Transport

2020/21 Annual Report

Looking Back

 

Transport issues reduced significantly in 2020 as the Coronavirus pandemic curtailed all forms of travel for most of the year. This has continued to be the case for the first half of 2021 too.

 

Air traffic was down significantly, reducing the incidence of noise pollution in the town substantially.  However, this didn’t stop Luton Airport from submitting a planning application to increase air passenger numbers to 19 million from 18 million.  The planning application also seeks to remove until 2031 the noise limitations contained in the 2014 planning permission that had already been breached several times in recent years.  Many groups and individuals have objected to this application, with a substantial number focusing on the incompatibility of air passenger growth with reducing the effects of climate change too. Separately, the proposed timetable for nearly doubling air passengers at the airport has been pushed out, reflecting, in the airport’s eyes, the desire to be more “sustainable” (whatever they mean by that). Various other initiatives to reduce aircraft noise (such as the re-organisation of airspace in the south east) moved into the “slow lane” in 2020 but we anticipate these will be resurrected in 2021.

 

Locally, car traffic decreased as people were encouraged to “stay at home”.  Furthermore, in order to improve safety in Harpenden, the lower High Street was partially pedestrianised. As the Coronavirus crisis has eased, this has created a lot of debate about the future of this part of the high street, with retailers asking for the road to be reopened and a large number of residents preferring that the roads remain closed. A welcome addition to the town’s car parking facilities are the additional spaces created next to the new leisure centre (albeit that a substantial number are reserved for electric vehicles and are currently underutilised).

 

The railways were also quiet in 2020 as most commuters worked from home. Whilst rail commuting (particularly into London) has begun to recover, it remains significantly lower than the pre-pandemic levels. The addition of a direct link from London to Luton Airport has now opened but its impact on existing commuter traffic has been minimal.

Locally, 2020 saw a significant increase in cycling and walking as residents made use of the many paths and open spaces that surround Harpenden although the inclement weather made some pathways very challenging to negotiate.

 

Looking forward

 

The Society remains committed to the vision set out in the Harpenden Neighbourhood Plan 2018:

“That Harpenden residents are able to walk and cycle around safely and comfortably, and travel is managed via predominantly environmentally friendly, interchangeable methods, with the appropriate quantity and quality of cycle storage and parking provision, in an atmosphere of sustainable growth and significantly reduced pollution.”

 

To meet these aims, in a post-Coronavirus society, the Society intends to work with our local, district and county councillors and local residents groups to increase the volume of safe cycleways and pedestrian routes in and around the town. In particular, the Society will support appropriate proposals that create a sustainable, long term answer to the question of what to do with the lower High Street that meets the needs of all parties.

 

Furthermore, the Society will encourage the relevant authorities to implement and update the Harpenden Car Parking Strategy 2017-21 and, in conjunction with this, encourage better policing of anti-social parking, to encourage traffic flows.

 

The prospective expansion of Luton Airport will continue to occupy the Society in 2021 as the owners continue to promote its 32 million passengers per annum proposal. Whilst the Society does not object to the growth of Luton Airport per se, the complete disregard that the airport’s owners and operators have for the quality of life of its surrounding communities means that the Society has to be vigilant in holding them to account on its past and future environmental commitments.

 

Karl Wingfield

Thameslink chaos - a way forward?
Train
Phil Waters

Phil Waters: ‘Timetable changes not so welcome to Harpenden'

An open letter from The Harpenden Society chairman Phil Waters to all those parties who have played a part in this year's (2019) rail service debacle.

 

One of the roles of the Harpenden Society is that of 'guardian' of the town's character and welfare. And because so many Harpenden residents commute by rail, mainly in and out of London, we have as a community been adversely affected in recent months by the undeniably poor levels of service provided by Govia-Thameslink (GTR).

 

For well over a century the town's wellbeing has been significantly dependent on reliable train services. The Harpenden Society initially refrained from commenting on this year's operational issues involved.  There are others, such as the Association of Passenger Transport Users (APTU) and the Harpenden Thameslink Commuters Group who have a closer understanding of those issues.

