A Reader Writes re the Torridge Strategic Plan

Dear Letters Editor, 

April has come early to Torridge District Council (TDC) if [the North Devon Gazette] report on the proposed extension of the Tarka railway from Barnstaple to Bideford is correct (December 20, p.5). 

With only a quarter of 93 respondents to TDC’s six-week public consultation (closed 14 November) supporting the idea – that’s to say 24 individuals out a district population of 68,100 (2021 Census) – the TDC ‘will now investigate the appetite for an evaluation of the railway’s economic and environmental benefits, along with Devon County Council, North Devon Council and Network Rail’. Really? 

Why bother with the waste of money and resources involved in sussing this out? Surely there’s a legally required baseline proportion of residents that must respond before a consultation result can be considered valid – indeed, how many of TDC’s 68k residents even knew/know about the proposal? I’ll leave it to others to work out what percentage of the area’s residents 24 individuals represents – not to mention the total number of 93 consultee respondents – suffice it to say, there’ll be a few noughts… 

Residents of Torridge’s – and North Devon’s – isolated rural communities can’t even reach stations on the current Tarka line without private vehicular access, so extending the Exeter-Barnstaple rail link to Bideford will make no difference to them. ‘Local economy, community health and the environment’ are the stated themes of the TDC ‘strategic’ (sic) plan but it’s hard to see how any of these will be advanced by an idea that fails to address the once-a-week only bus connection linking many rural residents to North Devon’s principal town of Barnstaple.

With Torridge MP Geoffrey Cox and North Devon’s Selaine Saxby supporting an extended rail line, it’s hard to avoid the impression that TDC is the tail desperately wagging the Tory ‘Levelling Up’ dog for its share of the £400m bone to be fought over by 20 councils nationwide. A pity, given that Conservatives are a minority on the district council. Perhaps it’s an attempt to catch up with Barnstaple’s Future High Streets Funding – an £11million scheme which has failed even to deliver full pedestrianisation of the town’s High Street and has left the town’s bus station facilities closed. Site-owner North Devon Council has blamed the latter on a shortage of funds, truly beggaring belief. Instead, half-a-million quid is to be spent on knocking down a wall to link together two car-parks… 

A Stagecoach bus in Bideford – Image: Southern England Bus Scene

It’s hard to make this stuff up, particularly in light of the county’s DevonBus Enhanced Partnership, born 12 months ago, which recognises that ‘rural bus services play an important role in reducing deprivation…in the north and west of the county’, and that ‘personal travel accounts for around two-thirds of all Devon’s transport-related emissions, so reducing the need for personal travel and creating a greater reliance on public transport is our first priority’ (Devon County Council Bus Service Improvement Plan, November 3rd 2022, Part 1, paras 2.3/2.5). 

Where’s that stagecoach – pun intended, as the bus company of the same name was a key player in the partnership plan which recently announced £14.1m funding for capital and revenue projects over a three-year period? Meantime Stagecoach Group reported profits of £72.7million for financial year 2021/22 and a revenue of almost £1.2billion. 

Here’s new boss, Peter Knight, speaking to Radio Exe on his appointment last year: ‘I believe there are some great opportunities ahead as we look to move more people out of their cars and onto public transport, and I am determined to deliver a good and reliable bus service for our communities in the south west’ (31 Oct 2022).

So where’s that bus if, for example, I want to travel from St Giles in the Wood to Barnstaple? Meantime, a cautionary note: for all the talk of extending the Tarka line there’s been no public mention that it runs on diesel, a seriously health-damaging fossil fuel with high PM2.5 emissions. Stand for a even a short time at Exeter St Davids waiting to catch the hourly service and the appalling stench is cough-inducing.
Health and environment, rural bus services? Priorities, what priorities…? 

Meg Howarth
19a Ellington Street
N7 8PN
Twitter: @howarthm

Jim Hunt

I've been programming computers since the late 60s. In those days they didn't have computers in schools, so we had to build our own. What can I program next? Will I have to build it first?

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Jim Hunt

    Further to some of Meg’s points, I became a resident of Torridge in June. However I don’t recall receiving an invitation to comment on the Torridge District Council Strategic Plan in the post. Now I cannot help but wonder how such public participation was solicited.

    I have had a brief conversation with my MP, Sir Geoffrey Cox, about a matter related to the Tarka line extension. He assured me that he was in favour of the provision of “shuttle buses” to the new railway station in Okehampton. I verbally suggested to John Gray, Sir Geoffrey’s Chief of Staff, that spending some of Torridge’s chunk of the “£400m ‘Levelling Up’ bone” on electrically powered buses was an idea worthy of consideration.

    I followed that suggestion up by email, but I have yet to receive a substantive reply.

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