Alice in WonderlandAnother major road is about to be closed in Oxfordshire.  This time the plan is to close Steventon High Street for 10 months while the charming Victorian brickwork is  replaced with a generic modernist eyesore.   The closure will bring enormous hardship to local people and businesses, harm that could be mitigated by sensible planning and coordination.

Yet, instead of reopening a disused slip-road of the A34 to relieve the pressure; Oxfordshire County Council and the Highways Agency will be undertaking major works on the Milton Interchange resulting in greater traffic disruption in the area.

Instead of installing a wider bridge to allow the installation of another set of tracks to help increase capacity on the Great Western line; Network Rail will put in a structure that will house one up and one down line.

This second point has got me particularly riled.  While a traffic nightmare is being played out across the county to accommodate improvements to the railway, the Vale of White Horse District Council is consulting on its Local Plan to 2031.  You’ll have to bear with me while I explain the background to the Local Plan before I tell you why this railway bridge is so important.

As has been extensively reported, the plan commits the Vale to build enormous numbers of houses in the next 15 years, primarily around existing towns such as Faringdon, Wantage, Grove and Didcot.  I am extremely grateful to Wantage and Grove Campaign Group for their briefing which walked us through the disaster that led to this building strategy.

The housing figures arise as a result of the Local Enterprise Partnership projection that there will be 23,000 new jobs created in the Vale by 2031.  This is a hugely optimistic figure which appears to contain a good amount of double counting as well as assuming consistent economic growth through that period.  Essentially this figure was produced to attract government funding to the area, so understandably those producing the paper were inclined to present the rosiest possible figures.   Wantage and Grove Campaign Group’s analysis shows that even the baselines are more optimistic than government figures, and are we really sure that everyone that takes a job in the Vale is going to live in the Vale?

From this extraordinary prediction of jobs, comes the Strategic Housing Market Association prediction of the need for 20,560 new homes in the Vale.  So firstly we don’t think all these jobs will be there.  Secondly it is unlikely that the demand for housing will be a straight-line conversion from the number of jobs.  Thirdly the prediction requires building at a rate of 1500 a year, when the number of homes completed at the height of the boom was 570.   The homes are therefore unlikely to be built in any case

Nevertheless, based on these figures, VOWHDC have produced their plan to deliver 20,560 homes.  It involves a lot of land being designated for housing.  That in itself will create huge tension and dissatisfaction within communities asked to accept this additional housing.  Given that the housing is unlikely to be actually needed, some of these sites will remain designated and with planning permission, but without houses on them.   Adjacent homes will be blighted by the threat of living next to a building site for years.  Or perhaps the government will continue to subsidise people to buy the houses, artificially supporting prices?

More important than the land designated for housing is the lack of land designated for employment.  Because of this extraordinary demand for housing land, there is little space left for jobs and so many towns are expected to become dormitories for the science parks or cities that workers will travel to.

And this brings me back to the railway bridge.  Traffic between Wantage, Grove and Didcot is already gridlocked most mornings and evenings.  Even without OCC’s never-ending road works, getting to work by car in Oxfordshire is a trial by endurance on most days.  The additional housing being planned by VOWHDC comes without adequate provision for improvements to roads (particularly the A417) and more scandalously does not have specific plans to deliver a rail service between Grove, Milton and Didcot.

Of course, the railway already runs along this route, but it is a designated 125mph line and Network Rail have refused to allow stopping trains to use it.  On that basis, while the electrification works progress, the canny folks at Network Rail have conspired to install a new bridge at Steventon that (while not entirely preventing it) does not allow for the capacity to accommodate a second set of tracks that could run a decent stopping service.  Network Rail get to preserve the status quo, and motorists are left suffering the short-term closure and the lack of a long-term alternative.

Without trains, the extra 5,500 homes that will be built around Wantage and Grove will house people working in the science parks at Milton and Harwell who must primarily drive to work.

THIS IS MADNESS!!