 

But, on behalf of the whole town, we feel obliged to express our concern at the still ongoing delay in restoring an acceptable level of service for careworn commuters and to examine the potential measures needed to avoid a recurrence of the crisis.

 

  • What went wrong?

 

Quite clearly disagreements emerged within the rail industry on how the revised May 2018 timetable should be formulated and implemented. It should therefore have been decided to postpone the changes - regardless of any resultant management face-savings and embarrassments.

 

The UK rail industry is, alas, unacceptably fragmented. It is no longer structured so that an individual senior director or manager can be held accountable for such demonstrably critical decision making.

 

Though the railways are not nationalised in the way Jeremy Corbyn would like them once again to be, the government's Department for Transport nevertheless holds ultimate responsibility for those disastrous timetable changes. The DfT controls Network Rail and awards franchises to the likes of GTR and East Midlands Trains (EMT). 

 

But Ministers and civil servants quite obviously lack the necessary expertise and understanding to make operational decisions. In the words of Harpenden MP Bim Afolami, interviewed by the Herts Advertiser, the Govia Thameslink and Network Rail bosses behaved 'just like little boys with train sets', with scant regard to the effect on passengers. Hence the tendency for the kind of downward management 'buck-passing' that has had such calamitous consequences, not least for Harpenden commuters.

  

  • What needs to be done?

 

The 'emergency' timetable implemented in mid-July brought improvements to the service but that coincided fortuitously with an easing of demand as commuters started going on holiday.  There has since been a further 'tweaking' of the timetable, allegedly designed to improve matters. But, alas, with the main holiday period now passed, train delays and cancellations continue to afflict Thameslink services.

 

Timetable-related aggravations are compounded by the overcrowding issue. During the weekday morning peak period a Harpenden commuter feels lucky to get a seat. Those returning in the evening peak from St Pancras or even Farringdon frequently have to stand, at least as far as St Albans.  Service levels need to be ramped up with additional train capacity. The advent of 12-coach trains on the Bedford-Brighton Thameslink service appears to have done little to alleviate the overcrowding. 

 

There is now at last however some light at the end of the proverbial (not Belsize or Elstree!) tunnel. On September 20 - not before time! - the government announced a 'root and branch' review of the rail industry headed by former British Airways CEO Keith Williams. Its stated brief is to examine 'increased integration between track and train, regional partnerships and improving value for money for passengers and taxpayers'. It is incidentally perhaps a hopeful sign that the rail industry designation of passengers as 'customers' has been put to one side - for now. 

 

The announcement effectively acknowledges that the separation of infrastructure (Network Rail) from train operation has been a recipe for problems.  One would like to think that the rather bland reference to 'regional partnerships' holds out hope for 'timetable co-ordination' between Thameslink and East Midlands Trains, whose expresses come through - but do not serve - Harpenden.

 

This year's timetable fiasco was in large part attributable to the regrettable fact that some London-bound morning rush hour East Midlands trains no longer stopped at Bedford and/or Luton. Thameslink was therefore required to provide what were effectively substitute fast train services. It meant that some scheduled peak-hour fast Thameslink trains no longer stopped at Harpenden, where hapless commuters huddled on a crowded platform, knowing their scheduled train could well be a) delayed and b) packed, saw other apparently uncrowded Thameslink trains race through unhindered.

 

Unfortunately a review is only a review, not an action go-ahead. We won't hear until next year the outcome of Mr Williams' and his external panel's' recommendations, in the shape of a government White Paper. Bureaucratic wheels grind 'exceeding slow', and implementation of the likely reforms cannot happen, says uninspiring Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, before 2020. Until then the possibility of another timetable crisis will remain.

 

Rumours abound of Govia-Thameslink being stripped of its franchise in the wake of the timetable catastrophe. But the announcement of the 'sweeping' rail industry review would appear to have given it a stay of execution.

