UK town centres face shake-up after private transport clampdown

Copyright: David Lawson - September 1999

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UK Town centres face the biggest shake-up in living memory as the government takes a direct role in shaping the future of Britain's transport systems. And not before time, according to many observers.

A fundamental reason behind the flight of retailers and employers to greenfield malls and office parks has been the inevitable congestion and pollution produced by soaring car ownership and economic growth. Centre managers have seen much of the progress made in reorganising their charges eroded by a failure over many years to answer one fundamental question: how do you get people in and out of towns and cities without destroying the very thing they have come to visit?

The White Paper setting out ideas for unravelling this knot has produced a buzz of excitement - not least because it backs up schemes already being tested by many local authorities. A wide-ranging study by consultant WSP for the British Council of Shopping Centres reveals enormous activity around the country, much of it started before the White Paper emerged in 1998.

But the title of the government tome, Better for Everyone, has an ironic ring. Everyone will benefit only if everyone makes a sacrifice. Car owners have to be persuaded - or forced - to give up their cars. Businesses may be forced to pay for their parking spaces. Retailers could be told to chip in towards the cost of beautifying the streets outside their windows. Conflict is inevitable.

'Everybody has their own agenda to fight for,' says Lydia Bowman of Cambridge City Centre Management. 'The White Paper has brought out a host of pressure groups, each with its own slant on what should be done.'

But there is a definite trend towards compromise as all these groups begin to realise that they must work together or fail separately. Centres like Cambridge and Croydon freely admit the reason they are making progress is that partnerships have been hammered out with local business and residents rather than flattening them with a town hall steamroller.

This opens up a new era for town centre managers. They are the interface between business, politics and planning, and could play a crucial role in determining whether good ideas can be translated into good practice.

'This is not just about partnership: it is about effective partnership,' says Martin Wright, who spent four years developing Marks & Spencer's town management programme and worked at the coalface when seconded to help with Oxford's plans.

In other words, managers must be given - or fight for - authority in shaping transport plans. He is convinced enough about their importance to set up a new consultancy with Savell Bird & Axon to 'focus on the synergy between town centre dynamics and transportation.'

The perception that mangers spend most of their time putting up hanging baskets and keeping pavements clean is understandable, says Wright. 'This is a young profession. They have only been on the ground for a few years and were under pressure to get visible results on the ground.

Now, however, they must grasp the nettle and make a strong contribution to transport plans. Bowman cannot agree more. You have to get in early in decision-making rather than just respond after the engineers have made their proposals for parking restrictions and whizzy new buses, she says.

Bowman sees her role on one level as managing tensions which arise within an historic town in a booming economic area with conflicting interests between business, residents, colleges, tourism and commuters. But at another level she must represent the user.

A classic example every manager will recognize is the treatment of car parks. They can be merely cash-cows to local authorities and pawns on the chessboard of traffic management to planners. 'But for businesses, they are the first impression for customers and visitors. If the car park is grotty, they bang on my door rather than the council's to say they are not coming back.'

Parking charges are another area where managers must get their retaliation in first. These should be integrated into a business plan rather than set merely to make money or cover costs. And they can be adjusted to prevent the public being driven out, such as by setting low short-term charges but banning long-stay commuters.

It is a balancing act in which the town centre manager can persuade each side they will benefit from sacrifice. Reluctant retailers, for instance, can be shown evidence that traffic cordons do not affect sales in the long term, as experiments around the UK have proved.

Some lessons are found further afield. 'People may raise their hands in horror at suggestions for new types of transport yet you only have to look at Strasbourg or some German towns to see how this can be done without damaging city centres,' says Wright.

Many local authorities have already taken such lessons to heart in the draft plans for integrated transport proposed by the White paper. But Wright warns not to expect an overnight revolution. Problems over finance still need to be cracked. Some councils are keen to trial workplace parking fees or road tolls to pay for change - a suggestion which sends shudders through centre managers already struggling to reduce vacancy rates.

The WSP report says substantial extra money must come from central government to pay for the White Paper suggestions. It points to other countries where tax incentives are used to develop alternative transport.

Another problem is the lack of information businesses can use to judge whether it is worth the price. Wright is working on a system of performance measures that may help clear that hurdle. But he again emphasises that these are early days for making judgements.

The White Paper was a welcome beginning to what must be a long climb - perhaps taking 10 or 20 years - towards a different way of life with greater emphasis on homeworking, teleshopping and hefty fuel taxes. Town centres could change out of recognition.

One important thing to remember is that there is no universal solution, says Bowman. Different centres need a different mix of measures. But the WSP report points out that 'stick' proposals like workplace parking fees must be used consistently across regions, or people will bounce from one strict centre to a more lax one.

This is a crucial time for centre managers. Unless they push for a role in making these decisions, they could find themselves having to clean up the mistakes for decades to come.

Cambridge epitomises the conflict of the old and new. One of the most famous historic towns in the world, it is also the fastest growing area of the UK because of its booming high-tech industry.