Even if the homes don’t get built on the scale we expect, the A417 is already full to capacity.  We have a railway that runs the same route and with some investment could provide the transport solutions we need in this part of the County.  It is not good enough to say that it would disrupt Network Rail’s timetabling.

If the Vale and OCC honestly believe their own jobs and housing projections, they should be investing, and forcing Network Rail to invest, in providing the capacity to accommodate those extra people.

By failing to do so at Steventon we can only assume that they either (a) don’t believe their own numbers or (b) lack the political will to stand up for the people living in these communities and help deliver a future that does not involve sitting in traffic for 3 hours a day.

Either way we need better planning from our District representatives.

This Local Plan is a jaunt into a world of make-believe where the only sobering reality is gridlock.

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HuntingOn a glorious Autumn Saturday I ventured out into the  countryside on my push-bike.

After an hour of peaceful pedaling in the low-lit, leafy lanes, I started gaining on a well turned-out gentleman trotting merrily on a skimming-stone grey mount.  He tipped his cap as we went past.  That, I thought, is a rare treat.  Cyclists get used to beeped horns, revved engines and if we are really lucky a cowardly flick of the Vs and a dopplerised tirade about road tax.  Here was a gent so pleased to see us he wanted to celebrate.  Tally ho!, I thought, and quickly realised that he was thinking the same.  Up ahead was a gathering of men and women on horseback that was so enormous it could have been a cavalry regiment; but so distinctly smelling of fortified wine that it could only be the hunt.

We rode past to much exchanging of bemused looks about our respective choices of leisure pursuit –  lycra and legwork versus hounds and horsepower.  Fortunately no-one was undignified enough to break the curious harmony of the scene by pointing out that only one of us was going to commit a crime that day.

At the end of a week in which a ground-breaking report had proven that harsh drug laws did not reduce levels of illegal drug use, here in the Oxfordshire lanes was another example of legislation failing.  Another instance of Westminster’s authoritarian arrows missing their target.

As we pedaled on, (and I was left in the wake of the speedsters) I had a chance to ponder whether we are too keen to make too many of our citizens into criminals to achieve a wide range of objectives.

Let’s acknowledge first that drug use is a more nuanced subject than hunting in terms of its treatment by the criminal law.

However the subjects do share one philosophical question – are inflicting harm on yourself through drugs and allowing dogs to inflict a harm on foxes through hunting ‘harms’ that the state should criminalise?

On drugs, my view is that users are not necessarily criminals.  Any legislation governing users should be targeted at addressing their problem with a clear emphasis on breaking addiction and improving outcomes in terms of health, social problems and criminal activity.  The focus should be on treatment and rehabilitation.

The international evidence published last week is that legislation that tries to crimnalise users, or create a deterrent does not produce the desired result – it does not reduce the harm.

When faced with that evidence, MPs should look again at the issue.  If treatment through substitution, drug consumption rooms, dissuasion commissions reduces usage faster and saves lives, let’s go for it.   Better laws could reduce drug use more quickly, stop money falling into the hands of gangs and could take an unnecessary burden off our criminal justice system.

To refuse to  liberalise drugs laws on the basis of a belief that tough sentences send the ‘right message’, is authoritarian nonsense that belongs in the same historical dustbin as the workhouse and the gallows.

Unfortunately the huntsmen of Oxfordshire don’t have the excuse of addiction (apart, possibly to port and cake) for their crimes.  Yet in contrast to drug users, hunters know there will be no enforcement – probably because the inhumane disposal of a fox is not considered by police or the landowners affected to be something that it is worth expending their budget and efforts to prevent.  Interestingly our local force just invested in a Land Rover specifically to target hare coursing, but not to pursue hunts.

That sort of inconsistency makes the issue even more fraught.  However, while I think we should be moving towards a position where hunting with dogs is a not a quintessential part of our rural fabric, I don’t think that trying to enforce the ban and attempting to impose criminal sanctions is the right approach.

