On the Orbital (1)

Launched in the early 2000s as a response (partially) to concerns that the Royal Preston Hospital was too difficult to visit for people in the outer suburbs, the Preston Bus’ “Orbital” is formed by buses travelling either clockwise or anti-clockwise through the city and into the outposts.and fringes. It is popular, although specific passenger numbers are not easy to confirm.

Whilst succeeding in linking some parts of Preston with some other parts; I don’t think the “Orbital” has quite mastered  convincing people of the benefits of a journey which could last over 40 or 50 minutes (the entire loop can take ninety) and cost £3.30 if buying an all-day ticket, as Hospital visitors may find necessary to do. Logic dictates that people living on the anti-clockwise route can get to the Hospital far quicker, and far less expensively, by taking the dedicated Hospital service. Nonetheless, the “Orbital” has patched over gaps in the original services to the northern communities, particularly the new-build estates encroaching into the rurals and greenbelt, turning into a regular commuter service for some.

Taking my lead from such blogs as Diamond Geezer and London Buses:One At A Time, I chose to spend an early Friday afternoon taking the “Orbital” on its clockwise route. Unlike those blogs however, I broke up the journey in three places – I trust that one of these being for the purchase of a Morrison’s salad bar selection is considered both valid and not an “accidental Partridge.”

I don’t think anything else has to be said about THAT BUILDING other than to confirm that, yes, it has been awarded Grade II Listed Status, and that beauty is 20131011_144528in the eye of the geek (or, to quote the Leader of Preston Council, the nerdy sociopath).

Preston Bus Station is the start and end of the “Orbit”, for both clockwise and anti-clockwise services. They run very regularly, and one follows the other, to allow for the limited number of actual buses to maintain the service even when rush hour and Preston’s notoriously cramped roads conspire against them. One complete loop probably could cost less than £3.30, but my decision to break up the journeys into chunks meant there was little choice but to pay the full amount for what is a “hop on, hop off” ticket.
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From the building of which I will no longer speak (….for now) the clockwise 88C makes its way into the city centre towards the Docks.

This first jaunt should give an adequate indication of the myriad problems of travelling through Preston – stop/start, juddery, slow, plagued by congestion, traffic lights and inadequate road layout. Praise be to the heavens, mind, for something is in place to be done! Whether this will work is a point most moot, however, and critics and cynics alike consider the proposals to be inherently flawed. Shared space can work, it has been proven to do so. Not perhaps as Lancs CC envisage, particularly as they foresee each and every existing bus stop congregated outside the railway station, which I see as being just asking for trouble. But what, as so many people are wont to ask, do I know.

Two Mormons(es?) on this bus, incidentally, chose not to use their audience for rapid-fire conversion techniques. One actually fell asleep, his head slowly, slowly dropping down as the rest of us (teenage girl texting her driving instructor, two Cissie and Ada types gossiping, two others keeping themselves to themselves) bobbed about. The Mormons left only five or so minutes later (the fast asleep one waking up as a puppy might, head flicking from window to window in momentary confusion) and by the entrance to the Docks, every seat was taken.

Preston Docks was not future-proofed when it was regenerated for what was, in the 1980s at least, the brave new future of shopping and living. The only road into the Docks sucks everything onto it, cars often  backed up for a mile or longer. There are no passing points along the entire site and no public crossings, for that matter, which forces anyone from child to pensioner to play chicken at day and night. Solutions for either problem? Nothing.

One Morrisions salad later (too few slices of beetroot, too much potato) I wander to Ashton Park, where many of the trees stand taller, prouder and fatter than they were when I was a lad, throwing conkers into the road and whatever else passed for high jinks in my day. The “Orbital” from here takes in the first of the major residential parts, that of Ashton and then Larches, the latter showing all the signs of typical post-war sprawl. This 88c is standing-room only, school children and families at the back, elderly couples up front, and love’s young dream somewhere in the middle.

