We can’t see any progress…

Leaving aside the obvious temporary lull caused by the pandemic, we frequently come across people living in our district asking us why there has been no progress concerning more sustainable long-term public transport of the kind we have been advocating. There are several reasons for this and we hope to shed some lights in here.

Political landscape

The political landscape in West Oxfordshire is a complex one but let’s start from the top down. Our recently elected MP, unlike his predecessor, David Cameron, who even mentioned the need for a railway between Carterton/Witney and Oxford in his maiden speech, is at best lukewarm about the prospect of opening new railways. His approach has been consistent – as far as he is concerned most efforts should go in the development of the existing Cotswold line. The line serves tourists and London commuters without disturbing our pretty Cotswold villages. This is wholly inconsequential for the vast majority of West Oxfordshire’s population and for virtually all of those who will occupy the thousands of new houses being built in West Oxfordshire – all well to the south of the quaint little Cotswold line.

This leaves us with West Oxfordshire District Council. Developers are supposed to pay for the infrastructure their housing requires. They renege and WODC counts itself lucky if they pay enough for a roundabout, never mind a railway. So, there is little or no support in WODC for a railway. Some of the councillors are even of the opinion that it’s way better to stick to the current heavy traffic situation to dissuade people from moving into our area as if this had ever been a significant factor for people not moving into areas with marginally lower housing costs. Given a choice between spending a lot more for a house in Oxford and somewhere more affordable, such as Carterton, people put up with the longer commute and set off earlier. The A40 is often packed to a standstill by 6.30 in the morning and by 4.00 in the evening. 

At County level, the situation is more complex and more varied, but it is fair to say that the westward A40 corridor isn’t as significant from an economic perspective as the A34 north/south one, which is where the bulk of the resources is aimed.

Those new developments

Regardless of the political landscape or maybe because of it, more houses are being built in our district. Carterton is due to double in size and Witney to increase by probably another 40%. The proposed development of the euphemistically called ‘Garden village’ outside Eynsham will graft another 2000+ houses on a 530 acres site and though the WODC Area Action Plan mentions in passing additional traffic it’s rather vague in relation to its volume. Yet anyone who lives in our District is well aware that these days each house will have at least a car, if not even 2, so the rule of thumb potential for that development alone is for at least another 1500 car journeys daily. Meanwhile, further smaller developments are being built as we speak across the area, particularly next to small villages like Aston or Bampton, with even more demands on poorly maintained roads.

You don’t need to be a transport guru, therefore, to understand that with all these huge developments being planned demands on the existing infrastructure will be massive, even post-COVID with a greater emphasis on remote working and simply because the infrastructure was already at breaking point before the pandemic.

What to do?

The pandemic has made people suspicious of public transport. It has done nothing to slow the growth of huge new housing estates in West Oxfordshire, all designed for cars. Congestion on the A40 before the pandemic was intolerable. Post pandemic, it may be that car transport will become simply impractical. Of course, some people will be able to work from home, but this is a poor basis for a West Oxfordshire transport strategy. WOT is not against private cars, but private cars as part of a transport strategy that integrates private and public transport, including cycling, walking and bus. Rail is an absolutely essential part of this mix.

Ultimately, political opinion can be changed if there is demonstrable public support. So, our strategic approach is precisely that. While we may not be able to see a new rail built in the next five years, we can still make progress for the planning of new rail links and especially for the setting aside of the required land, protecting it from rapacious development. The future for rail, especially in semi-suburban areas like ours, has probably never been brighter.

A tale of two roundabouts

Almost simultaneously to the start of the Wolvercote Roundabout improvement works Swindon Borough Council started working on one of the town’s major roundabouts, the Greenbridge one.   To all intent and purpose it’s a very similar layout to the Wolvercote one, see picture, and the cost is more or less the same (£4m ca for Greenbridge and £9m for two roundabouts in Oxford).  

Greenbridge roundabout
Greenbridge roundabout plans

But there is a huge difference. If you travel into Swindon at rush hour you’d barely be affected by the works.  Lanes have been left open in all directions and repairs proceed at lightening speed.  As early as 7 am there will be workmen beavering away and progress is noticeable from one day to the next.

Try travelling at rush hour using Wolvercote roundabout… and as for work progress many people have taken the trouble to write to the Council and to the local papers describing the speed of work as an embarrassment.

