Last week we had another intolerable day of traffic logjam in Ipswich, off the back of several days of disruption across the town centre as road works collided with ever-increasing numbers of cars.
First things first: the reason why there is more day-to-day traffic in Ipswich is because our local economy is growing fast. People who say that it has got a lot worse in the last few years are right: it has, and the reason is because there are more jobs here than ever before, more people moving around, more shopping and more leisure. The reason all these cars get stuck is because Ipswich is built around a town centre that is Anglo Saxon and, in places, older still. It is worth remembering next time you walk down Westgate Street, over the top of the Cornhill and through Tavern Street that you are treading an Iron Age drovers’ track that is over two thousand years old.
In the 50s and 60s, their answer to the clash of modernity with the ancient England was to engage the bulldozer. The result is Star Lane which, when you see what was demolished to make way for it, will make you want to weep. For once we can thank that mid-century Ipswich disease of never finishing anything properly for the fact that we still have Fore Street and St Nicholas’s Street, for both would have been demolished had the traffic madmen had their way.
These are more sensitive times – but until recently, they were also less ambitious. Until a few years ago we were content just to manage the problem, and had backed away from serious schemes as we because increasingly afraid of our own possibilities as a serious town.
That has now changed. We are thriving and growing. There is much more to do but on whatever index you choose to look – house prices, vacant shops, jobs – we are doing well and doing better at an accelerating rate. That is because we have decided to make a change; but it is also a pattern of growth that cannot be sustained if we do not continue to be ambitious about our future.
That is why I was determined to address the traffic issues of our town head-on. The key was to find alternative routes across the town and to do so in short order. That is why we began by assessing the relative merits of the two schemes that had been around for some time – the Northern Bypass and a Wet Dock Crossing.
What became clear pretty soon is that each scheme answered different problems. Modelling shows that the bypass made very little impact on traffic volumes within the town itself on the 364 days when the Orwell Bridge is not shut, whereas the bridge has a significant impact every day of the year – reducing journey times across Ipswich by an average of 18% in the morning peak and 27% in the evening peak hours. Moreover, and unexpectedly, the bridge relieved significant pressure from the Orwell Bridge in peak times, as it provides a better route for people who currently leave town on one side in order to come back in on the other.
A northern route, or bypass, or relief road – whatever it may be – solves a different problem, however. It certainly provides resilience when the Orwell Bridge is shut – but that happens so rarely that it would be impossible to get the business case for several hundred million pounds to stack up on that alone. What it does more usefully for the rest of the year is support growth to the north of the town, so that Ipswich can continue to grow without creating yet more traffic chaos.
So both of these solutions are ultimately necessary. The last question is in what order you do them. Frankly, that question answers itself. The Upper Orwell Crossings, being over water, have very limited impact on people and property – and it is considerably cheaper than a northern route will be. Moreover, it is easy to see where the route will be and can be delivered quickly.
By contrast, because of the complexity of a northern relief road, we do not yet even have general route options, let alone a chosen path, which means that we also have very little idea of what the costs will be. Even when we have all that – and we are a couple of years still from that point – it will be many more years securing money, planning permissions and land purchases before spades actually hit the ground.
This is our task, therefore: to move ahead with both projects as fast as we can, and in so doing we will deliver real improvements in traffic within the next five years, whilst ensuring we can cope with growth in the decades beyond that. That is the plan – and now, unlike before, it is actually happening.