Cllr Sally-Ann Hart is the Cabinet Member for Tourism and Culture on Rother District Council.
The desire by a few wealthy individuals and a group of steam railway enthusiasts to restore a section of a local steam / diesel railway line in the Rother Valley has been rumbling on for many years. Local planning was granted this year despite major concerns from local residents and businesses about level crossings and excessive parking in a local village.
Rother Valley Railway (RVR) has now made an application to the Department for Transport for a Transport and Works Act order to “construct, operate and maintain” a new railway line from Bodiam to Robertsbridge. The fact that RVR has also served Compulsory Purchase Orders on farmers, who for many years have consistently said that they do not want to, and will not, sell their land to RVR, is very disquieting. My concerns are not only that local people are being bulldozed by big hitters, but that this project is not a major infrastructure project benefitting thousands of residents for the purpose of economic generation, nor is it a major tourism attraction that will materially benefit our district; it is merely a hobby project for a group of privately funded railway enthusiasts who clearly have not thought about the far reaching consequences of their quest for a giant model railway cutting across our beautiful countryside.
I am not intending to focus my objection to this project on ecology or our environment – there are plenty of other objectors who will do that. My overwhelming concern is the negative impact one of the three proposed level crossings, the one on the main road to Hastings (A21), will have on the economic growth of Hastings and Rother District as regards tourism and other business activity and generation.
Hastings and Rother District are already at a disadvantage because of the single lane north and south for much of the A21, south of Tunbridge Wells; the tailbacks are a nightmare and already deter some visitors from making the often arduous journey to our glorious towns and villages.
The A21 begs for dualling, rather than being made even worse by a level crossing which will disrupt traffic, reportedly eight return journeys per day – that is twice per hour during a typical day. What a nonsense and what a tragedy for Hastings and Rother towns and villages – and their visitor attractions. It will kill any hope we have of continuing to build tourism and economic growth, absolutely vital for jobs and economic activity in this region.
Research from the LSE shows that “well-designed infrastructure investments have long-term economic benefits; they can raise economic growth, productivity and land values”. Also research by Henry Overman has found that road related accessibility improvements between 1998 and 2007 increased local employment.
Road projects specifically, can increase business entry either by new businesses starting up or existing businesses relocating. Transport improvements can stimulate the economy by not only raising the productivity of existing businesses and workers, but also by attracting new firms and private sector investment. This is precisely why our MP, Amber Rudd, is not only working to ensure a fast train service on the Ashford/Hastings/Rye line, but also lobbying for the dualling of the A21.
A major upgrade to the A21 north of Tunbridge Wells was recently completed. This was embarked upon because for decades the single carriageway, such as currently exists for most of the road south of Tunbridge Wells to Hastings, was a source of daily congestion, causing delay to drivers and frustrating businesses that depend on the road. The aim of the improvements was to speed up journeys, improve safety, reduce congestion and boost the economy. This has already proved successful and is precisely the sort of upgrade that Hastings and Rother are crying out for; not adding further impediments to economic growth by having to wait for steam engines to cross the main road.
RVR claim that the extension from Bodiam to Robertsbridge will boost local tourism is disingenuous; for starters, the likelihood is that Robertsbridge will become an even bigger car park. I am sure Robertsbridge residents and businesses will not be too thrilled about this, even though they have been told the project will benefit them. There is no doubt that Tenterden in Kent might benefit, but the socio-economic cost to Hastings and Rother District far outweighs any small benefit to tourism – especially if it is in another county. As Rother District Council’s portfolio holder for tourism, I am therefore extremely concerned about the impact the proposed A21 level crossing will have not only on current tourism, but also on its potential for growth in the region. Hastings and Rother has some of the worst pockets of deprivation in the country. We need investment in infrastructure that will encourage economic growth, not kill it.
Finally, level crossings are dangerous for pedestrians and road vehicles. The risk of accidents at level crossings is considered high – “the use of level crossings contributes the greatest potential for catastrophic risk on the railways” as the Director of UK Railway Inspectorate said in 2004. Safety concerns are relevant; Network Rail is pursuing a policy of closing level crossings at the rate of over 100 per year and the creation of new level crossings is banned (the exception being the re-opening of unavoidable crossings on new/reopening railway, and on heritage railway). Considering this, it begs the question; how can RVR, or the Secretary of State for Transport when considering the application for the Transport and Works Act order, contemplate a new level crossing at all – whether or not a heritage one.
This is an example of the plight of regular folk against the might of more powerful or wealthy individuals. How can such folk defend their towns, villages, farms and livelihoods? Fight. Fight with voices, fight with written word, and look to their elected representatives to lead.