For all the heat generated around the legislation (now a decade old), everyone engaged in the issue must surely accept that the ban doesn’t work.  How ironic that the law that indirectly attempts to govern the activity of thoroughbred equine specimens has turned out to be an ass.  There is even some evidence of an increase in participation since the ban came into effect.

If MPs want to end hunting with dogs, like reducing the levels of drugs in our communities, they will have the majority of the UK behind them.

However, a sensible approach is to look at solutions that can encourage individuals that do or might in the future engage in hunting and drug-taking to move away from the practice, rather than trying to enforce a ban.   Why not spend more time educating children in rural areas on animal welfare rather than chasing people in land rovers or ignoring the ban altogether?

Drugs policy and hunting are very different subjects that require different responses.  But in my view neither drug takers nor huntsmen should necessarily be correctly characterised as criminals.  In both policy areas, authoritarian solutions have failed to achieve the desired outcome.  A better approach would be to move away from the blunt tools of criminal law and look at more constructive ways to address our problems.  Both examples show that making something illegal doesn’t stop it happening.

 

 

 

Soccer FaceplantLike a moth drawn to the flames of a candle when the clear bright moon beckons, some things can not help themselves.  So it is with the European Commission.

On a day when the European Union should have been celebrating a strong package for emissions reductions and renewable energy to 2030, the headlines were stolen by a botched, bean-counter’s Brit bash.   A day to prove the value and ambition of the EU working together to combat global problems turned into a day to suggest that the European Commission is so detached from reality we would be better (and richer) off without it.

First the good news.  Thanks to some hard bargaining from our Energy Secretary Ed Davey, the EU has committed to a cut in greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, an EU-wide binding target for renewable energy of at least 27% and an indicative energy efficiency target of at least 27%. It’s not revolutionary, but it’s a deal that has taken two years to negotiate and it will help us continue to take action on climate change without becoming uncompetitive.  It’s a also deal that will put down the marker for other big economies when a global deal is thrashed out next year.   Perhaps most importantly, it’s a deal that shows Europe at its best: cooperative, progressive, green and with a long term agenda.

And yet, and yet, and yet.  At the same time as the UK led the EU council of ministers to a bold climate deal, the unelected technocrats at the European Commission were undermining the very participation of the UK in Europe.

Denuded of even the slightest political camoflague, the bare stupidity of the £1.7bn bill from the Commission to the UK was paraded across TV, radio and internet all day.  The Commission refused to put forward spokesmen because to them, it’s all so simple.   Forget the fact that disengagement from the Brussels machine is endemic across Europe, ignore the increasing clamour within Britain for withdrawal, forget the austerity gripping the continent:

Computer says £1.7bn.

Unfortunately the demand is an outrageously crass, unnecessary mistake.  Who has not been at a restaurant and fallen out (politely of course) over contributions to a split bill?   If someone’s short you come to a deal.  The EU budget back is hardly like a rogue bottle of wine and a couple of undesignated tiramisu.   Financial requests for multiple hundreds of millions at an EU level should be handled through careful negotiation before anyone actually starts demanding money.

Unfortunately, this is the second time in a week that the Commission has been cast as the enforcer of rules that the UK must obey. On the first rule – immigration – I have sympathy for the view that free movement of labour is in our long term interest, but the Commission’s tone is starting to grate.  On the idea that the UK should pay in a 20% levy to account for our stronger economy, the Commission must go back to the drawing board.

But while some will ponder the rights and wrongs of these dictats, those with less time will be coming to the logical conclusion that the EU is a money-sink that cares less for the UK than we do for them.

Such a cliche is mildly amusing when pedaled by a demagogic mouthpiece in tweed.  When it is backed up by the actions of the Commission itself, it becomes a serious danger to Britain’s national interest.

I believe that our future lies as a strong voice within the EU, fighting for strong trans-national deals on free trade, combating international crime and (as we have seen today) leading the way on the fight against climate change.