 

Meanwhile, the 'backwash' from the timetable-triggered rail service chaos is being felt in some less obvious places. Harpenden estate agents report a slowing-down in house purchase enquiries from people who have hitherto been attracted to the town by the promise of 'easy commuting to London in barely 30 minutes'. By the same token, commuting newcomers seduced by that prospect in recent years must hope against hope that improvements to the service will materialise sooner rather than later.

   

  • The Next Steps

 

A version of this open letter from the Harpenden Society was sent in mid-July to our Member of Parliament Bim Afolami, to our Hertfordshire County councillors, the APTU, the Harpenden Thameslink Commuters Group and other groups and organisations in the Harpenden area. It affirmed that we are ready and willing to meet with any or all of the interested parties to add our weight to any rail service reforming campaign.

 

STOP PRESS: From December, an extra 07.25 southbound departure will be introduced from Harpenden, and a 17.13 northbound from St Pancras, both formed of eight coaches. There will also be an increase from 8 to 12 coaches on the 07.34 fast train, as well as the 17.11 from St Pancras. And the 18.51 from St Pancras will now call additionally at Harpenden (arriving 19.15) to fill a 20 minute gap.

Luton Airport Expansion

Society's response to the February 2021 Consultation can be downloaded by clicking here.

  • Background

 

London Luton Airport (LLA) is situated 7 miles north of Harpenden town centre on the southern edge of Luton. It has grown rapidly in recent years: passenger numbers were 6.2 million in 2000, 8.7 million in 2010 and 18.0 million in 2019. Whilst the airport is easily accessible to Harpenden residents, its growth in recent years has resulted in a significant increase in the downsides associated with airports, namely aircraft noise, air pollution, clogged up local transport networks and, of primary importance presently, climate wrecking CO2 emissions.

 

Furthermore, because Luton Borough Council (LBC) is conflicted, it both owns the airport (and therefore has a financial interest in its success) and is the planning authority for the airport, the explosive growth in the last decade has resulted in planning conditions that were put in place to safeguard local communities being breached and no enforcement action taken. For example, the LBC planning permission for growth to 18million passengers was conditional upon staging expansion over a period to 2028 which allowed for quieter and lower emission aircraft to be introduced. However, LLA took no notice, and the 18million limit was achieved in 2019.  

 

  • The Society's Strategy

 

Strategically, the Society is fully supportive of the Hertfordshire County Council (HCC) 'Sustainable Hertfordshire Strategy 2020' which includes 'clean air for all by 2030' yet would be impossible to achieve should LLA expansion plans be realised. Against this background, the Society, working with Bim Afolami MP, local campaigning groups and government agencies, principally the county and district councils, engages with the airport operating company London Luton Airport Operations Lit (LLAOL) and LBC  to try to enforce planning conditions and ensure its future plans don't damage our community. Even to delay the process is positive for Harpenden as it allows for the introduction of quieter, lower emissions aircraft.

 

  • Local campaigning groups include:

 

Harpenden Sky

http://harpendensky.com/

 

LADACAN (Luton and District Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise) https://ladacan.org/

 

  • Current situation

 

Presently, there is one live planning application before LBC and four consultations at various stages of completion.

 

  • Open planning applications

 

Application to vary condition 10 of planning permission 15/00950/VARCON

 

This planning application is intended to regularise breaches of planning conditions established when the airport was granted permission to grow to 18 million passengers by 2028. The planning conditions were put in place to ensure that those places most exposed to increasing aircraft noise as the airport grew would benefit from strict limits on the number of aircraft that could fly and from increasing use of more modern quieter aircraft. These planning conditions have been systematically breached by the airport for the last three years (and no enforcement action has been taken). The planning application seeks to set aside these conditions at least until 2024. Currently, this application is awaiting a decision by LBC. The Society and all other local community groups, Hertfordshire County Council and St Albans District Council have strongly objected to this planning application. It has not been considered by LBC  yet and is now expected to be rolled into the planning application below to increase passenger numbers to 19 million per annum.