We pass under the Blackpool railway, one-time site of Lea Road train station. Beeching would say, I assume, that this specific example of bustitution proves his theory right, although, of course, he was not blame for that particular station closing.

Cottam’s well to do and getting by home-owners left for their chocolate box houses with earphones and page-turners close to hand. The change at Cottam has been rapid and remarkable – from grass to garages, from fields to crunchy-gravel driveways, and all within the most boom of all boom times in the British economy. From here the service runs through the comfort of Cadley, all bungalows and two-ups and the church of St Anthony of Padua. This is Fulwood, which strangers can get to by travelling up the A6 and turning left when they feel house prices shooting up. By now I was travelling almost alone, with three gossips and a headphone-guy for company. We passed Fulwood Academy, newly renamed and entirely rebuilt, looking like an office for call-centres and companies that offer ‘solutions’, all curved walls, spot lighting and silver-grey tinted windows.

From here the journey reaches, by and large, its half way point. And so, I suppose, should this post.

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Jamie Oliver’s pukka poverty

It’s Wednesday afternoon in Preston, the Lancashire city with some of the highest rates of unemployment in England. Looking for food on low- and fixed-incomes in Preston is not easy, and the results are less salubrious fare than “25 mussels, 10 cherry tomatoes, and a packet of spaghetti for 60 pence” as Jamie Oliver says he wants to “teleport” a poor family to see.

Besides Preston’s covered markets, in which you can buy from a wide selection of fruits, vegetables, South Asian and East Asian ingredients, Caribbean and East African foods, tripe, black pudding, fish and pigs trotters, stands the city centre branch of Iceland. The city center branch is rarely empty, and when I potter round for my usuals, it’s pretty much packed from the checkouts all the way back to the vacuum packed value bacon. Outside the entrance is a circular seating area based around an “inspirational” mosaic which has been hacked, scuffed and ignored from the day it was installed. Chain-smokers and women eating Greggs from the packet sit around watching other Prestonians go about their business. From the seating area outside a pub, men of a certain age consider the world through their pint glasses.

Inside Iceland the world of Jamie Oliver is far from peoples’ minds. A mother and her exuberant bundle of hyperactivity stop-start along the aisles, picking up or putting down the various in-house prepared meals Iceland proudly advertise as being a step above the kind of value meal cost-cutters which were involved in the horse-meat scandal. There are other mother-with-children grouplets all over the store, bagging multi-pack crisps, cartons of £1 orange juice and yoghurts. Everything the man in front of me puts out onto the checkout are in cardboard boxes: a Sunday roast, a pasta-bake type affair with sausages, Yorkshire pudding filled with beef slices. I stock up on pasta meals too, and a pork pie, and Yazoo milkshakes.

Oliver has skirted around the realities of poverty and poor living in Britain, though only with a camera crew or researchers around him. His most often quoted remark this week – concerning the couple eating cheesy chips in front of a “massive fucking television” – is typical of his comfortable ignorance. The poor are predominately proud as a rule, who want to show a brave face and nothing of the feet flicking madly underneath the water. Suggesting the aspirational route – eat pasta! make your own pasta! rustle up some ricotta fritters with tomato sauce! – is only throwing the map down from a very tall height, and that map probably doesn’t show the best route to travel. In the middle are jobs which can’t be found, money which is almost impossible to save, demands from banks and utility services that cannot be ignored, and food which has to be affordable, often for anybody but the person buying it. The low- and fixed- income families who want to show their children that they, like any other family, can sit down in front of a television aren’t trying to put TV over nutrition; it’s wanting to carry on as normal with as little negative judgement from strangers as possible.

Eating pasta with mussles in front of a moderately sized television may well be an option for some on low- and fixed-incomes, Jamie, but not from where I’m looking.