But when Brussels face plants so spectacularly as it has this week, you have to wonder whether the Commission is an institution that really wants to save itself.

Paterson’s Great Guff

Cabinet Meeting at Downing St, London, Britain - 24 June 2014Owen Paterson’s speech to the Global Warming Policy Foundation last night was depressingly poor.   If it hadn’t been trailed so heavily in the press, I would have thought he had made it up on the spot.  In fact, Twitter revealed it was written by his brother-in-law Matt Ridley, the climate sceptic journalist (who also happens to be Lord Lawson (Chairman of GWPF)’s nephew).  So I guess it was always going to be guff.

The idea that this sort of waffle passes as a useful intervention in the energy and climate debate is extremely depressing.  That it comes from someone who used to be Environment Secretary is frankly terrifying.

Paterson’s ‘big ideas’ were to remove the Climate Change Act and adopt four ‘pillars of energy policy’.  Those are: shale gas, combined heat and power, small modular nuclear reactors and demand management.

Why is this complete crap?  Firstly, the Climate Change Act does not dictate how the UK reduces emissions, it simply sets the legally binding target.  Therefore all of Paterson’s ideas could theoretically be explored with the Climate Change Act in place.  The championing of its removal is a completely pointless addition to the speech, except as another morsel of red meat to the Tory right chewing merrily on their policy to abolish the Human Rights Act.

More fundamentally, with even the most basic understanding of the energy system Paterson would have grasped that the UK would be completely screwed if we tried to stand on Paterson’s four pillars.   The UK system is built on a mixture of established technologies that will continue to provide the bulk of our energy, with an increasing shift towards greater reliance on low-carbon generation.

Paterson makes no reference to this mix.  Instead he rubbishes renewables and suggests we put all our efforts into four ideas. But there are problems:

Domestic shale gas is not an established source of fuel in the UK yet.  The government has committed to further exploration, but we simply don’t know how much is there and how much we can get out.  It may take a decade to make shale an important part of our energy mix.

Similarly, small scale nuclear is not a viable option.  There is some money going in to research, but the technology is not proven so should not be considered part of the solution to our energy needs at this stage.  It may be fifty years or more before it could become a ‘pillar’ of energy policy.

Thirdly CHP, is an attractive option but is extremely expensive and disruptive to build close to the facilities that can benefit from the heat before it evaporates.  Certainly something to explore and promote in specific places where it can work (and the example of hospitals is a reasonable one), but a ‘pillar’ of the whole system? I think not.

Finally, demand management is already a central part of the government’s agenda and a no-brainer from anyone’s perspective.  To present it as a big idea is laughable.  Even more curious is this libertarian’s suggestion that the grid can step in and turn your fridge off for twenty minutes.  I can see the Daily Mail headlines already – ‘Nanny State Cuts Power in Attack on Great British Groceries’.

Before, beneath and between these ‘ideas’ Paterson’s speech was a rant about wind farms, the EU and the coalition.  There is no specific mention of immigration, but if I had another read, I suspect I could find covert references to shutting the borders to the invading hordes.   In short this is a long way from a serious contribution to the energy policy debate.  Instead it is dog-whistle messaging to seduce the Tory right-wingers who would otherwise be heading back down the mines with Nigel Farage and UKIP.

We have consistently seen the Global Warming Policy Foundation produce dodgy science from questionable sources to try and dogmatically promote their climate sceptic cause.  They are well funded by the fossil fuel lobby and their agenda chimes with those looking nostagically for simple answers to our country’s energy challenges.  They are almost always in contradiction to mainstream scientific thought and are regularly forced to correct or apologise for their consistent stream of misinformation.

So if there is a positive to take away from having wasted thirty minutes of your life listening to Owen Paterson parroting a few tired lines about wind turbines it is this: when the GWPF have to resort to hosting half-baked speeches written by members of Lord Lawson’s family there must be some hope that they might just be running out of material.

Here’s hoping.

