Blog: 11 December 2017Pushing the boundaries

Although a flawed species, humans are capable of creative brilliance. Indeed, many would argue that we are all born creative. As a child I loved making/designing/dreaming things, to varying degrees of success/damage! Of course, this creative spirit within us has shaped our communities including the built environment and the way in which we travel. Notable individual influences from the past in this regard include Isambard Kingdom Brunel, John Wood, and more recently the creative flair of Frank Gehry, Sir Norman Foster and Santiago Calatrava have all joined forces to be a key catalyst in the rejuvenation of Bilbao. Within the UK, the regeneration of many of our towns and cities can be traced back to a handful of key individuals who had the boldness to stick with their creative instincts and ideas from inception through to delivery.

However, is there a danger that we've diminished the scope for such innovation? Do we still provide a forum for people to dream/imagine? Do we still think the unthinkable? Do we dare ridicule for posing ideas in the expectation or hope that technology will be invented to deliver them?

A recent regional news article reassures me that there are still people thinking outside of the box, albeit that the box very rarely expands in today's world to create an environment where these ideas can be developed and, crucially, delivered. One of the common criticisms from communities across the country is that development isn't supported by the necessary infrastructure to support it, and even where infrastructure is delivered it lags significantly behind the development and is often of inconsequential scale.

This can be seen in the South Coast’s Ports and on the troublesome A34, a key strategic route. Following a series of fatal accidents along that stretch of road, there has been a lot of focus and debate on road safety in reaction to these awful incidents. However, the bigger picture is being ignored. That stretch of road carries a huge amount of vehicular traffic, including freight, on a daily basis from the South Coast to the Midlands and beyond. Whilst not the most congested road in the UK, is it really fit for purpose in terms of its overall capacity and future capability?

Of course, the A34 wasn’t the first strategic transport route built along this route.  Back in the 19th century, the ‘Didcot, Newbury and Southampton Railway’ was built with the intention of providing a new route from the Port of Southampton to the Midlands for heavy traffic. Ultimately, like many other railways, the route was abandoned in the 1960s as the country’s appetite for road travel increased exponentially.

We’re left today however with the legacy of the alignment of this former rail corridor. Whilst not wholly intact (the A34 itself is built on it in part), is there a way in which this alignment could be utilised in the future to provide an alternative, complementary north-south strategic transport route. Perhaps to take freight traffic off the roads? Or a new light rail corridor for passengers? Or even a dedicated transport corridor for automated vehicles?

It is notable that the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) is clearly encouraging people and businesses to dream, and think big. This includes our entry (one of four entries to be shortlisted out of a total of 58) to the Cambridge to Oxford Ideas Growth Corridor competition, where ideas have been invited on how infrastructure and development can be provided together at an integrated stage on one of the nation's key corridors.

The need to encourage long term plans for our communities' infrastructure is also emerging as a central tenet of the NIC's interim National Infrastructure Assessment which is currently out for consultation (read more on this here). This seeks to identify key priorities for consideration in the future, warning that the country otherwise faces gridlock on its roads, railways and in the skies, slower telecommunications and even-worsening air quality without positive action.

Taking the above into account, and in this era of devolution and localism, do we wait for the government or NIC to address our needs? Or is now not the perfect opportunity to start tackling these issues creatively, finding solutions as opposed to hitting the same hurdles? Is there potential to lead a revolution, learning from mistakes and successes from the past and turning creative thinking into reality. I for one think we should take the first step…

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National Infrastructure Commission, NIC, South Coast, Midlands