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Newsletter 27th July 2007

- Urban development and congestion - The future of the railways - Weather, infrastructure and climate - Economic solar power on the horizon? - Friend or FoE?

Urban development and congestion

In a week where the Government has promised a major investment in new housing, the key problem of lack of proper infrastructure planning is highlighted once again. It is not just that there are too few homes available, but that they are becoming increasingly unaffordable to a significant  proportion of young people, because house building (for a number of reasons) has been allowed to fall well behind demand.

 Recent generations have tended to move out of major cities and we have seen a growth in smaller towns and a tendency to suburbanise parts of the countryside. This, of course, puts pressure on land and raises prices. The newer trend is to concentrate again on high density urban development, but hopefully in a more sensitive way than the failed tower block estates of the 60s and 70s.

 Rationally, increased urbanisation makes a lot of sense. Higher density living makes it easier to provide services and facilities for local populations. It also become feasible to provide efficient public transport systems, which are a virtual impossibility for local journeys in low density, rural areas. But it is also a challenge, because people don’t always behave as planners would like.

 Current plans for Cambridge provide some useful examples. The city admittedly has some unique problems in that much of the centre has effectively to be left untouched, but similar constraints can be found in all urban areas. Since Cambridge is a centre of continued growth in high-tech jobs –  both ICT (“Silicon Fen”) and biological science-based – and also convenient for commuting to London, the local economy is buoyant, demand for housing is high, and so are prices.

 Tens of thousands of new homes are planned to be built within the city boundaries, and a major new township (Northstowe, which has now emerged as one of Gordon Brown’s new “eco-towns”) is being built on the north-west approaches. Already, local residents are only too aware of the difficulties of getting in and out of the city at peak times. And this despite a well-used network of Park and Ride schemes, reasonable rail links and a good coverage of bus routes. Even a small percentage rise in road traffic will inevitably make the situation worse. And to expect all the new residents to work within walking distance of their homes or use only public transport to get into Cambridge takes no real account of human nature.

 Building “sustainable” communities (whatever that means: answers on a postcard, please), with local shops, business units, cycle tracks etc is fine, but it is unrealistic to expect the majority of people to live and work in closed communities. Even if they do initially, people change jobs and are unlikely to move house if the new employer is within travelling distance.

 So, people will travel to work in increasing numbers. The plan to cope with this in Cambridge is to introduce a congestion charge, on the London model. This does not seem a rational answer to us. Yes, there would be a short-term drop in traffic when the charges were introduced, but this is unlikely to last. A small city such as Cambridge is entirely different from a major centre like London.

 The large majority of workers in London can travel in by train from all points of the compass, and driving in generally takes longer and is less predictable. For Cambridge, using public transport would, for many people, make their journeys much longer. People would find ways to overcome the charge; some would start work earlier, many would have the charge effectively paid for by their employers as salaries would rise to reflect the additional travelling costs.

 Better, surely, to provide good public transport options (eg Park and Ride) and allow people to make their own decisions. If car journey times increase significantly, more people will take public transport. But as towns and cities are expanded, there comes a point where the centres simply cannot cope with the additional numbers of people coming in to work or shop. At this stage of saturation, the only realistic option is to build out-of-town or satellite commercial centres. We have to adopt realistic solutions rather believe that people can be forced to conform to a particular model.

 The future of the railways

Plans have been put forward by the Transport Secretary, Ruth Kelly, for major investment in the UK rail network to enable it to carry double the number of passengers by 2030 with less overcrowding. In part, this involves removing bottlenecks (increasing the capacity of Reading station, for example) and building longer platforms to allow 12-coach trains to be used on more routes. In addition, there will be 1300 new carriages, and investment in projects such as Thameslink, which carries passengers across the capital without the need to change trains.

 But the cost will be significant, and the majority of it will be recouped from fares. And since the increase in passenger numbers projected is less than the increase in fare revenue required, it’s a safe bet that fares will rise. Already, the UK has one of the most expensive railway systems in the world, but it’s just about to get dearer still. Despite this, Brits are using trains in increasing numbers, simply because they represent the least bad choice for many journeys. This surely reinforces the view that cost is not the most important driver of choice of mode of travel.

 Weather, infrastructure and climate

Parts of the UK have suffered flooding which by some reckoning is unprecedented, while others point to major floods across past decades and previous centuries. Like nearly everything at present, those convinced that greenhouse gas emissions are the key factor pushing up temperatures seek to make a link, however tenuous and inferential, with the current European weather (cool and very wet in much of the north and west, very hot and dry in parts of the east and south).

 Whatever the cause, this surely is a wake-up call to make sure that we are prepared to cope with extreme weather such as this. It is unrealistic to expect to defend all communities against occasional inundations, but we should certainly seek to avoid repeat ones where possible (hence, the Thames flood barrier). Equally, given that parts of the country have gone from drought to flood in a two-year period, a national water grid surely has some merit.

 Economic solar power on the horizon?

A consortium led by the University of Delaware has developed a crystalline silicon photo-voltaic cell with an efficiency of 42.8%, twice that of current state of the art production cells. They now hope to achieve 50% efficiency and have such cells in production by 2010. However, the increased efficiency is gained primarily by concentrating the Sun’s rays, using a thin, lightweight device which directs different parts of the spectrum to different solar cell elements. This is mainly for military applications initially, and does not represent a breakthrough for normal commercial use.

 Nevertheless, progress continues to be made with both this and the cheaper thin film technology. Coupled with advances in battery design, competitive solar power may be closer than we think.

 Friend or FoE?

The EU Administration and Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas has revealed that Friends of the Earth Europe received €635,000 in funding from the European Commission last year – more than half of its total income. Since FoE spends much of its time lobbying the European institutions, particularly on climate change policy, this seems a rather strange thing to be doing. According to the Euroreferendum blog, this kind of funding of NGOs “can be seen to be responding to apparently independent, voluntary groups while, in fact, it is actually paying to have itself lobbied to take actions which, in the main, it would wish to take anyway.” There seems to be some sort of conflict of interests here. Maybe the Commission should balance this by funding other organisations with different views, such as the Scientific Alliance, for example?