UKIP has its first MP and looks set to get more.  This is good news for our democracy for a number of reasons.  I’ve set out my top five:

1.  UKIP is consistently polling around 20% and won the largest share of the vote in the most recent national election (the Euros).  A party with that level of support should have some say in our formal national politics.  It will also make them one of the ‘Westminster Parties’ so a welcome change in rhetoric should be forthcoming.

2.  UKIP is attracting many people who have not been engaged in politics before and/or have not voted before.  Bringing more people into the national conversation about our future is an unequivocally good thing.  I may not agree with what they are saying, but that makes for a more engaging debate and a healthier democracy.  The dangers lie for those who are not comfortable engaging in the debate directly.

3.  UKIP will shake up the mainstream.  Both Labour and the Conservatives lost touch with their ‘core vote’ a long time ago.    Neither the policies, nor the personalities were designed to suit, in Labour’s case, a white working class vote becoming detached from mainstream society or,  in the Tories’ case, the Eurosceptic social conservatives alienated by modernity.  These groups now have a party to take their strangely similar agenda on Europe and immigration forward.   Either Labour and the Conservatives move their policies to reengage, or admit that they can not deliver for these demographics and suffer the electoral consequences.  Both will claim they have done the former.  In doing so they risk splitting from centre-leaning voters and ‘core voters’ may still take UKIP in any case.

4.  UKIP is reminding the other parties that politics can be as much about people as policies.  Even those that find his views uncomfortable would accept that Farage has been by far the most successful leader in British politics over the past twelve months (particularly since Salmond’s train hit the buffers), repeatedly exceeding expectations and confounding critics.  Carswell’s win in Clacton was credited to his personality and record as a local MP as much as the colour of his rosette.    These two are by no means anti-establishment characters, but they are plausible and persuasive personalities and that’s enough to win votes.  Watching Patrick O’Flynn sneering on Question Time last week made me wonder if a few charmless mugs might yet hinder UKIP’s rise.

5.  Long-term, a strong UKIP performance with pressure from Lib Dems, SNP, Plaid and Greens will eventually kill first past the post.  It is one thing for one party to poll 23% and get 8% of MPs, but for three or four parties to be locked out of the national parliament by geographical spread of votes is surely not sustainable.   We need a parliament that represents our views as a nation – that requires a proportional system of some sort.  Perhaps AV was the wrong system poorly explained, but if UKIP perform as well as expected in 2015 the case for electoral reform will never be stronger.   If they help bring about that reform, it will be, perhaps, UKIP’s most valuable gift to our democracy.

History tells us that nationalism can be a positive part of the democratic mix when it’s an insurgent force; it’s when it takes power that you need to worry.

Those that disagree with UKIP’s simplistic politics of blame and isolationist agenda on Europe need to vote to ensure that nationalism stays a long way from the UK government.  At the same time let’s recognise the positive impacts of UKIP’s arrival on the main stage for our democracy.

I know I’m in a minority of people who watch political speeches and amongst an even smaller number who get inspired by them.  To admit to being impressed by Nick Clegg puts me in a very narrow niche indeed.

But despite being a little weary of the Glasgow conference I thoroughly enjoyed the leader’s speech.

Clegg was clear, thoughtful and passionate.  He set out a vision of liberalism that was, to me at least, plausible and persuasive.  Ideas like waiting targets for mental health patients show that the party still has the ability to lead on important issues that would otherwise be crowded out.   This is the radical edge that has been so difficult to detect through the straightjacket of coalition.  Here it was again – absolutely brilliant policy and sharp enough to cut through in the media.

It was also great to see there was ample room for the repeated commitment to the five green laws that we’ll have in the manifesto.  This is a key part of the Lib Dem agenda that does not always get high enough billing.  Here it was rightly ranking alongside a tax pledge and the arms race on NHS spending.

