Politicians aren’t renowned for keeping their promises, but one who did is Councillor Suzanne Nuri-Nixon, who represents the South Wymondham Ward on Wymondham Town Council.
One of the election pledges she made in 2017 was to help the local community improve disability access at their main railway station in Wymondham, in the East of England.
Wymondham (pronounced ‘Windum’) is an idyllic market town in South Norfolk, a couple of hours drive from London. The 2011 census shows a population of 14,405, but that is likely to have increased with new housing development in the area.
Travelling by train is vital for many people in the town, yet a perennial problem has been the lack of access to Platform 2 at Wymondham Station. Currently passengers need to negotiate two flights of steps, which is near-on-impossible for wheelchair users, parents with buggies, those with suitcases, and the elderly.
On her blog, Cllr Nuri-Nixon highlighted the shocking case of a young man dressed in a suit heading for a job interview, who was caught unawares of the station’s limited access. On arriving at Platform 2 at Wymondham Station, he was told he needed to cross over to Platform 1 to board a Norwich-boundtrain. In pouring rain, the young man who has limited mobility, was forced to sit on the steps and shuffle on his hands and bum to navigate the two flights of steps to catch his train.
“It is a scandal that in this day and age, we could put a man on the moon but not people onto a train station platform,” wrote Cllr Nuri-Nixon.
Thelack of disability access to the Cambridge-bound platform adversely impacts local people and visitors to the area. Not surprisingly, it has kept passenger numbers using the station down, resulting in fewer regular trains calling at Wymondham, and a lower placement on the government’s funding priority list.
Complaints kept pouring in to the key stakeholders, and despite pledges from the likes of Greater Anglia, which manages the station, the local MP George Freeman, Norfolk County Council and South Norfolk District Council, nothing was changing on the ground.
After being elected in November 2017, Mrs Nuri-Nixon, a Lib Dem councillor for, rolled up her sleeves and joined the Wymondham Access Group. Using her activist skills when she was based in London, she helped with petitions, protests and a postcard campaign to highlight the lack of disability access at Wymondham Station.
When George Freeman was briefly appointed Transport Minister in July 2019, the action group stepped up the lobbying.
In September 2018, Greater Norwich was one of 10 city areas shortlisted to apply for a share of an £840m grant from the Department for Transport’s (DfT) Transforming Cities Fund. In the following budget announcement, this was extended to 12 city areas and a £1.2bn total fund. Part of the fund is to improve the use of public transport.
Under the ‘Transport for Norwich’ umbrella, local authorities from Norfolk and Norwich successfully worked together to secure £6.1m from an initial £60m pot in March 2019. But still there was no plans for improving access facilities at Wymondham Station.
With crunch decisions due in November 2019, campaigners stepped up their efforts. Thirty people staged a demonstration at the station on Saturday, 16 November, demanding train company Greater Anglia builds step-free access to the station’s Cambridge-bound platform. The pictures of the protesters of all ages, some in wheelchairs, holding handmade banners with “Access denied” and “How do I get to Platform 2?” made the local press.
In the following months Mr Freeman’s boss, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, was also bombarded with postcards from local people demanding the same.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many government funding decisions and development projects were put on hold. However, the years of persistent campaigning for the Wymondham Access Groupfinally paid off.
At the end of September, Cllr Nuri-Nixon and her fellow campaigners were informed that Wymondham Station had been awarded £600,000 by the Department of Transport for urgent improvements.
A chuffed Cllr Nuri-Nixon told T-VINE: “This was always one of my campaign pledges to try to address the poor access at Wymondham Station. While the MP in our area was actually a Transport Minister for a short time, we shone a spotlight on this issue, which had remained static for years.
“In my view, the protest last November, together with a postcard campaign to Transport Secretary Grant Shapps helped this issue over the line.”
One of the hardest parts of being involved in a volunteer-led community campaign is to keep people motivated and active, especially when you have slender resources and are trying to reach the echelons of power.
When asked what advice she’d give others facing a similar challenge, Cllr Nuri-Nixon said:
“Keep up the pressure definitely. Find new ways to highlight an issue, the more different, the better. Think of how to make your campaign stand out. And don’t give up as persistence really is key.”