Which Side of the Tracks?

There’s an old way of saying someone is ‘lower class’: they’re said to be from ‘the wrong side of the tracks.’ The saying came from the way that railway lines could sever one neighbourhood from another and designate the residents of one as lesser than those of the other. Railway tracks were symbolic of division.

Division seems to permeate society at the moment. Which side of the tracks someone’s on seems to determine their outlook, their view of any outcomes, even their awareness of what or who might be living on the far side.

This isn’t new, but the UK referendum on the EU has highlighted many divisions in stark relief. Young versus old. Elite versus disadvantaged. Metropolitan versus rural. Local versus Central. Northern England versus Southern England.

Chartered town and transport planners tend to consider themselves a pretty professional and well-educated bunch, but the divisions and the blindness to whoever’s on the other side of the tracks has infiltrated here too.

I was at an event in south Hampshire recently. A presentation on some research by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) into spatial planning issues for the Northern Powerhouse was, I thought, received with a little too much naivety from some of the southern planners. Perhaps they haven’t been paying attention because the issues are too far away and not part of their day job.

However, they attended the event. There, with a minimal expenditure of time, funds and effort, they were able to educate themselves. Providing such updates and raising awareness is a valuable part of what a professional institute is designed to do.

I also recently attended an interesting workshop on housing development around railway stations. There, I saw divisions between disciplines within our profession. I heard land use planners discussing housing development around railway stations without making any reference to their colleagues’ transport input. There was concern that station regeneration could limit future station expansion, or transport planning for railway capacity might not account for demand created by new housing.

Those from both sides of the planning tracks worried that the processes for building new railway stations and housing developments simply could not be managed in parallel. Local government planners are baffled by rail industry processes. Network Rail is being brought back into central Government, which is also taking responsibility for directly funding housing, yet Government departments are scrambling to keep control in times of unprecedented change.

If the Government is promoting policy to build higher density housing around stations, planners and transport planners at all levels of Government need to work together. Together we can ensure that those new dwellings aren’t severed from each other into the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ side of the tracks nor from necessary services and employment by the very railway stations and lines that are supposed to be increasing their accessibility.

Such partnership working requires professionals who are well-informed about the roles of their colleagues. That is a key purpose of the Transport Planning Network, a network based in the RTPI, but run in partnership with the Transport Planning Society. I am Chair of this Network and we are organising an event on the topic of development around railway stations. We plan to have case studies from North and South, to have speakers representing the central and the local, and to attract an audience of planners involved in both transport and land use. Let’s build bridges over those tracks.

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