All the core strands of Lib Dem DNA were there – fighting to protect civil liberties, education and opportunity for the many not the few, tax cuts for low earners paid for by those that can afford to pay a little more.  Internationalist in foreign affairs and committed to wholesale and extensive devolution of powers from Whitehall on the domestic front.  Fiscal responsibility with a social conscience.

There is increasing room for a rational, reformist, centre-ground agenda in British politics.  Here was a leader pitching that liberal vision for the next election with energy and determination.  It was the best speech I’ve seen from him.

I received the news of the Scottish ‘No’ to independence on NRJ, the French pop radio station.  A scheduled news bulletin announcing that the painful divorce I had hoped that Scots would reject, sandwiched symbolically between bursts of Ed Sheeran and Emile Sande.
Any pangs of disappointment at being on holiday for a monumental constitutional moment at home were tempered by the knowledge that (a) I had no say in the matter and (b) I’d had a complete guts full of divisive nationalist rhetoric.

Now we have the result what have we learned?

Here are my take-aways:

1. Referenda should not be played out over 18 months.  Putin was a bit punchy with the one week Crimea heist, but stringing out a decision like this does not help the electorate get to the absolute truth, but does allow the arguments to become very bitter.  The prospect of a 2 year build-up to a Euro referendum under a Tory government fills me with dread.

2. Nationalism presented with charisma is as seductive as ever.  Throughout history talented leaders have convinced millions of people that simply by dividing people on national lines, pedaling the politics of them and us, they can make the world a better place for the chosen few.  In a time of austerity it’s even more tempting to close ranks and look for someone to blame and Salmond (and Farage) make simple arguments that resonate.

3.  We need a better solution for the British constitution.  Federalism has been Lib Dem policy for many years, ‘home rule’ has been on our agenda since the 1880s.  These concepts are now getting traction in the mainstream and we should seize the moment to deliver a properly devolved federal constitution.  Devo-max can progress immediately, but in the long-term only by addressing the fundamental problem of over-centralisation through a federalist constitutional settlement will the nationalist fox be well and truly shot.

4.  Labour is losing its grip of Scotland.  It may not play out fully in one general election, but hundreds of thousands of traditional Labour voters are happy to vote nationalist which may have a long-term impact on Labour’s ability to gain a majority.  Although it was (on paper) a single issue referendum, the Yes campaign played heavily on the potential for an independent Scotland to deliver a government consistently to the left of the current Labour party.  Many voters clearly rejected Labour in favour of a more socialist flavour and they may do so again in a general election.

5.  People care about politics.  It has been fashionable to think that people are too apathetic to give time to politics.  The referendum has turned that on its head bringing people out on the streets campaigning for what they believe in and to persuade others to support their cause.  That is politics at its best and it shows that if we ask important questions the public can be energised by politics.  We now need to find a way to harness that energy for unifying and progressive goals, rather than waiting for the jeopardy of a referendum.

A417 Faringdon Public Meeting 5

I opened the meeting by handing over the petition against the closure with over 1000 signatures

The petition against the closure of the A417 (with over 1000 signatures) was presented to Oxfordshire County Council at a packed public meeting on 22nd July.  A very constructive discussion followed.

In particular, some important new details came to light:

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NR Director Robbie Burns took the audience through the reasons for the closure

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A slide summarised the reasons why a temporary bridge would not be offered for Challow

– a second road bridge at Challow would cost £1.4m more than the closure solution, for which Network Rail does not have funding sanctioned by its regulator.  To challenge this we need to address the Office of Rail Regulation who set NR’s budget;

– NR recognised the additional burden in terms of petrol costs (in particular) being placed on local people’s shoulders (a figure of £7m was suggested).  Again they suggested we take this up with ORR or national politicians who have decided that the works should go ahead and not agreed funding for a suitable compensation package;

– NR would not have agreed to a new bridge at Grove if it had the information on cost and impact to programme it has now;

– cyclists will be able to cross the replacement pedestrian Challow bridge as well as pedestrians;

– there will be no other scheduled maintenance work by OCC on the diversion routes during the diversion (this does not mean utilities won’t be working);

– due to the sequencing of the works more manpower won’t speed up the programme, though they are considering increasing evening/weekend working if it is shown to save time.  Closing the railway for longer is not an option.

