Last weekend saw plenty of tourists in the town, with St Leonards Festival and the ‘Blacksmiths on the Beach’ event providing additional interest alongside all our other attractions. As the summer goes on, there will be more, with the Root 1066 arts festival as well as all the regular annual events that are already firmly established in the calendar. And as Hastings’ reputation as a must-visit destination grows, there will be yet more people wanting to visit, and return.
This increasing popularity of Hastings as a visitor destination is of course good news for the local economy. But there is a continuing problem that becomes ever more pressing to sort out if we’re to make the most of this: our poor transport infrastructure.
Train services to London are slow, with journey times longer than to other towns and resorts much further from London. The possibility of Javelin trains coming directly to Hastings via the HS1 route is encouraging, and would dramatically reduce journey times to London. But while the option of using ‘battery cars’ on the trains to bring them across the non-electrified Marshlink route offers a cost effective solution, this is still untried technology - train manufacturers would need to develop the battery power units needed to make it work. And that’s not going to happen anytime soon. In the meantime, we’re still dependent on the Tunbridge Wells route, where we’re told journey times cannot be improved, because that route is so busy with other traffic.
East-west rail routes are even worse. Travelling from Dover to Southampton by train along the south coast currently involves at least three changes and takes over five hours. There seems to be no plan at all to improve this east-west connectivity.
Then there are our roads. Our road connection to London via the A21 is slow, with no dual carriageway till the Lamberhurst by-pass, twenty miles away. And while there are improvements planned to the A21, with eventual dualing much of the way from London to Flimwell, these improvements stop at the East Sussex border, sixteen miles away. The only ‘improvements’ planned south of Flimwell are average speed safety cameras - which will do nothing to shorten journey times.
The east-west route via the A259 is arguably even worse. Again, improvements are being discussed for the A27, but this ends at Eastbourne. What we need is significant improvements to the A259, as well as the A27, to provide a decent east-west south coast route. In particular, we need that route improved through Hastings, now we have the link road, to make the Ridge less congested. I’m not talking about a six-lane south coast motorway, which would be environmentally unacceptable - just some comprehensive, properly planned improvements to make journeys in and out of Hastings a little less fraught. Perhaps then, rather than being the signed route for a main trunk road, the seafront road could be closed to through traffic altogether.
So yes, we have studies on HS1, on the A27, and on the A21, even if most of them stop short of Hastings. But at the moment, no-one seems to be looking at these south coast strategic transport issues in a properly comprehensive way, considering the connectivity problems of south coast towns such as Hastings, and the impact poor transport infrastructure has on our local economy. We need better, bigger thinking at a regional and national level, or the prospects for growing our economy are much harder.