Before you ask, both authorities are Tory led , so there is no difference in their political make up either.   When it comes to transport infrastructure we must be down at the bottom of the pile.  People often complain to us of how poorly maintained roads are once they get into Oxfordshire, as for buses and other public transport we all know well the kind of predicament we are in. 

Draw your own conclusions…

Had you heard of the Cotswold Necklace?

Ray Hall has been a member of WOT for a while and has a distinguished career in architecture and planning. You can read more about his career and experience on Ray’s website but in the meantime, Ray offered us his own pearls of wisdom, or rather, a Cotswold Necklace instead, and you can read more below. What matters most is that our District isn’t short of idea, but we desperately need the resources and the political will to make some of these long-term plans a reality.

Six years ago, my wife and I moved from our home of 38 years in southeast London to live in Witney, as a gateway to the Cotswolds. We were welcomed by many and now feel a precious sense of belonging in this very special place. For, which we are very grateful.

I led for 34 years a small Architecture, Planning and Interior Design practice based in southeast London. For ten years, we also had a property arm in Westminster, focused on rail related projects.

Soon after arriving in Witney, I began sitting attending Town Council meetings as a member of the public. My goal was to understand the issues being faced. It soon became apparent that population growth was a dominant concern, without the infrastructure needed to cope, quite apart from thrive. As a result, my own arrival was, in a sense, part of the problem now needing to be addressed.

It was not long before the then Mayor of Witney shared his deep concern that the special character of a town, loved by so many, could be undermined. He then said, ‘Ray, as a volunteer, can you help us?’ I was surprised, but pleased. I agreed on the basis that the ideas I tabled would be remain mine.

I then stepped back to see a much bigger picture. 

For, Witney is part of the Oxford City region that, in turn, is part of a ‘golden triangle’ with Cambridge and London. Together, they are a ‘powerhouse’ of innovation in the UK. Witney is also a rurally focused market town at the gateway to another region at the heart of England, the Cotswolds. It then became clear that a new relationship was now needed between those two seemingly conflicting contexts, identities and roles. The key missing component was a strategic approach to infrastructure and especially transport. I then asked many questions and talked with many people. The outcome was a substantial Discussion Paper dated 14.03.2016 that I presented to Witney Town Council. It was entitled “A new future for Witney and The Cotswolds”. As part of a bigger and more detailed picture, there were two core proposals:

  1. That the very evident investment interest in housing in the region is harnessed as part of one business plan; and
  1. That, at its heart, there must be a future-back-to-the-present infrastructure strategy, focused on transport and utilities, including green energy generation and recycling. 
Diagram of the Cotswold Necklace proposal

The drawing above hosts three diagram maps that summarize my overall masterplan. It was tabled before the Eynsham Garden Village was proposed, but anticipated substantial new villages north of the A40. 

Hanborough station would become a multi-modal transport hub, accessing a new eco-based rail line serving a region focused on Eynsham, Witney, Brize Norton and Carterton. With an opportunity to extend westward to a second transport hub near Swindon. I called it ‘A Cotswolds Necklace Line’.

New residential schemes would enable its delivery. Each would be local in character and green energy based. The rail line would be pivotal to a network of pedestrian, cycle and bus routes to minimize a dependency on cars, even when electrified. One goal was that the Lower Windrush Valley is accessible for recreational enjoyment by all ages and abilities from across the region. 

This strategy would then enable all of the existing towns, villages and hamlets to consolidate, free from the pressure of future development interest. There would also be long term clarity. For, other eco-villages could be added as the rail based ‘Cotswolds Necklace Line’ extends towards Swindon. Carterton would then become pivotal in the region, potentially as an energy + air-focused, innovation based counter magnet to Oxford, accessible into a national rail network.

As a sub-regional transport hub, Carterton could also have substantial park-and-ride provision off the A40 west of Witney. Clearly, locations such as Burford and Bampton would also be beneficiaries As can be seen, my goal then is a ‘Cotswolds Circle Line’. It would embrace a region that at the heart of a nation that has a challenging, as well as an exciting, future ahead. 

The direction of these proposals was formally welcomed by Witney Town Council. It has taken no further action.