Affordable food is not necessarily healthy food. It can be, and indeed really should be if supermarkets had any morals about them. There are options but they’re shrinking. The price of chicken, once a fairly safe option for cheap stand-by meals, has gone through the roof. Most other meats have seen similar price rises. Fresh fruit and veg, so often packed into bags of 6- or more, cannot always be stored away for long amount of times, and they’re not as cheap as they used to be either. Faced with mounting living costs or the need to visit a foodbank, the low- and fixed income poor can’t count as an option the dozen or so ingredients required to make the “cheap” foods so many middle class TV chefs assume just lie waiting in the pantries and fridges of the nation. I wonder if Oliver knows this, deep down, and refuses to accept it.

There are moments of sense and reason in the Oliver interview, given to promote another of his social-conscience television shows. He is right to point to local markets and more sensible purchases, but has gone about it in the completely wrong way. The little dictator attitude is that of most typical Tories and small-c conservatives, who have provided a generation-and-then-some-long soundtrack of tuts and moans from the sidelines on most subjects under the sun. Education? Not as good as it was for the poor or those Northerners, don’t you know. Jobs? They’ve got no grit, those poor and unemployed folks, that’s the problem, need to bring National Service back, I say!

Let’s not demonise the low- and fixed-income poor. There’s ingenuity with that pride and sense too. It makes good copy to draw attention to cheesy chips and expensive unhealthy options, but that distracts from the real economic hardships facing millions across the country.  Maybe the best recipe for Jamie Oliver is not to brag about 101 solutions to national poverty whilst preparing yourself for another lucrative television programme. Come to Iceland or B&M Bargains without a camera or researcher to watch the reality of those people who can’t just be marched into a market for a swift transformation into people who could pick up dozens of fresh ingredients and all the necessary herbs and spices without denting their weekly budget.  It’s not “poverty” as our grandparents or great-grandparents might have known it, but whatever we’ve got cannot be fixed with theatrical gasps at the sight of a Greggs pastie or Bird’s Eye fish-finger. If you want people to see the Sicilian fishermen with their mussels and pasta, Jamie, you’re going to have to pay….

Lea Road – a forgotten station

As eager as I am to blame one man and one man alone for ruining British railways, the case of Lea Road in Preston has no connection to him. For once.

“The Civil Parish of Lea and Cottam” is the long-winded formal way of referring to the north-west parts of the city of Preston. The “Lea” bit is really two communities, one of your actual semi-rural villages right up against the city border, and a compact suburban sprawl. “Cottam” really was one of those “in my day, all this were fields” type of places, where the fields are now mere fringes for numerous new-build estates all constructed to look like glossy-magazine spreads. In an act of daft marketing brainfarts, which blights every new-build estate, the contrived look of a rural village is somewhat ruined by the ever decreasing amount of untouched rural surroundings caused by….new-build developments.

Maybe it’s just me.  I’ve seen new-build apartments built with bricked-up windows and pretend delivery doors five floors up, just to give the impression to those paying over £100,000 for their shiny new IKEA playground it’s 17th century olde England. Baffled, I am.

Anyhoo, splitting Lea from Cottam, broadly speaking, are the Preston-Blackpool train line and the Lancaster canal. It’s typical of this country that it’s the latter which is more likely to take local people into Preston.

“Lea Road” runs from the main Blackpool Road in the south to Cottam in the north, running through a patch of well-to-do houses with crunchy gravel gardens and the like, before opening out to a field on one side and UCLAN’s recommissioned Westleigh House on the other. From here the pavement vanishes, homes become more stone than brick, and the distinct waft of a real life, actual working farm flicks over the humped canal bridge. This is the distinct boundary between Preston and….well, not Fulwood, so “not Preston”, where rural central Lancashire penetrates Preston’s solid urban core.

OS Map (Copyright to them) of Lea Road Station

OS Map (Copyright to them) of Lea Road Station

It’s about half-way along, just off a 90s housing boom estate running off Summer Trees Avenue, where the soon to be electrified Preston-Blackpool railway cuts its way through. Alas the nearby pub, latterly known as the Cotty Brook, has been closed for what appears to be a considerable amount of time, the nearside nettles and bracken encroaching in the way which proves the old maxim, “Nature always wins.”

