A Study in Sussex Part 2: Getting Politiconomical

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In part 2 of our Study in Sussex we look at the politics and economics behind the railway debate currently underway – both of which are playing a key role in determining what service provision ought to be provided for the railways in Sussex and their connections with London.

What is the point of providing more capacity?

In part 1 an astute commenter pointed out that there is no point in just predicting and providing. There must be a benefit of improving rail services. This is partly because railway infrastructure enhancements are unlikely to be entirely self-financing, and even if they manage to be over time it is still ultimately the tax-payer who is paying (or loaning) the money to make it possible. There thus has to be a good reason for doing so. The aim of this article is thus to explore why additional rail capacity should be provided in Sussex and what it would achieve.

LEP – the new kid on the block

Network Rail is moving away from the Route Utilisation Studies of old (which effectively pursued a predict and provide strategy) and is now much more focused on liaising with concerned stakeholders to form a consensus on what upgrades are desirable. Two of the most significant stakeholders for this purpose are county councils, or their equivalent, and the relatively new Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). These are partnerships between local and county authorities and businesses in order to develop a strategic plan for an area.

One thing that is immediately apparent is that LEPs effectively give a county council more than one bite of the cherry, as not only do they now provide direct input to any Network Rail strategic plan but also influence the objectives of the LEP. A rather unforeseen consequence, as touched upon by another comment in part 1, is that a strategic plan that appeared to be set in stone can also come undone as a result of a change of political party in local power. Politics has always played a part in planning, but an even greater political element in decision-making is thus now inevitable and it would be foolish to ignore it.

You can’t ignore the politics

We will take a look at the political make-up of East Sussex before getting back to the strategic plans. There is no reason to believe the general political trends identified in East Sussex would be significantly different in West Sussex.

One would naturally expect Sussex to be true blue heartland. At government level one would expect an almost unbroken cluster of Tory MPs to inhabit Westminster. This is how it certainly used to be, but this was rather upset by Liberal Democrat Norman Baker narrowly winning the seat of Lewes in 1997. A consolation for the Tories is that the history of Lewes has generally been rather different from the rest of Sussex so it didn’t set too much of worrying precedent. In any case a Tory administration can tolerate the occasional liberal. As the redoubtable Lady Bracknell said: “Oh, they count as Tories. They dine with us. Or come in the evening, at any rate.”

What gets really interesting, however, is what happens when you look at the relatively recent local elections of a year ago as indicated by the map below.

Election Results

The political state of East Sussex after the local elections 2013

Much of it is as one would expect. Near solid blue peppered by a bit of Liberal Democrat yellow in some of the less rural areas. The first surprise though, possibly, for those not familiar with the area, is the number of Labour local councillors in Hastings. This is because, despite the very comforting image portrayed of Hastings in Foyle’s War, it is actually quite a deprived area with a lot of social problems that need addressing. Indeed one reason why Hastings is not as prosperous as other Sussex coastal towns is perhaps that Hastings suffers from much longer journey times to London. There are currently two direct routes available but neither of them offer fast times to the capital. The fastest morning train takes 1 hour 42 minutes to Cannon Street via Tonbridge Wells but Victoria via Lewes is never less that two hours away.

Despite being a socially deprived area, Hastings returns a Tory MP to Westminster. This is simply because the constituency area also includes the somewhat more prosperous and conservative (small c) town of Rye. This is enough to swing the balance and make it a marginal Tory seat, taken from Labour at the last general election. As clearly the Conservatives would like to hold onto the seat, any rail scheme announced that would benefit Hastings is likely to be looked at extremely favourably by the Conservative element of the current government. The fact that the incumbent MP is the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Chancellor would also suggest that it may be easier to get the attention of the Treasury.

The second surprise to be found on the map – or at least it was a year ago – was UKIP’s capture of local council seats. Before you fight for new votes you need to make sure that you hold onto the ones you have and one can well imagine that the members of the coalition government would have been somewhat alarmed by losing votes in their respective heartlands to UKIP. A promise by UKIP of a better rail service would be a vote-winner that the coalition partners could well decide needs to be pre-empted.