A national, regional and local context is, however, now shaping that can could enable its’ themes to be explored further. As a result, through colleagues, there have been discussions with a credible rail operator, with the goal of being able to implement an eventual scheme. If it was possible, gaining a more detailed response locally and regionally could, therefore, be timely. For, it could help me discern whether and how to proceed further.

A journey to better transport

The editor of the Oxford Mail has recently added his voice to the chorus of concern on local transport when it was reported that the previous day it had taken commuters over three hours to reach Oxford from Witney.

For those who are commuting daily on that route the misery has only exacerbated due to a combination of crumbling infrastructure, roadworks around Oxford and simply increased traffic.  Matters will not improve substantially either by simply extending a junction or adding a new lane here and there.  Oxfordshire, and West Oxfordshire in particular, has been starved of real investments for far too long.

Council planners had identified potential problems way back in 2001, yet thirteen years later we are still waiting for a solution. It has now become an emergency.

Quick fix risk

The risk now is that officials may be tempted to rush into a quick fix, throwing a few millions here and there, not enough for a well planned long term solution, but just sufficient for palliative measures.  We cannot afford to go down that road.  We don’t need a sticky plaster, but a robust and future proof transport infrastructure project.

While we have always advocated an agnostic approach to transport modes we cannot remain silent when we see that things are heading in the wrong direction.  There are non negotiable elements to any transport plans for our region and these are:

  • Reliability and proven track record
  • Sustainability
  • Integration with other transport modes
  • Low visual impact
  • Proven ROI over a medium/long term period

The next few months will be crucial.  Expect a flurry of interest especially as we approach general elections.  Expect some harebrained proposals too, as the smell of big money will inevitably attract unscrupulous entrepreneurs.  If you feel strongly about what we stand for join us so that we can have an even louder voice on the decision making process.

On the futility of dualling roads

More road building?

At long last our politicians have awaken to one of the major problems affecting our District: there can be no further economic development around Witney/Carterton unless something is done to alleviate congestion on the A40 to to Oxford.

In between the totally insane (like providing monorails or cable cars) there has been some decent debate too, but it’s disappointing to hear that our own MP has come out in favour of ‘dualling the A40’. (Note that in his maiden speech in 2001 Mr Cameron said “I will always support moves to examine reopening our railway to Oxford and extending the line to Carterton…”)

You don’t need to be a transport engineer to understand that even if you quadrupled the A40 you would only just get to the Wolvercote roundabout and then abruptly stopped there.  Any solution, no matter which, is only as good as its weakest link.  In the case of transport in and around Oxford the city itself is that weakest link.  Whether because of historical neglect or bad planning – there is no time to discuss this matter in such a short blog – you can’t easily drive through the city of Oxford, in fact not even around it. So what would be the point of attracting even more car traffic to it (as this is what dualling roads create, by the way)?

No, what we really need and deserve is something much more intelligent and cost-effective.  We don’t need a bigger road, we need an alternative.  We need to offer people the ability to commute knowing that their journey will take a set amount of time, every day and regardless of weather or anything else, except real force majeure.  We need to enable people to reach the main hospital on time for their appointment and without having to park there. We need to be able to connect with the rest of the country. We can achieve these many goals through fast and efficient public transport, but not of the kind that has to share the same space with cars as this would be pointless.

A few weeks ago we met up with representatives of the CPRE.  One of them, a retired architect, had spent some time planning a number of alternative tram/trains routes joining the Cotswold line from the north of Eynsham with a number of ‘hubs’, or convergence points, where commuters from neighbouring villages would drop their cars or get off local buses, or bikes, and jump on the tram/train to Oxford and beyond.  This is the kind of solution we need (but extended to Carterton of course).  A solution that encompasses multi modal transport, not just a single one.  For those who live in rural areas cars are still essential, but they should not be used to reach congested urban areas.

So the argument for dualling the A40 is a specious one.  We have no time here to discuss evidence, cost benefits and so on  though in the short span WOT has existed we have already amassed a vast amount amount of information.  All we need now is the support of the people of our District and to get a few heads around the table, with an independent study aimed at joining up the dots, as well as using new evidence to back up our argument.  This is what we at WOT are now fighting to achieve.  As we say in our publicity – doing nothing is not an option.

This blog was written and edited by Maurizio Fantato and it therefore expresses his own views and not necessarily the official ones of WOT