Thursday, 15 May 2014

Leeds Trolleybus Enquiry Day 10

Leeds Trolleybus Enquiry Day 10
May 15  2014

On Day 10 of the Leeds Trolleybus Enquiry the cross examination of Mr Jason Smith Highways Engineer, witness for the Applicant, NGT continued from a large number of objectors and ranged over the subjects of impact on local communities, optimisation of traffic through road management, concerns over drainage at the proposed Belle Isle park and ride, and the impact on the site of the former Leeds Girls’ High School site on Headingley Lane amongst other things.

Links for the audio recordings of today’s proceedings are below and my commentary and thoughts on some of the matters dealt with today and in the Enquiry generally follow at the bottom.

On the tenth day of the Leeds Trolleybus Enquiry, May 15 2014, the cross examination of highways engineer Jason Smith is continued by Chris Longley of the Federation of Small Businesses, who is followed by Cllr Barry Anderson (C. Adel) and Helen Pickering of the Drummonds and Churchwoods Residents Association.

In the late morning session of day 10 of the Leeds Trolleybus Public Enquiry, May 15 2014, the cross examination of Jason Smith, highways engineer, continues with Helen Pickering of the Drummonds and Churchwoods Residents Association, who is followed by Michael Broadbent, formerly of the West Yorkshire Police, with former responsibility for traffic management. The questions include impacts on residents, local traffic flow and parking issues.

In the early afternoon session of day 10 of the Leeds Trolleybus Public Enquiry, May 15 2014, the cross examination of Mr Jason Smith, Highways Engineer, is continued by a number of objectors and groups: Ian Broadbent for Headingley Castle Residents
Doug Kemp for NW Leeds Transport Forum.   Martin Fitzsimons from Belle Isle. Martyn Thomas for Weetwood Residents Assoc.  Stuart Natkus Chartered Town Planner for Barton Wilmot representing Morley House Trust and others.

In the late afternoon session of day 10 of the Leeds Trolleybus Enquiry, May 15 2014, the cross examination of Mr Jason Smith, Highways Engineer, is continued by Stuart Natkus for Morley House Trust on behalf of Leeds Girls High School and other objectors, who is followed by Doug Kemp for the West Park Residents' Association.

A question that has arisen more than once from the minds of not only the objectors, but also apparently of the Inspector, is whether much of the proposed roads optimisation could not be implemented without the NGT and thereby achieve improvements with minimal impacts on the communities along the routes.  I have been staggered by the calibre of the objectors who have asked questions.  A gentleman who worked on the Sheffield Supertram and now says it was a mistake; a Professor of Transport Studies; various civil and mechanical engineers; a former senior member of the West Yorkshire Police who had responsibility for traffic management; a town planner on behalf of one of the oldest educational institutions in the city;  besides which there have been numerous private objectors and residents’ groups.

It is very easy to get lost in the detail.  Certainly there have been a lot of genuine questions asked about almost every junction, at least north of the river and many from the south side as well, and many fairly acceptable answers given in reply.  But we need to try and stand back for an overview.

Mr Smith has made a couple of statements which have, at least in my own mind, stepped outside of his role as an engineer.  For instance, a point I neglected to mention from yesterday was his answer to why trolleybuses would not stop at the same bus stops that First Buses do, or at least some of them.  Several reasons were given.  The first was that too many people would congregate at these locations and thereby cause problems.  The second was that the turning of long articulated buses into lay-bys would be problematic, perhaps leaving the rear end sticking out into the adjacent lane or similar problems with a vehicle that might have difficulty lining up parallel to the kerb.  The third reason was the most interesting.  The ‘Unique Branding Aspect’ of NGT as a distinct brand was cited as a reason for not sharing stops.  Through ‘branding’ they hope to make people see the trolleybus as entirely different to regular buses.  This is clearly not an engineering reason and not the kind of thing one expects to hear from a highways engineer.  I was reminded of this desire to create a system that was entirely distinct from traditional buses today when Mr Smith stated that one of the principle objectives of much of the highways work which he proposes should be engaged in was to ‘protect the punctuality of NGT’ since so much investment would have been put into it.