– Road closure signs will have emergency Network Rail numbers to call in the event of a problem on one of the diversions.

– Diversionary routes (even the optional ones) will be gritted.

There were also two new ideas/offers:

– NR will pay for a bus  to transport people from either side of the closure to the other side (to be reviewed if it is not utilised);

– the NR Director will meet residents and the Councillor for Kingston Lisle to drive the ‘optional’ diversionary one-way system and establish what improvements can be made to the scheme.

There remain some gaps in our understanding:

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Preserving school bus routes was raised as a major issue, as yet unresolved.

– Oxfordshire County Council did not give full responses on the provision to be made for school buses, and in particular SEN transport.  We await more information from the school bus companies/OCC when plans are finalised for the new term;

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A resident of Kingston Lisle describes the issues facing the village

–  it was not clear when and why the Kingston Lisle and Denchworth ‘optional’ aspects of the diversion scheme would be brought into action.  It just seems that OCC will make a call if the traffic in these areas gets ‘really bad’.

– a pledge from OCC to fill pot-holes and clear drainage ditches on diversion routes before the closure happens was offered in quite a half-hearted manner, suggesting that the amount of work considered necessary by residents may not be undertaken in time for the diversion.

Credit goes to Network Rail who brought the right people to answer the questions, including Robbie Burns, the regional Director and Faringdon resident, and a representative from Murphy (the contractor) to explain the technical detail of the bridge works.

One of the most important outcomes from the meeting was the realisation on the part of Network Rail that this was the sort of meeting that they should have proposed in the first place (and a long time ago).  NR felt that the opportunity to set out their plans in detail and take questions was extremely valuable.  They intend to adopt this approach to bridges further down the line. They appreciated the opportunity to engage with the public.

We hope that as a result of the petition and the turn-out at the meeting, Oxfordshire County Council feel the same, and that they will take the initiative to engage with the public in Steventon on their planned closure.  It’s regrettable that the initial feedback from Councillors has not been positive with comments they made during and after the meeting attracting complaints and causing offence to meeting participants.  These will be taken up directly.

Though this leaves a sour taste, I am determined to stay positive.   Receipt of the petition has been acknowledged and we await a formal reponse from the Council.  I will therefore close the petition, and send a final update once we have the that response.

Many thanks to everyone that supported the petition and the meeting.  We may not have the solution we want, but I hope we have moved the discussion forward in a constructive way and gained some important insights and concessions.

If you have any further questions that you would like me to take up with OCC or NR on this issue, please don’t hesitate to email me on: alex@brightgreendragon.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A417 Petition PicNetwork Rail has released its formal application for closure of the A417. The NR proposal raises a number of important questions:

1. The closure is scheduled for 6th September for ‘approximately 4 months’. The lack of certainty is ominous – how confident are Network Rail that they can complete the works within the four months (which already seems excessive)?

2. The diversion plans show (as expected) that the main diversion will be via the A420/A415/A338. These roads are already overcrowded and jammed at peak times. The A338 will be dealing with the upgrades to its bridge at the same time so welcoming up to 7000 additional vehicles will be a huge challenge for those using the road.

3. There is a one-way ‘mitigation option’ through Kingston Lisle, but it is not clear when/if it will be brought into action (described as ‘if required’). This idea appears to have been drawn on a map with a felt-tip, so one wonders how much consideration this plan has actually received.

4. Denchworth is marked as ‘Access Only’ but again it is hard to tell whether there will be a serious attempt to protect small villages with single track roads from the inevitable attempts to cut through in both directions.

