Reconnect Town and Country and you begin to Rebuild Broken Britain
I'm amazed that so few have raised this issue so far…
My idea is to reclassify former railway alignments under a new land classification category, using the United States' "Rail Bank" system as our model, and implement a planning moratorium protecting these potentially vital future transport corridors from the kind of cheap, ill-thought out and economically stagnant housing and commercial retail-park/strip-mall type developments we have seen under both the Tory and Labour administrations of the last 30 years.
Empower and financially incentivise local communities and rail companies to allow them to bring back those lines that were closed as being uneconomic under the Beeching Axe but which would now clearly serve a vital social and economic purpose for all those communities through which they pass.
Rail reopening is subject to so many planning restrictions… whilst the purchase and development of railway land is so simple for large Corporate developers who have no interest in retaining the former alignments for future transport links to be restored.
This situation must be reversed. It must be HARD for such potentially vital transport corridors to be disposed of! It must be made EASIER for planning authorities to turn away developers, and they should be encouraged to do so, unless that developer includes the preservation of the alignment within their plans.
In nearly every instance, the power to re-open lines lies with central government and (yet another quango) the SRA. Again, this situation must be reversed. This must in many, if not most cases be a local decision, for the local community whom the reopened line would serve.
Finally, the Coalition should publicly recognise that schemes focused on prising motorists away from their vehicles cannot simply focus on the bicycle and cycle lanes as an alternative.
Young children cannot cycle 10 miles into school, OAP's and those with disabilities cannot cycle 10 miles into town and ordinary Mums and Dads can't do a day's shopping with the family and cycle 10 miles back home carrying 10 bags.
If you want us out of our cars, and if you feel that buses are slow and unpleasant and clog up the roads even more… then good quality, frequent and reliable suburban and rural light rail services are your answer.
Likewise, you cannot transfer the vast amounts of freight that travel by road, away from lorries and onto bicycles. If we want to see less freight travel by road, again, rail is the only real answer.
Why does this idea matter?
The Beeching railway closures of the 1960's and 1970's represent one of the most appalling, far-reaching and short-sighted social and economic crimes committed by any UK Government in living memory, against its own electorate.
At a stroke, rural communities and businesses were returned to the kind of isolation they had not seen in 3 generations… and in some cases, since the 1850's.
The economic hardship, unemployment and social decline that this caused has been well documented, but it is perhaps not well understood by those who still live in affluent urban areas and benefit from excellent public transport.
With the restoration of rapid, reliable and effective rail links between town and country, the problem of the so-called "rural poor" and sink estate dumping grounds on the edge of once proud rural towns and villages, would probably not exist, or would at least be very much lessened, as these people would be able to commute easily to solid, well-paid employment in the towns.
Local businesses would once again flourish with their products and services so much more easily accessible to the outside world and hence local employment prospects would also benefit.
Local people would be able to continue to own their own homes locally. The national weeping sore that is the "second homes" issue would be at least soothed, and rural communities would begin to come alive and thrive once more, regardless of what season it was.
This is not "golden-age" sentimentalism. Many of Beeching's recommendations very rapidly proved to be economic and social folly, even at the time… and many were based on an extremely pessimistic and blinkered outlook on the potential development of the communities concerned. Some lines were removed at the same time as new housing estates were going up in the towns they served. Sheer madness!
Equally, many lines were never viable and were never going to be viable and should not be re-opened. Whilst our industrial history and heritage are also important, my idea does not spring from a nostalgic yearning for the past. I believe there is a rational, practical and economically sound case for extensive re-evaluation of the dormant network and its potential.
But you have to stop people building all over it first!
In implementing my ideas… I believe the Coalition can give a clear and unambiguous signal of its support for the social, cultural and economic re-enfranchisement of Britain's rural and extra-urban communities, and help bridge the social, cultural and economic gap that exists between town and country.
BUILD IT, AND THEY WILL RIDE!