 

  • Open consultations

 

October 2020 Changes to London Luton Airport Arrivals

 

This consultation outlines a proposal to separate the Luton and Stansted airport arrival flightpaths. Presently, Luton and Stansted airport arrivals share the same arrivals routes and the same holds. Whilst the proposed separated arrivals flightpaths go over central Bedfordshire, this consultation is relevant to Harpenden residents as includes dispersed or concentrated flightpath options. A concentrated flightpath is similar to the flightpath that was implemented between Harpenden and St Albans in 2016 which has resulted in all westerly departures heading towards eastern Europe following a narrow flight path, which means those within 2km of the flight path hear every aircraft, rather than intermittent aircraft noise as was previously the case with dispersed flightpaths.

 

Further information about this consultation can be found here: https://consultations.airspacechange.co.uk/london-luton-airport/ad6_luton_arrivals/

 

An helpful analysis of the consultation can be found on the LADACAN website here: https://ladacan.org/consultation-on-arrivals-flight-paths/

 

The closing date for the consultation is 5 February 2021.

 

The Society will be responding to the consultation in due course.

 

October 2020 ICCAN's emerging view on the future of aviation noise management

 

ICCAN was created in January 2019, as an impartial, non-statutory body to rebuild trust between airports and their communities.

 

ICCAN has produced a document which can be accessed here:

 

https://iccan.gov.uk/future-aviation-noise-management/

 

which outlines ICCAN's emerging view on the future of aviation noise management, as well as their vision and goals over the next three years. 

 

ICCAN is seeking your feedback on this document via a survey that can be accessed through the link above.  The closing date for this consultation is 18 December2020.

 

The Society will be responding to this consultation in due course.

 

  • Recently closed consultations

 

February 2019 Luton Borough Council as owner of London Luton Airport Limited (LLAL) 'FutureLuToN'

 

This consultation outlines the airport owners plans to grow annual passenger numbers from 18 million to 32 million. The original consultation has closed and LLAL [an LBC owned company] has advised that it is considering the feedback and plans to submit a Development Consent Order to the government in 2021. The Society and all other local community groups, Hertfordshire County Council and St Albans District Council have strongly objected to this proposal, given the detrimental effect such growth will have on our climate and local communities.

 

The December 2020 Supreme Court decision to allow Heathrow Airport to apply for planning permission for a third runway has consequences for LLA insofar as Ministers have been advised by their Climate Change Committee colleagues that in order to keep emissions within latest Government policy commitments including Net-Zero, then Heathrow should only expand if regional airports contract.

 

There is also the conundrum that the Heathrow third runway planning application will now dictate the pace, so we need to ensure LLA is unable to advance their development consent application to the Planning Inspectorate until the Heathrow third runway status is decided. This position is several years away and not aided by Heathrow having disbanded their third runway team and a simultaneous plan by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to modernise flight paths across the south of England (FASI-S). This delay again will allow for 100s of quieter, lower emissions aircraft to be introduced.  

 

November 2020 London Luton Airport Operations Limited as operator of the airport pre-consultation on increasing passenger numbers to 19 million

 

This consultation (which has also closed) outlines the LLA plans to ask LBC l to increase the number of passengers travelling through the airport annually to 19 million in the short-term. In addition, the airport operator is seeking to have the planning conditions referred to above set aside and new weaker noise conditions introduced which would mean noise levels wouldn't reduce until 2027, at the earliest.

 

As above, the Society and all other local community groups, Hertfordshire County Council and St Albans District Council have strongly objected to this proposal, not least because there's no evidence that passenger numbers will even return to their pre-Covid-19 level (18 million) for the foreseeable future and because of the proposal to weaken the existing noise conditions. This LLA application would, if successful, lead to another c8,000 flights per annum intruding into Harpenden airspace.

 

  • Further information

 

If you require further information about the airport please email transport@harpendensociety.org