It is ridiculous that we have been put in this position – Network Rail has had 5 years to come up with a way to upgrade the bridge without closing the road. The idea that the ‘only viable option’ is a 4 month complete closure is unconvincing. Also the idea that this work will be completed on schedule through the winter seems unlikely to me. On a procedural level I am also disappointed by the apparent way that OCC officers cut a deal with NR to close this bridge in exchange for a new bridge on the A338.

The public meeting at 7pm on 22nd July at Faringdon Corn Exchange has been called to give everyone a chance to discuss the proposal, get more detail on the mitigation solution and to give their views as to whether OCC should approve the application. This should be a ‘consultation’ after all!

A Senior Programme Manager from Network Rail will be there, along with the OCC Cabinet Member for Transport. I will take the opportunity to present our petition against the closure. We now have nearly 900 signatures, which is fantastic – thank you for your support. If we can raise 1000 by the time of the meeting that would be even more compelling.

The public meeting is the last chance to put forward your views on this road closure with all key stakeholders present. Please do come to the meeting and make sure your views on this closure are heard.

A417 Meeting 7pm 22 July 2014

I’m no Michael Portillo, but it’s fair to say that I have a massive soft spot for trains.  The civilised, efficient service that we enjoy in most parts of the country most of the time is by far my first choice to get from A to B.   Also living in Oxfordshire, with my parents being in Wales, and my mother-in-law in Cornwall the vast majority of my rail trips are on the Great Western lines.

I have no reason to doubt that the electrification of the Great Western line will bring a more reliable and quicker service to those areas.

However, that does not mean that I, or anyone else, should let Network Rail have the run of the countryside in carrying out their upgrade works.  The potential impact of the bridge closures in Oxfordshire (and I dare say further down the line once the works begin) will be dramatic.

For communities like Faringdon in rural Oxfordshire there is no plausible alternative to car travel.  Even people like me who love trains remain reliant on cars, since we have no station and very limited bus services.   The increased flexibility and reliability of car travel have allowed more people to feel comfortable living further away from jobs and services.  It has also allowed people who can’t find work locally to travel to take up jobs they might not otherwise have.  Therefore if a main road is suddenly closed, the impact is huge.

20140604_084432The proposal to close the A417 between Wantage and Faringdon for 4 months in the run-up to Christmas will have a dramatic effect on local people’s lives.  Extra petrol costs and extra childcare costs will make it even harder for working people, already struggling to make ends meet, while late arrival at work and home for months will put strain on employment and family relationships.

Cuts in home visits by carers or relatives who can’t get around as easily, and major difficulties for emergency services caused by a closure like this could result in increased suffering for the most vulnerable.

The economic impact on the businesses in the communities along the A417, as well as the inevitable reductions in visits to Faringdon and Wantage town centres, will be significant.

Therefore while I support the electrification of the Great Western line, Network Rail and Oxfordshire County Council must fund adequate replacement bridges to keep our rural roads and economies open.  6000 vehicle journeys on the A417 are not just travelling for fun – a 4 month closure will be a body-blow to the local area and will cause misery in surrounding villages who will suffer the worst effects of a diversion.

What is perhaps most disappointing about the situation is that neither Network Rail nor OCC have made any attempt to engage with the communities affected before notifying the press of their decision.  A consultation would have helped residents understand the issues and might have resulted in a less adversarial outcome.  Moreover, OCC’s website setting out the process to apply for a temporary road closure makes it clear:  It is in the public interest that we must process your application before it can be granted.

That application includes a consultation obligation, and therefore one wonders whether the way in which OCC has pre-approved Network Rail’s application may prejudice the application and make it legally unsound?

The decision by OCC to approve the closure of the A417, rather than force Network Rail to build a second bridge, is procedurally flawed and substantively barmy given the negative impact on the local economy.

The good news is that the petition against the decision is gathering strength, and local media are showing a keen interest in the issue. A417 BBCSouth Pic

Bad decisions have consequences, and the consequences for our community are too grave to allow the closure of the A417 to pass without a fight.  Until OCC do a deal with Network Rail that keeps the A417 open, we’ll keep fighting.