Where the rubber hits the road: the politics of local transport in Eastbourne

Photo of the inside of a bus, almost empty, looking forward from the rear.
In Eastbourne the percentage of people travelling to work by bus has decreased from 14% to 5% in the past 10 years.
Photo credit: Photo credit: Andreas Solberg, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

This article was written by Susan Kerrison, Derrick Coffee and members of the Eastbourne EcoAction Transport Group.

The year 2000 promised to be a good one for transport campaigners in Eastbourne. East Sussex County Council (ESCC), who is responsible for planning transport, published its first Local Transport Plan (LTP1). The plan was forward-thinking and exciting in that it showed a commitment to enhancing public transport for new housing developments, improving bus services through bus priority measures, a network of cycle paths and a potential new station at Stone Cross/North Langney. But as the years have passed, transport campaigners have become disillusioned. Apart from building roads, little has been achieved. The promise has been broken.

In the intervening decades, the county’s local transport plan has been regularly updated with the publication of LTP2 and 3. LTP4 is due early in 2021. A plethora of other planning documents which followed, including the Eastbourne Local Plan, East Sussex Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plan, Eastbourne Infrastructure Plan and Eastbourne Corporate Plan, boosted the promise of improvements to public transport and the cycling infrastructure. The plans were accompanied by public consultation exercises, which reinforced the engaged public’s view that beneficial change was on the way.

Where the rubber hits the road

Housing estates have been built in Polegate, Hailsham, Pevensey and Westham, with the population of Eastbourne and its hinterland increasing from 90,000 in the late 1990s to around 140,000 in 2019. But there have been no further developments of public transport, leaving residents reliant on the car.

The cycle network remains largely unchanged, with the hundreds of children, now adults in their forties, still waiting for the improvements. Projected bus lanes on the East−West and North−South routes into Eastbourne were never built. There are no new plans for a Stone Cross station. However, road developments including the Polegate bypass, Jubilee Way and the dualling of the A22 north of Cophall roundabout have been completed.

Unsurprisingly, this has created heavy congestion. Eastbourne now has some of the worst air pollution of any town in the UK. With journeys on some bus routes now taking 40% longer, people are discouraged from using them. Progress towards persuading people out of their cars has gone backwards. Data indicates car journeys to work have increased from 49% in 1981 to 68% in 2019. Cycling has declined from 4.3% to 2.0% and bus use from 14% to 5% in the same period.

Public transport in difficult times

Like many other local authorities, ESCC has been subjected to major budgetary challenges over the 20 years since the publication of LTP1. Local authority spending decreased by 21% from 2009−10 to 2017−-18, with much deeper cuts in transport, which have fallen by 40%. But unlike other councils, ESCC has given little priority to using existing monies for public transport or appears unable to draw down additional funding.

Brighton and Hove reports that by working together, the local council and the bus companies have brought in significant funding from DfT and the EU. Twenty kilometres of additional bus lane have been built with a 50% increase in bus patronage in the last 10 years. In contrast, ESCC has had to hand back the monies allocated under the Covid measures as none of the active travel schemes identified in the planning documents such as the Local Transport Plan were ‘shovel ready’. The plans are clearly not blueprints for change, merely comforting words.

That other crisis                              

Since 2000, global warming has become a front-page issue. This year, the UK has presidency of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26), giving extra impetus to government policies to ‘decarbonise transport’. Through policies such as Gear Change and the National Cycling and Walking Strategy, the government has indicated a commitment to carbon reduction.

In future years the county may find that its transport budget will be cut if it has not made progress on sustainable travel. Councils including Eastbourne have now joined the carbon-neutral movement, with Eastbourne setting up Eastbourne Eco Action Network (EEAN) to galvanise local community groups. The Network has produced a blueprint for improving bus services, developing the railway network and a cycling infrastructure, and it is actively lobbying the county for change.

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But all this may come to nothing if Eastbourne and county politicians continue to engage in magical thinking where they profess carbon neutrality while at the same supporting a car-centric future. Priority is still given to the car on Eastbourne’s crowded streets. Shops and hotels who believe that the key to success is cheap and plentiful on-street parking are listened to. But the experience of towns like Brighton, which prospers despite, or because of, major restrictions on cars, is ignored.

Little effective or sustained pressure has been put on the county to improve transport. And no effective coalition has been built with bus companies, local cycle groups or surrounding councils such as Wealden District Council, in whose area car-dependent developments abound and continue to be built. Eastbourne needs a blueprint for local public transport, not works of fiction.

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