Maybe not so curious after all

It is entirely speculative but one does wonder if last year’s sudden rise of UKIP in Sussex could explain the rather cack-handed government announcement about investigating future rail services in Sussex (including Lewes-Uckfield) just a week after the local elections. It is possible the announcement was something of a panic reaction to the results – a need to provide a quick demonstration of a potential solution to a clear local issue. Whatever the reason, the result is that not only is Network Rail looking in detail at rail services in Sussex but also that political eyes are very focused on it.

The relationship of Sussex with London

Before looking at the enterprise plan in detail it would probably make sense to look at the how much Sussex can stand on its own and how much it is dependent on London. The fundamental planning question of the Home Counties surrounding London (and to a lesser extent of Sussex) is how much they are happy to just consist of dormitory towns whose purpose is to provide housing for London’s commuters and how much they care about providing their own employment. Of course ultimately you can’t stop people commuting to London. What you can do though, in addition, is provide and develop local employment if it is sustainable. Most of the Home Counties try to at least attempt this, both out of understandable local pride and from a desire to benefit from business rates.

As well as wanting to encourage local employment it is highly likely that local enterprise zones want good connectivity to London. As well as putting them in the “South East England cluster” this maximises their chance of taking business away from London and there are many businesses that have potential to thrive without actually being in London, so long as they are sufficiently close for suppliers and clients to meet easily when necessary. As much as commuting this situation thus demands good links with London, although speed and frequency of connecting services arguably counts for more than capacity.

Sussex Population Figures

Table provided by Milton Clevedon showing various local authorities in the South East and their population, the potential number of people who could be working and the actual number of jobs within the the local authority area.

When Londoners hear their elected mayor emphasise how London is the powerhouse of the economy it is easy to forget that the positive net contribution of South-East England (excluding London) to the UK economy is not achieved solely by people in the South-East commuting to London. Details of employment in various towns, as indicated above, show that many Sussex towns have their own thriving economy. It is certainly true that a lot of people commute from these towns to London, but it is also true that a lot of people commute into these towns from the local area. It is heartening that many readers realised that a lot of the commuting in Sussex is actually in a southward direction towards the coast and any Network Rail plan that looks only at the issue of providing services to London is bound to fail the needs of the local community.

Brighton – “London on Sea”

A particularly interesting example is Brighton. Brighton has many commuters into London but it also has many commuters into Brighton itself. Some places meanwhile, notably the Medway towns and more famously Harlow, have effectively become London overspill towns. Many of their inhabitants have chosen to live there because house prices are cheaper than London or are of a quality that exceeds what they could aspire to in the capital, which is effectively the same thing.

Brighton is certainly not an overspill town for people who cannot afford London prices. It is a thriving and vibrant town in its own right and there are roads in Brighton that feature some of the most expensive property in the country which are easily on a par with, or more expensive than, their equivalent in Kensington & Chelsea. Living in Brighton and commuting to London is to some extent a lifestyle choice. Whilst making this choice is nothing new, it gained momentum when taken it became popular with many London University students in the 1970s. Back then not only did one get a student grant, but any travel costs above a certain amount were reimbursed by the student’s local authority. Effectively students could get a free annual season ticket from Brighton to London, enabling them to enjoy the Brighton lifestyle with the bonus of (then) cheaper property prices of Brighton whilst studying in London.

As the statistics in the image above highlighted, Brighton is also a major employment centre. The railway station has three main routes (Brighton Main Line from London, East Coastway and West Coastway) to bring in commuters. Indeed such is the level of commuting into the town that Brighton is the only destination in the Southern Railway area, with the exception of London, where unfolded cycles are not allowed on arriving and departing trains in the morning and evening rush hours.

