A haggard man stepped out from under the overhead Monorail Metro lines, turning up his collar to the neon sodden rain.
“Southampton weather,” he muttered to no-one in particular.
Pulling his coat closer and cumbersomely avoiding the clogging pedestrians, he reached the noodle bar canopy and found a stool. Meeting the gaze of his elderly host he pointed toward a spitting griddle, “Four.”
“Two,” said the Oriental cook “Two.”
“No four,” the haggard man gesticulated “Two, Two, Four.”
“Yes. Two.” the old man turned his back, hurriedly preparing the meal.
The man on on the stool sighed, ”and noodles.”
Glancing back over his shoulder he watched as a Metro car scythed through the night sky. An incessant billboard flashed hopeful images of cruise ships and New Forest Cider mercilessly into the dull eyes of crammed passengers onboard. Turning back wearily he ate.
Just as the noodles were beginning to work their warming spell he felt a sharp rap on his shoulder. With composure he turned to see a tall, fork bearded man whose boar tipped cane had laid to rest there. A policeman stood beside him, indistinct in the driving rain.
The fork bearded man began yammering in a strong, indecipherable speech.
Beckoning the old noodle cook over he asked, “what did he say?”
“He say you Deckard.” He considered Deckard nervously before continuing, “He say you town planner”
“Was. I’m retired”
The fork bearded man burst into speech again.
“He say, you plan this Metro. He say, you responsible for crowds. He say, you turn sleepy city into international retail hub. He say they want you to use other ridiculous 1980s transport ideas to revitalise Portsmouth.”
Deckard leered, “Well I was quit when he came over, I’m twice as quit now.”
The fork bearded man leaned in close, whispering low, so that the beating rain almost drowned him out, “You will build a Jet pack and hovercraft station, including a Planet Hollywood”.
Deckard stared over the man’s shoulder, drinking in the relentless crowd milling beneath the leviathan he had built. He knew they’d got him, he knew he couldn’t resist. He would live the town planner dream this one more time but at what price?”
Please excuse my foray into fiction, I couldn’t help it. Browsing through the oversized books section of the Library I was oddly drawn to a dull, olive green, card bound collection of papers entitled: ‘Journey in Southampton’s Past, Present and Future with Metro 2000’. With a title like that how could I not be interested? It turned out to be a ‘green paper’ proposal from 1987 to build a monorail through and around Southampton City Centre.
Needless to say the proposal never came to fruition. I only came to Southampton in 1997, so until stumbling across the green paper I’d never heard of the idea before. Surely the people of Southampton of the late 1980s found the idea as fantastical as the little story above paints it. Monorails? Really? Surely only airports and sci-fi films have monorails?
The plan was announced in April 1987 and the council was already claiming to have been sounded out by potential private funders before the paper was put out to consultation, which it was with local business, traders, people and residents. The circular track would run for two-and-a-half miles and link up local transport hubs (the train station and port) as well as local ‘attractions’ and the city shopping centre. The ‘trains’, or ‘people movers’ as the Council began to call them, would arrive every 2 minutes and reduce an hour long journey by foot to eighteen minutes by monorail. The Council rather sweetly compared it to the then newly built Sydney monorail which linked (indeed still links) the harbour to hotels in the city centre. Ah yes, Southampton: the Sidney of the South of England.
Delving back through the archives it appears that the idea gained legs and it turns out that the people of Southampton were actually rather taken with it. An independent survey found that 60% of residents supported the proposal, with a further 15% supporting it if certain conditions were set. The main concerns raised were to protect the city’s parks and other green spaces.
In order to proceed Southampton City Council were required to put a Bill through parliament in order to get ‘Royal approval’ and by November 1988 the Bill had been put forward with an estimated date of Royal assent (if given) of 1990. By Summer of 1990 the Bill had been enthusiastically endorsed by the House of Lords (a body of people not normally renowned for future thinking). It had received cross party support and was championed in particular by Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, the then Chairman of English Heritage and founder of the local Beaulieu National Motor Museum. By then the Bill had received sixteen petitions, or objections, that would need to be taken into account, including concerns for existing bus and ferry operators. Finally, in 1991 it had made its way to the House of Commons.
But alas, the House of Commons was to prove a step to far for the ‘People Mover’ Bill. In February 1991 the Commons voted 138 to 49 against giving the Bill any further Parliamentary time and the scheme was effectively killed off. The Council Leader and champion of the scheme, Alan Whitehead (now a Local Labour MP), said at the time:
This imaginative scheme is delayed but not forgotten… The public will surely judge harshly those who slowed the process down for a few years at great cost to the prosperity and health of our city
Sadly for Mr Whitehead, he was to be proved mistaken. By 1992 the City Council were consulting on a wide reaching ‘Southampton Transportations Strategy’, there was no mention in the Council’s bulletin of the monorail idea. Why did it flounder? It was probably cursed by a combination of the recession that was hitting the UK at the time, conservatism and the fact that Southampton was already in receipt of a considerable amount of investment in other regeneration projects.
To some extent I find it a little sad that the scheme floundered. I can remember when schemes like monorails seemed like the future, although I suspect I’m not alone as they have swung in and out of fashion over several decades. But no major functioning monorail exists in the UK outside of airports and theme parks (thanks for confirming this Twitter). The reintroduction of trams seems to have replaced monorails as the transport of the future for major cities, such as the one currently being completed in Edinburgh.
Aside from the amusement factor of sleepy Southampton melding into some sort of dystopic future city, the proposal is interesting in that it addresses an issue that has plagued UK city centres since the 1980s, that is the slow death of the City Centre high street. The proliferation of malls and out of town retail complexes was already in full swing by the time of this proposal. Indeed Southampton’s eventual solution to its own high street woes was to build an epic mall in the shape of the West Quay Centre (and more recently a monster IKEA). To be fair on the City Council, the death of the monorail did not cause a funding problem for the city and they did save the City Centre, or at least draw people in to shop there and go. However, I would argue that they did not save the high street or solve the problem that they set out to fix, that is the problem of Southampton’s oddly fragmented city, parks, and most importantly for me, its heritage areas. A monorail, however barmy, might well have done this.
Southampton’s historical heritage, in particular its architectural heritage, is something I want to touch on in future posts, so I won’t go further into that now. But what a great document to stumble across, and a good demonstration of what pootling about in your local university library can dig up. I’m sure there are further weird titbits from the past to unearth.
Poor old Deckard and his revolutionary transport of the sky, it was never to be. Anyway, if they had built it I would probably be writing a post about how the horrific Southampton monorail cuts ugly swathes through the heritage areas of Southampton. Either way, I still rather like the futuristic optimism of Southampton: Blade-Runner-On-Solent.