Norfolk traffic is a nightmare - ‘twas ever thus

Skip gets on his bike to test Norwich traffic congestion – and seek inspiration from high-flying exp

Skip gets on his bike to test Norwich traffic congestion – and seek inspiration from high-flying experts - as the Castle Mall shopping development takes shape in the late 1980s - Credit: Archant

Keith Skipper remembers the last time the authorities tried to sort out traffic congestion. It didn't work then either

One of the most telling comments in the slow-moving history of Norwich traffic congestion dropped neatly into my memory bank on a delightful morning exactly 30 years ago.

I was wandering in the enticing May sunshine towards my broadcasting seat at BBC Radio Norfolk studios in Surrey Street when an old friend on the rural beat drew alongside in his rather careworn old car.

"Where are you goin', old partner?" I inquired as he wound down his window and did his usual impression of a flustered rustic trying to make sense of alien territory.

"I ent gowin' nowhere" he beamed. "I think I'm jest a'cummin' back!".

The perfect Norfolk summary of growing frustrations on our roads and their apparently insoluble nature. Back in 1989 the debate was becoming more heated and divisive. Even then, some of those charged with trying to sort it out refused to accept it had reached totally unacceptable levels.

If planners didn't know if they were coming or going along that clogged-up trail how could they expect the likes of my old country chum to transport them towards enlightenment?

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He sat in a queue, with ample time to take coloured pictures of the traffic lights, while the city council and the county council edged towards deadlock over possible effects of more big office blocks in Norwich, once lauded and loved as the City of Gardens.

My old friend unfolded his Eastern Daily Press to digest letters where the public transport lobby accused the private motorist of being selfish and snobbish. The private motorist stuck the same sort of labels on his or her critics.

Tuning in to local wireless news bulletins in May 1989, you could hear developers pledging to keep city centre disruption to a minimum while the Castle Mall shopping development took shape.

City traffic planning chief Vernon Bale admitted "barrels are being scraped" to see how traffic dislodged from the Cattle Market car park could be accommodated in an already-crowded centre. I got on my bike to test the comfort climate and soon retired "confused".

Meanwhile, city council planning chairman Philip Tolley claimed it was the changing social pattern of car ownership that led to traffic congestion. He and colleagues called the county council's proposals to limit Norwich's economic growth as "ludicrous and hasty".

A senior fireman hit out at "thoughtless parking" when a fire engine was stuck for half-an-hour in a Norwich street. Inevitable questions about what might happen in a major emergency.

It was hard not to feel pessimistic despite appointment of a firm of transport consultants to carry out a £400,000 survey in the city. They had 18 months to complete their study, looking at a wide range of ideas including light rail and park-and-ride.

I noted how the area for scrutiny stretched beyond still-growing Spixworth and Horsford in the north, still-growing Blofield in the east, still-growing Poringland and Mulbarton in the south and still-growing Hethersett and Easton in the west.

There was promise of "room for plenty of public comment". I assume one or two home truths about facing up to consequences of expansionist policies in a limited area were given an airing.

The report duly arrived with a fanfare of fresh hope, just like those before and since challenged to create "a new vision" for residents, workers, students, shoppers, tourists, football fans and even old boys up from the sticks who need to pay allegiance to a fine city.

By a quirky coincidence, I did experience a possible peep into a more tranquil future on my return home to Cromer (by train) on another bright day in May, 1989.

They came to resurface our road. Men in brightly-coloured jackets formed an advance party, lorries and rollers thundering behind. Before they could unleash their mixture of tar and chippings the street had to be cleared of all vehicles.

An eerie silence fell on our little bit of town. Cars were spirited away. I strolled to the end of the road - a wide and empty road I'd never seen before. Birdsong and the heavy scent of wallflowers and lilac took over.

Several neighbours popped out to share this unlikely experience. "We ought to hold a street party to celebrate!" quipped one. It didn't last long. Men, lorries and rollers left and cars resurfaced to claim familiar berths.

Had I been peering into the past - or the future? Still searching for an answer.

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