Brighton vs London

One of the issues any proposal for Sussex will thus have to face is what to do when there is a conflict of demand for services to either London or to Brighton. This happens on the line along the coast to the west of Brighton itself, which is bedevilled with level crossings. A decision will need to be made as to whether the limited number of trains that can be run along this section of line should be long trains direct to London or short trains to Brighton. The latter would, of course, provide London-bound passengers with the option of changing at Brighton. One suspects any lobbying made by Brighton Unitary Authority (which includes Hove) may well be partly as much about what the message is that they want to send out, rather than a decision based solely on traffic criteria.

The LEP and their view on it all

Much of the area from Croydon southward to and along the Sussex coast is covered by a single Local Enterprise Partnership. Slightly confusingly for railway-orientated people this is the Coast to Capital (c2c) LEP.

Very conveniently they provide a simple map which summarises the main objectives for the different areas. Unfortunately it does not include all of East Sussex but it’s true to say the objectives there are similar.

C2C LEP visualisation

Diagram created by the c2c LEP showing the economic features of various identifiable areas within its remit.

The first thing to notice is that no one solution fits all circumstances. Croydon, as one would expect, is heavily dependent – or linked as the diagram tactfully puts it – on its proximity to central London and the fact that it is, or rather was and may be again, a major office centre. We will cover Croydon in more detail when looking at East Croydon issues.

Next on the key to the map is the West Sussex coastal area. This is described rather nebulously as supply chain and work force. There are many options for commuting from this area including Portsmouth, Brighton, the Gatwick area and, of course, London.

Trains and boats and planes

It often forgotten that this coastal strip has its own port – at Shoreham. Because of the limited size of vessels that can use it, it cannot compete for the same markets as places like Felixstowe and Southampton. Instead it tends to supply wood from Scandinavia and low value aggregates for local use. A lot of return traffic is material for recycling which can be handled better at various Scandinavian facilities. It is a significant employer by the time one takes into account related generated jobs. It even has a dry dock which means that ship maintenance and repair work can be carried out there. It is not connected to the rail network. Shoreham also has its own airport though in recent years it seem to have been rebranded as Brighton City Airport.

Rural West Sussex

North of the West Sussex Coastal strip is the largely rural area of inland West Sussex. Clearly this rural area has limited employment potential and it is seen very much as an area for people to live in whilst working elsewhere. Not surprisingly, with Gatwick also (just) qualifying as being in West Sussex, Gatwick Airport is seen of as of major importance. This was realised decades ago and resulted in trains on the Arun Valley line being controversially rerouted to London via Gatwick instead of via Dorking. This has the advantage of also serving Crawley. Whilst Crawley may not be that busy by London standards, it nevertheless accounts for over 2 million passenger journeys and is in the same league as Horsham. Not all those passengers will be starting their journey at Crawley to go to London.

Gatwick provides employment, plane and simple

The Gatwick area, or the Crawley/Gatwick area as the diagram puts it, is a major source of employment. This was always the case with the airport nearby but in recent years there has been a dramatic expansion of business there as West Sussex has moved to embracing the airport’s existence rather than resenting it. The significant point came a few years ago when Nestlé, which had been dominant in Croydon and was one of the last large firms to base their office staff there, moved its UK Head Office to Gatwick. As the employment table above shows, there is no way that the local area can supply all the jobs and it is thus important not to just think of the Gatwick area as one thats need to cater for airport passengers travelling to and from London.

East Sussex

We have already seen how Brighton is a significant centre for business in its own right. Not surprisingly East Sussex is also keen to see some of this action and would very much like to create a prosperous East Coastway strip. This would include Eastbourne as a potential smaller rival to Brighton as well as, inevitably Hastings. Slightly inland is Lewes, the county town of East Sussex. Obviously East Sussex and Lewes in particular would like to see the Lewes-Uckfield link re-instated. Naturally the county councillors would be aghast at an proposal to reinstate most of the line but have it miss out on Lewes itself and continue straight to the rival town of Brighton, as has sometimes been suggested in the recent past.