County planners were well aware of the city's problems long before the government produced its White Paper, as around half its 80,000 strong workforce come in from the surrounding area, creating massive congestion. It has spent the last couple of years introducing restrictions such as a cordon around the sensitive central area within which no private cars are allowed.

This has been a useful template for other centres now catching up. While there has been no definitive study of the impact, traders have informally told town centre managers that any initial drop-off in business has been more than recovered. Vacancy rates are also down to 3% - well below comparable towns.

Other transport measures include park and ride, which carried more than 700,000 passengers last year. The county freely admits this was possible only because of support from the businesses community and development of a coach management system. The latter is something most historic towns will have to consider as an extra to the White Paper's suggested integration of rail, buses and private cars. Tourism is crucial to the city centre economy but with 2,500 coaches coming in every year, a balance has to be struck. It is also an academic town, with all the demands of getting swarms of non-car-owning students in and out each day.

Some difficult decisions need to be made for the future, however. Even with these measures, traffic will increase by a quarter by the year 2016, and more radical measures may be required. Possibilities include a ring of park and ride interchanges, more pedestrianisation and development of key routes and rail interchanges.

But this will cost more than current funding will allow and raises the prospect of workplace parking levies to meet the bills.

Croydon has one of the best transport systems in the country yet this thriving south London business centre, with a population of 330,000, is not sitting on its laurels.

Around a third of workers still commute by car and the main access roads and centre nudge dangerously close to legal restrictions on air quality. Famous as a regional office centre, overall vacancy rates were still running at a worrying 14% in mid-1998. The town's reputation as a leading retail centre is also eroding, with a rating of only 21st in the country despite a cachement of more than 1m potential customers.

This combination of economic and environmental pressures has seen a flurry of activity by local planners, now drawn together under a new framework of further responsibilities imposed by the government's transport policies.

The most obvious development has been the 24km light rail connection with neighbouring centres Beckenham, Wimbledon and New Addington, aiming to cut car use. There are also proposals to extend the Tube to West Croydon, linking into a bus-rail interchange and the light rail.

But a battery of other measures have been developed as part of a sustainable transport policy, ranging from bus lanes and parking restrictions to direction of development to transport nodes. A significant part of these plans is to balance economic demands and green measures. The comprehensive national study of transport initiatives by consultants WSP for the British Council of Shopping Centres noted how much importance the local authority placed on collaboration with the private sector.

The draft strategy made clear that one of the objectives was to promote sustainable economic growth and the borough set up a working group with local firms and landowners to focus on business. This is not seen as a contradiction with social issues, such as providing for the 30% of households without a car.

'The attraction of inward investment will be hindered if current levels of traffic congestion and pollution are not overcome,' says the draft strategy on sustainable transport.

Taunton: Major cities have grabbed most of the attention over traffic congestion for the simple reason that the problems of jams and pollution are so obvious. But there are dozens of market towns scattered around the UK where the juggling act between economic health and social welfare are just as critical.

Taunton in Somerset is a typically buoyant centre of 60,000 people torn between restrictions on private transport and the need to maintain competition with other regional centres for the 280,000 potential shoppers in its catchment area.

The government's White Paper proposals have not been welcomed with open arms in such towns because they are more isolated than cities and car ownership can be essential. More than 60% of work trips to Taunton, for instance, are by car and a mere 4% by bus.

The local authority has brought in restrictions, however, with a cordon around the central area controlled by parking charges. There are also proposals for two park and ride sites, three new rail stations and strong support for low-emmission buses given priority over other traffic.

Local businesses were remarkably supportive of measure such as park and ride, and even backed bus subsidies, which might once have been seen as a burden on local rates. But doubts remain about the White Paper being designed mainly for crowded urban areas rather than market towns, where replacing cars with adequate bus services could be a problem.

Leeds: Congestion and pollution are part of the fabric of urban giants like Leeds. Perhaps this is why it is one of the centres keen to take radical action in the shape of congestion charges. But there is recognition that the bus service needs improving before rather than after such moves.

The city can teach others a few lessons. It has clawed its way to 2nd place in the hierarchy of town-centre retailing and vacancy rates were running at less than 6% last year. Closing Briggate, one of the main retail streets, actually helped this process. The town centre manager points out that Harvey Nichols would not moved in otherwise.

A recognition that transport is integral to the town centre, the strong public/private partnerships and a succession of improvements even before the White paper has meant the 'Leeds Approach' has been widely copied, according to consultants WSP in its Good Transport Guide.

A New Deal for Transport: Better for Everyone

Government White Paper 1998 - proposals:

         Local transport plans

         Better provision for pedestrians and cyclists

         Priority for public transport

         Pilot charging schemes to fund local improvements

         Bus Quality Partnerships

         'Virtuous circles' for improving services and reversing the decline in use

         Extra help for rural buses

         Strategic Rail Authority making the privatised railway work for customers

         National public transport information system

         Information to plan seamless journeys

         Maximum half price bus fares for elderly people

         Revising planning guidance to reduce the need to travel

         Better deal for motorists, including better information and road Maintenance and action on unscrupulous traders

         Commission for Integrated Transport to keep up the momentum for continuing improvement