There’s not much at ground level to show where Lea Road station used to be, particularly the old signal box or even so much of an entrance. The “Ashton On Ribble” website provides a snapshot of how it looked from the top and via the invaluable Preston Digital Archive there’s an aerial photograph taken from MARIO that gives some indication of how much the area has changed. The land to the left is still there (albeit FAR messier and over-grown), whilst to the right housing and business units have been built in recent years.

I made my jaunt to Lea Road on an overcast Sunday afternoon, which necessitated meandering through the overgrown and muddy sort-of-not-quite path through Haslam Park, a kind of sedate adventure playground for dog-walkers which uniquely amongst Preston’s parks hasn’t lost (much) of its charm. I found my way to the Millennium Canal Link “thing”, a project infamous for the construction and swift removal of “the Piddler in the River”, a statue ultimately lost for good at the expense of £25,000. That’s a lot for wood nobody thought checking for, say, water damage or, you know, going rotten. AS WOOD TENDS TO DO.

In all truth and honesty, the station probably wouldn’t have survived long after the War which followed its initial closure, particularly as Beeching would have noticed how little housing or even schools existed in walking distance, never mind driving, at the time of the ‘reshaping’ report. Added to that, it would be almost impossible to construct health-and-safety satisfying ramps and what-not today in such a cramped, tight space.

Almost all signs of the station have been long lost. The archways underneath the lines are bricked up, with REDUNDANT SPAN painted in white capitals. One long-lost plan for the station was an impressively ambitious project to link the Blackpool line with the West Coast Main Line at Broughton/Fulwood, enabling the under-strain Preston station to lose some of its stresses. A great “what if” opens up in the mind, as Lea Road would have almost certainly given Beeching something to think about if Blackpool – Scotland traffic justified the lack of construction opportunities around the expanded line.All which remains now are the bricked up arches, suggesting show much about its past whilst showing little.

Unlike in the days of my youth, it’s impossible to walk beside the track itself. (No, really, back in High School, it was quite the done thing to sit around the Blackpool line and…never mind. NOBODY DIED.)  Now there’s a metal fence with the usual warning signs, and a good set of spider webs set for the summer.

Thanks in part to BNFL Springfields (…no, really), the neighbouring Salwick station remains open, for around four trains a day, none on weekends. Alas the fortune was not smiling at Lea Road, for whom the 1930s were not sympathetic or full of promise enough to persuade powers that be to hold on.

By way of a coda, both Lancashire County Council  and Preston City Council support the construction of a new station at Cottam, although the current plans are sketchy at best (literally, one could say, as it depends on the construction of a “Preston Distributor Road” from two points yet to be decided). At least it’s something, albeit 20-odd years out of date, and a rare sign of positive attitudes towards public transport in a city with very little such evidence hitherto.

Advising long lost or forgotten engineers....

Advising long lost or forgotten engineers….

One for the entrance, one reportedly just in case of the Broughton extension

One for the entrance, one reportedly just in case of the Broughton extension

In my day, we'd sit around alongside this. INNOCENT TIMES

In my day, we’d sit around alongside this. INNOCENT TIMES

One way up

The slope on the left now used by engineers

The slope on the left now used by engineers

....there's at least a bus service. The Orbit takes about 3 hours to crawl around the outskirts

….there’s at least a bus service. The Orbit takes about 3 hours to crawl around the outskirts

Preston needs changing to stay the same…

Preston City Councillor Bill Shannon, (LibDem, Ingol), has set out why he believes the city council requires serious reform if it is to survive in the long-term. In short, Cllr. Shannon believes Preston can no longer remain as a mid-sized unit on the banks of the River Ribble, constrained by the compromise boundaries drawn around it forty-ish years ago.

Whilst disagreeing with Cllr. Shannon on certain subjects I won’t go into here, he’s absolutely right about the future of our city. For Preston to survive, it needs to change, and that means a slow but sure process of amalgamating services as a precursor to full merger with neighbouring administrations.

