

Oh, and since austerity kicked in, the city council has had its grant from central government cut by 80 percent.

Expansion on this scale and at this rate is the sort of thing that’d have a lot of councils in our NIMBY-ish political culture breaking out in hives; that seems to go double for Tory-run ones in Leave-voting areas. This lot, though, seem to be thriving on it. “I think the opportunity in Peterborough is fantastic,” says Dave Anderson, the city’s interim planning director. “We’re looking at growing to 235,000 by the mid-2030s.”

More striking still is that the Conservative council leader John Holdich agrees. “I’m a believer in ‘WIMBY’: what in my back yard?” he says. He’s responsible, he says, not just to his electorate, but “to our future kids, and grandkids” too – plus, at that rate of growth, a lot of incomers, too.

All this raises two questions. Why is Peterborough growing so quickly? And what can it do to prepare itself?

If you’re a little uncertain exactly where Peterborough is, don’t worry, you’re in good company. Until 1889, the “Soke of Peterborough” was an unlikely east-ward extrusion from Northamptonshire, far to its south west. Then it was a county in its own right; then part of the now-defunct Huntingdonshire. Today it’s in Cambridgeshire, with which it shares a metro mayor, the Conservative James Palmer. When I ask Holdich, who’s giving me a whistlestop tour of the city’s cathedral quarter, to explain all this, he just shrugs. “They keep moving us about.”

Sitting on the edge of the Fens, Peterborough is, officially, a part of the East of England region; but it’s just up the road from East Midlands cities including Leicester and Nottingham. I’d mentally pigeonholed it as a London-commuter town, albeit a far flung one; but when I actually looked it up, I was surprised to discover it was closer to Birmingham (70 miles) than London (75), and halfway up to Hull (81).


The more flattering interpretation of all this is that it’s on a bit of a crossroads: between capital and north, East Anglia and the Midlands. On the road network, that’s literally true – it’s where the A1 meets the A47, the main east-west road at this latitude – and railway lines extend in all directions, too.

All of which makes Peterborough a pretty nifty place to be if you’re, say, a large logistics firm.

This has clearly contributed to the city’s growth. “It has access to lots of land and cheaper labour than anywhere else in the Greater South East,” says Paul Swinney, director of policy at the Centre for Cities. “Those attributes appeal to land hungry, low-skilled business as opposed to higher-skilled more knowledge-based ones.”

That alone would point to a similar economy to a lot of northern cities – but there’s another thing driving Peterborough’s development. Despite being 70 miles from the capital, the East Coast Main Line means it’s well under an hour away by train.

In 1967, what’s more, the ancient cathedral city was designated a new town, to house London’s overspill population. The development corporation which owned the land and built the new town upon it, evolved into a development agency; today the same role is played by bodies like Opportunity Peterborough and the Peterborough Investment Partnership.

The city also offers relatively cheap housing: you can get a four-bed family home for not much over £200,000. That’s fuelled growth further as London-based workers scratch around for the increasingly tiny pool of places that are both commutable and affordable.

The housing affordability ratio shows average house prices as a multiple of average incomes. Peterborough is notably more affordable than Cambridge, London and the national average. Image: Centre for Cities data tool.

It’s made it attractive to service businesses, too. “London has probably played quite a big role in the city’s development,” says Swinney. “If you don’t want to move too far out, it’s probably one of the cheapest places to move to.”

The result of all this is that it has an unusually mixed economy. There’s light industry and logistics, in the office and warehouse parks that line the dual-carriageways (“parkways”) of the city. But there are also financial services and digital media companies moving in, bringing better paying jobs. In a country where most city economies are built on either high value services or land-hungry warehousing businesses, Peterborough has somehow managed to create a mixed economy.

Peterborough’s industrial profile: more services and less manufacturing, and more private and fewer public sector jobs, than the national average. Image: Centre for Cities.

At the moment, if people think of Peterborough at all, they’re likely to imagine a large town, rather than the fair-size regional city it’s on course to become. Its glorious 12th century cathedral – the hallmark of an ancient city, and at 44m still by far the highest spot on the horizon for miles around – is stunning. But it’s barely known to outsiders, and at least twice on my tour, the council’s communications officer proudly announces that the Telegraph named her patch as one of the best towns to live in within an hour of London, before adding, “even though we’re a city”. 

So part of the council’s current mission is to ensure that Peterborough has all the amenities people would expect from a settlement on this scale. “What the city needs to do is to adopt the mind-set of a slightly larger city,” says Anderson. Slightly smaller Swansea is developing a new music arena, of the sort Peterborough doesn’t have and needs. He frets, too, about retail spend “leaking” to Cambridge or Leicester. “Retail is now seen as a leisure activity: in the core of the city it’s important that offer is there.”

To that end, the early 1980s Queensgate shopping centre is being redeveloped, with John Lewis giving up a chunk of space to provide a new city centre cinema. (At present, the area only has road-side suburban multiplexes.) There’s major office, retail and housing development underway at North Westgate, as well as work to improve the walking route between the station and the commercial centre, in a similar manner to Coventry.

Fletton Quays. Image: Peterborough Investment Partnership.

Then there’s the city’s underused riverside. The council recently moved to new digs, in Fletton Quays, on the far bank of the River Nene from the centre. Across the river from the Embankment, the city centre’s largest green space, it’s a pretty lovely spot, of the sort where one might expect riverside pubs or restaurants with outdoor seating – but at the moment the space is largely empty. The Fletton Quays development will change all that, bringing more retail space and yes, new homes, too.

Jobs in Peterborough are unusually distributed around town: in many cities, most jobs are in the central business district. Image: Centre for Cities.

The big thing everyone agrees is missing, though, is a university. It already has the University Centre Peterborough, where degrees are provided by Anglia Ruskin University. The plan is for the site – a joint venture between ARU and Peterborough Regional College – to go its own way as an independent institution, the University of Peterborough, in autumn 2022. That should help provide the skills that the city needs to grow. A growing student population should also bring life and cash to the city centre. 

How big could Peterborough get? Could its enviable combination of good location and cheap housing and grand ambitions combine to make it the modern equivalent of Manchester or Liverpool – one of the great cities of the 21st century?

Well, probably not: “I think the optimum size for a city is probably about 250,000,” says Holdich. But that’s still a whole quarter bigger than now, and the council leader even discusses the possibility of refitting his dual-carriageway-based-city with some kind of light rail network to service that growing population. Peterborough’s not done growing yet.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.