Getting from A(shford) to B(righton)

Of course, if agglomeration theory is to be believed, then one of the big gains to be made in East Sussex would be to link the main centres along the East Sussex coast to improve accessibility and to provide an improved service to the Kent town of Ashford. This would present some local difficulties though. One is that Eastbourne is out on a limb and to improve journey times between other places along the coast one has to contemplate bypassing Eastbourne. To counteract this one would need to provide good interchange at Lewes and make sure there were a compensating number of trains terminating at Eastbourne. Because London services are not provided in isolation but also fulfil a local need, these issues have an effect on where trains to and from London should terminate.

East Sussex is much more rural than West Sussex or Brighton. It is very much a county of two halves separated by the South Downs National Park. To the south along the coast is the more built up area. This is the area that is seen as having development potential. Perhaps, if one regards Brighton as a lifestyle alternative to London, then the East Sussex coastal strip could also been seen as a slightly different lifestyle alternative – with jobs largely based at Lewes, Eastbourne, Bexhill and Hastings and the port of Newhaven. The campus site of Sussex University at Falmer provides academic input.

Really rural East Sussex

North of the South Downs, East Sussex has very few towns. One would expect East Grinstead to be one of them but somehow it sneaks into West Sussex. One significant area of urbanisation that is expected to grow is Uckfield. A lot of this is spurred on by house prices being significantly cheaper than London or other Sussex towns from where commuting to London is common. Naturally the county council is keen that this should be more than just a dormitory town for London.

The drive to travel by rail

The reality is that in northern East Sussex even London rail commuters probably drive to the station and they are influenced by convenience of getting to the station, fares and service. In fact it is hard to think of many East Sussex stations that actually are conveniently located for the local community. A classic example is the village of Wivelsfield, which is notionally served by a station over 2 miles away. The station is actually in West Sussex and nowadays the area around the station could more accurately be regarded as a suburb of Burgess Hill.

In order to highlight the importance of the car for the journey to the station one could look at the example of Eridge station. The station serves a tiny community but is by no means the quietest station on the Uckfield Line. It does have a car park and there is more parking on the public road. Its popularity is probably more due to its proximity to Tunbridge Wells (Kent) and could be thought of as Tunbridge Wells Parkway. Eridge station highlights the flexibility of commuters to use different stations and the artificiality of looking at a area without taking into account neighbouring areas.

Nothing new here

Our look at the economic geography of Sussex probably does not reveal anything dramatic for either Network Rail or Govia (who will be running the management contract for TSGN services). The response from interested parties will probably re-enforce ideas that were already prevalent and built into the train planning process. Some of these presumptions have been emphatically mentioned by Network Rail before. The main ones could be considered to be:

  • That even if there is a successful local economy in Sussex, enhancement of rail services to London is probably vital for economic well-being and future capacity is needed.
  • The Gatwick and Crawley areas are vital places to serve adequately. This is where a lot of future employment is expected to be.
  • Similarly (although not gone into detail here) Croydon will be a major traffic objective and East Croydon will continue to be a major interchange and the desire is to be able to accommodate this traffic rather than re-route it.
  • Brighton is a major destination in it own right and this must not be overlooked when planning services to London.
  • Commuting flow southward and along the coast needs to be catered for.
  • Hastings does not have the prosperity of other South Coast towns. It also has a significantly longer journey time to London than other towns. A case for a faster service may not be justified on purely on a narrow focus of the benefit to the railway (e.g. higher revenue) but there may be a case on the basis on economic benefit to the town.

Proper railway stuff in future

This may all have seemed longwinded but as has hopefully been highlighted the politics and economics behind the railway decisions here are far more complex and varied than one might think. They certainly don’t lend themselves to one-size-fits-all solutions and that naturally has an impact on how any schemes taken forward will affect London.

Now that the background is out of the way readers who prefer to read about the nitty-gritty of railway schemes will be relieved to know that the remainder of this series on Sussex will be overdosing on looking at exactly that. To do that it makes sense to start with the odd-one-out and look at potential improvements on the journey from London to Hastings, and so that is where we will next go.

Thanks to Chris Page of Railfuture and Jonathan Roberts for background information for this and some of the future articles.

Written by Pedantic of Purley