I am staggered to see the Council and NGT being so blatant about what they are attempting to implement.  The Council or at least a previous version of Metro controlled the buses before deregulation in 1986.  Bus routes have since been run by operators who bid for the contracts on the available routes.  This present system has both upsides and downsides.  The down would be that loss making but socially beneficial routes don’t tend to survive, while the up would be that some busy routes have successful and plentiful bus services, such as the A66o.  At present there is at least an internally consistent system run in line with market forces and no one gets special privileges.

Perhaps not the favourite system of everyone, but in the main one which is fair in its own terms.  The introduction of an at least partially dedicated infrastructure for a system which would overlap with the present roads, traffic and public transport would be entirely uncompetitive, providing from the start, institutionally and by design, a built in advantage to the vehicles which would ply this route.  And this system would be managed by the transport authority rather than one of the competing bus companies.  A lot of suspicion has been directed at the possibility of privatisation later in order to regain capital to pay off Leeds City debt of almost £2 billion although this possibility has been played down.

But more presently we should beware of the two tier system of self appropriated priority and privilege which the Council is promoting.  Under the guise of improving the transport system they are attempting to introduce something that smacks deeply of Big Statism.  The paucity of consultation that occurred, not least with First Bus, demonstrates the lack of interest from the Council and Metro to really know what people think, and their intention to simply go ahead with it regardless.

That is why the ‘NGT Unique Branding’ is such a crucial part of the whole plan.  It requires the inculcation of a particular mindset that sees this newcomer as a flashy addition to life in Leeds.  This is no more than advertising, a hidden attempt at persuasion.

What is not made clear through the glossy images is that they are hoping that buses will decline.  This is a hostile competitive business practice by a body which controls the playing field and is attempting to marginalize the existing main player.  No wonder First West Yorkshire are putting an immense expenditure into the legal team with which they are challenging the NGT proposals.  Not only have First employed Gregory Jones QC, a top London barrister, but he has brought with him a team which varies in size from one day to the next, but involves at least six legally trained specialists who research and help prepare the material for him to take the opposition apart with.

Much speculation went into considering whether First would stay out of the fray and bid for the trolleybus contract if it happened, but the opposite has happened.  Perhaps they play a long game and that is a position they would consider if it came to it, but in the present game, they are pitched tooth and nail against the trolleybus.  And I believe this is more than mere commercial competitiveness.  I believe that if the privileged and prioritised Council owned trolleybus system went ahead it would be only the thin end of the wedge and that while they tried to extend the trolleybus network they would consider it a green light for further encroachments into the free market and intrusions into communities and their environments.

This would not be a climate in which the kind of business in which First engages would be likely to thrive, so one might suggest that the trolleybus contract could be a poisoned chalice for First with the tight control that would be imposed on them by the Transport Authority.

Whether this is speculation or not, it is certainly the case that the intrusion into people’s lives and most particularly the attempted appropriation of their legally held property through compulsory purchase is something which must be considered a human rights infringement and another example of the hegemony of Statism.

No less the destruction of community held assets such as primarily the four hundred mature trees, but also other environmental and heritage features locally throughout the string of conservation areas from the University to the ring road. 

So while picking over of the technical aspects of the scheme, and  particularly the roads optimisation, we should not forget that the whole is more than the sum of the parts, and I don’t just mean in terms of the road system, but also the strategic way in which Leeds City Council is attempting to position itself with this corporate style.  The importance of the branding is the smoking gun that this is more than mere transport, it is a combination of social engineering, propaganda and big business.  As someone said last week ‘This is a solution looking for a problem.’  Mr Haskins may have said ‘There is no shoe horn’, but this whole exercise is one giant attempt at a shoehorn.  One can only hope that the Inspector recognises that in so many ways this is an opportunistic and predatory attempt to exploit a particular situation for the benefit of the corporation that has been created, rather than for the benefit of the community and our environment.

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