The fix-and-fudge of local government reform generations ago has left its mark across the country, particularly England where there’s been less change than in either Scotland or Wales. Almost all the local authorities created in the 1970s as a compromise position to the contentious Redcliffe-Maud report remain in place today, their sizes and shapes unmoved despite mammoth changes in population, work-load and responsibilities, employment and the like.

Nobody in Manchester, for example, can fully explain why the council area is such an elongated blob. Of course cynics can suggest plenty of reasons – it kept out largely Tory-leaning bits in Trafford and the semi-rural north, it ensured the Airport and its growth area had to use the “Manchester” name, and so on. Generations away from the map redrawing, the reality on the ground is a population almost unrelated to the official demarcation lines.

Preston, like Manchester, is a city constrained by the flicks of an administrator’s pencil. The city doesn’t stop at the Ribble; people who live to the south are no less “Prestonian”, or less likely to work in Preston, on the grounds of living on the opposite side of an arbitrary border.  The reality of life in this part of Lancashire has seen Preston grow in stature and relevance, and all within the lines of a borough decided upon on a coin-toss in the 1970s.

The financial consequence for the city and its people is profound and dangerous. The only way to safeguard the integrity of Preston, and to ensure the financial security for the services provided for people who live here, is to be bold on the manner in which administrations are formed.

Cllr. Shannon builds a two-step process. Initially councils need to share services, cutting back on duplication which builds up in the everyday processes of providing day-to-day services. As Preston is a two-tier city, served by 57 city councillors and ten County Councillors, there’s plenty of duplication amongst the administrative scaffolding around the representative buildings housed here. Numerous towns and cities across the country are dealing with the Government’s budget slashing by sharing services, and this process can only continue.

The next step, hinted at in Cllr. Shannon’s statement, is a full merger with neighbouring authorities, and is something I’ve always supported. It’s not enough for back-room staff in Preston to work alongside those in the Boroughs of Fylde and South Ribble. Preston is an economic possibility stifled by its status, locked in by suspicious and cynical council leaders in neighbouring towns.

The modern economic reality is too serious for such parochialism. Our city boundaries need to respect that work, study and play in this part of Central Lancashire is no longer respectful of invisible lines drawn on across rivers and along roads. There’s no legitimate reason for South Ribble, Chorley or Fylde being separate when hundreds of thousands of residents already treat Preston as their “hub” for employment, university or college study, or social/piss-up outpost. There’s no legitimate reason why, having cooperated in reducing costs by merging backroom jobs, local councils can’t take the natural step to amalgamate.

My principle is “sphere of influence”. If you live in Tarleton, you’re within the Southport “sphere of influence”, only to be denied by the decision to create Sefton in the 1970s. Preston suffers the same – thousands of potential workers, students, and wealth creators living in Bamber Bridge, Leyland, Chorley, Kirkham, Lytham, all denied by an arbitrary line on a map.

Let’s respect opportunity more than geography. I’ve no time for the types in historic county organisations who wish to reclaim parts of the world which have no existed in forty or more years. I don’t accept calls to “bring back” such places as Middlesex or Westmorland, no more than I do any request to scrap decimal currency.

There’s far too much broken with our democracy – the voting systems at local councils are as close to “corrupt” as you can get, and Scotland is proof of how to resolve that simply by converting to the STV voting system. One other issue is the size and composition of the councils at this level – outdated boundaries drawn for partisan reasons. Cllr. Shannon says we need the “necessary courage” to create a new council, what would inevitably be called “Greater Preston”. I agree with him.

“Preston” was once over  half the size it is now, growing in size only when the separate borough of Fulwood was added in the 1970s. Now the next step has to be taken, not just to correct the problems of Prestonians living far beyond official borders, but to ensure the financial security of Lancashire’s true heart. Anything else is not an option – staying still won’t mean staying the same.