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.

Unanswered questions

Robert Courts must have received an avalanche of letters from constituents impressed with the huge benefits the revamped Bicester to Oxford rail link has generated. Nonetheless, he now declares that “Rail may not be the answer to A40 chaos” (Witney Gazette, 14 February).

Some of his assertions are based on inaccurate premises. Reopening of the old railway line from Oxford to Witney is a non-starter. It was built to transport agricultural produce, not commuters, so the old track reflected the economic needs of 150 years ago. A new route is needed instead, one that joins Cowley to Oxford and Witney and beyond, linking with the proposed park and ride along the way and providing transport interchanges for those who use cars, buses and bikes. We envisage an integrated transport system to serve the whole district, not simply tinkering with the A40.

Much was made of ‘evidence’. For a clear example of the very rapid economic benefits that the reopening of a railway line brings one can look at Scotland, at the Border extension in particular. A year 1 report estimated that there were 40,000 fewer car journeys with improved access to job markets, greater tourist influx and overall beneficial effects to the local economy and to the environment. As for commuter satisfaction you don’t have to go as far as Scotland, just look at the revamped Oxford to Bicester line.

When representatives of Witney Oxford Transport Group met Mr Courts last August, we supplied him with detailed plans of our proposal, supported by an imaginative private/public funding scheme. We presented him with an integrated vision of a regional transport system that was not circumscribed by problems faced by cars on the A40. Mr Courts promised a considered response. Six months later we are still waiting for his response. Now it seems that he never did have the interest and imagination to see any further than the traffic jam on the A40.

Dismissing a rail link will continue to cripple the local economy of West Oxfordshire, turning large parts of our district into unattractive dormitory towns where the only possible transport mode is the car, and generating more traffic, more pollution and increased misery. Try harder, Mr Courts.

If you would like to follow this conversation online you can join our Facebook page.

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.