The other day I was in Llandysul on the border between Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire border. Shop owners I spoke to were complaining that trade had dropped dramatically in the past three years and were desperate for ways to improve things. Although I’m not sure they had immediately made the connection, it just so happens that this month is the third anniversary of the opening of the Llandysul bypass.
This was a £23 million scheme, part of the long-running Ceredigion Link Road Strategy, the idea of which is to provide a faster road link from Carmarthen to mid-Ceredigion and beyond. The Strategy has been pursued in a piecemeal way for the past 20 years or so as funding has allowed. The latest piece of work, the straightening of a 1.5 kilometre section of the A486, is taking place right now at Post Bach near Synod Inn in Ceredigion. I’ve got no problem with that, but listening to the traders made me doubt the wisdom of the bypass.
The cause and scale of the problem for shopkeepers is illustrated by the latest traffic figures for Llandysul. The figures, taken from a counter on one of the town’s approach roads, give a five-day average for August each year:
Aug 2005 = 4485 vehicles
Aug 2006 = 4537 vehicles
Aug 2007 = 3948 vehicles
Aug 2008 = 4421 vehicles
Aug 2009 = 4440 vehicles
Oct 2009 – Bypass opens
Aug 2010 = 1814 vehicles
Aug 2011 = 1798 vehicles
Aug 2012 = 1691 vehicles
As can be seen, as soon as the bypass opened, traffic through the town dropped by almost 60 per cent and has dropped further since. That was, of course, part of the idea and has been welcomed by those wanting a quieter town and drivers wanting to get as speedily as possible from Carmarthen to Aberaeron. Nobody misses the lorries trundling through, but it sounds as if it might have been at the expense of much of the economic viability of the place.
One of the roles of small towns is to act as service stations to travellers. A quick stop to buy a sandwich and stretch legs can lead to further impulse buying and the building of a relationship with local shops. I wonder if that role was considered or fully understood when the bypass was decided upon during better economic times.
Now, I’m fully signed up to the agenda of properly connecting Wales from north to south and I’m not arguing against road improvements. But, given that the Llandysul bypass took well over ten years of thought from conception to completion and then £23 million to build, after talking to local business people I found myself asking if this bit of the Ceredigion Link Road has been worth it financially, and if so, for whom exactly? There’s no question that many car and lorry drivers are a bit happier for shaving a couple of minutes off their journey time and that those couples of minutes all add up, or that many residents find the town a much pleasanter place. But are they £23 million happier? And does that make up for the losses to the local economy which affect everyone in the community on some way or other?
I don’t doubt that, somewhere, the economic benefits of bypasses like this have been analysed. It seems, however, that they’re so generalised and ‘big picture’ that it’s hard to quantify them. But bypasses are unquestionably a centralising force. The whole idea is to speed traffic on to larger places and (like it says on the tin) bypass the smaller ones. The easiest economic effects to see are the dis-benefits to ‘the bypassed’ and I’m not sure these are being taken sufficiently into account. Are small communities not a part of the big economic picture our better connections are trying to address?
These are difficult financial times. The parameters are changing and I’m only partly joking when I say maybe it would be in the economic interests of small towns to keep our road system a bit more like a visit to Ikea, where the route guides you past all the other products before you get to where you’re heading. If that sounds a bit tortuous and inefficient, put it this way. In the new economic reality, which looks like going on for some time, could the best and most cost-effective road system for our all-round economy be one that has excellent links between towns and efficient routes through them but still encourages travellers to pause for a few moments to spread some of our diminishing wealth around a bit.