Newbury has some of the worst traffic congestion in Berkshire. After decades of poorly planned Government road building, vehicles travelling between the Midlands and the South coast ports clash with local traffic on the A34 at Newbury causing delays and pollution.
However, the assumption that more road building could solve the local and regional traffic problems is wrong. Apart from wrecking huge swathes of beautiful countryside to the West of Newbury, the proposed bypass would encourage even more traffic. The bypass would not provide a long term solution to local traffic problems.
The existing A34 route around Newbury town centre was built as a dual-carriageway bypass in the 1960s. Since then, the town has expanded enormously, and most of the congestion is caused by local traffic. Berkshire has one of the highest levels of car ownership in the country. Transport consultants have found that public transport and traffic management options could solve the traffic problems of Newbury. But these have never been considered. Road-building was the only option to be looked at, despite its environmental impacts.
A North-South Link: not a solution to local problems
No integrated or coherent transport strategy or policy lies behind the Newbury bypass. The only objective of the public inquiry into this road was to provide a high quality 'strategic' trunk road between the Midlands and the South coast ports.
Bypass proponents claim that 50,000 vehicles travel through Newbury every day. But according to the Highways Agency, 70% of this is local traffic - driving on and off the A34 for short trips in town. Only 30% is genuine through traffic, and most of this is short-distance. Much of the congestion on the existing route is caused by North-South traffic clashing with local vehicles at roundabouts on the A34 during peak hours.
Because most of the traffic is local, the bypass will make little difference to traffic conditions in town. On the day it opens, there will still be as much traffic in Newbury as there was at the time of the 1988 Public Inquiry. Traffic levels will be back to 1995 levels on the existing A34 within Newbury 5-7 years after the new road opens. In some parts of Newbury and surrounding villages, there will be substantial increases in traffic due to the Western bypass.
The Highways Agency has assumed that traffic levels would rise unchecked without the bypass, ignoring any possibility of alternative measures being taken to reduce congestion. Their predicted daily traffic count of 78,000 on the A34 in Newbury without a bypass for the year 2010 is clearly unrealistic. Because the A34 is already close to capacity now, traffic levels simply could not rise that high.
The Government has refused to release information behind its 1995 'review' of the bypass. Even requests to the Highways Agency for details on the claimed 'economic benefits' of the road and the traffic flows that would use it (both standard sets of data) have been refused.
No alternatives to the road have been officially considered The recent report from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution recommended that traffic management measures should be explored instead of bypasses. Such measures were not covered in the public inquiry and were scarcely mentioned in the Highways Agency's review of the road.
Independent transport consultants have shown how a package of local measures could solve the traffic problems of Newbury more effectively and at a lower cost than the bypass.
If built, the Newbury bypass would be one of the most environmentally destructive road schemes in the country. It would plough through spectacular English countryside and would:
Damage to Snelsmore Common will result from outright destruction to ancient woodlands whilst noise and air pollution would affect songbirds and delicate heathland vegetation. Damage to the rivers Kennet and Lambourn would result from the interruption of the wildlife corridors they provide and from increased pollution as oil and other chemicals deposited by road vehicles are washed into the water by rain. The National Rivers Authority continues to object to the river crossings of the Newbury bypass, and English Heritage has concerns about the destruction of archeological remains of national significance.
No proper Environmental Impact Assessment was ever carried out on the road, despite the findings of the Government's Landscape Advisory Committee back in 1986 that the road was "quite unacceptable". English Nature, the Government's wildlife advisory agency, was unable to gain access to some areas of the route of the road and protected species such as Dormice and bats were not discovered until work was started in 1994. The public inquiry in 1988 took place before many of the environmental impacts of the road were known. Complaints under the European Union (EU) directives on environmental assessment, the protection of birds and threatened habitats were not upheld due to legal technicalities.
Businesses are already gearing up for major new developments along the route of the bypass, which will generate additional traffic and further impact on the local countryside. The decision to build the road was not democratic or properly informed. Local people in Newbury have never been given the choice as to whether to have a road or not. All that was presented at the public inquiry was a small chance to influence the chosen route of the trunk road.
The preferred Western route for the A34 trunk road was announced in 1984, at a time when environmental considerations were much lower than now. The one public inquiry into the route was in 1988, and the public were not allowed to question the 'need' for a trunk road at that inquiry. The final decision to proceed with the bypass was made in 1990. The 1992 public inquiry investigated side-road orders and was not part of the decision making process.
Public Opinion is Divided
Having lost all of the transport and environmental arguments linked to this road, its supporters have resorted to claims that the scheme enjoys 'overwhelming local support'. However, such support has never been demonstrated in a systematic or representative way. The '6:1 in favour of the road' (often quoted by bypass supporters) was estimated through a self-selecting telephone phone-in. Only a few per cent of the local people responded. Although local people are desperate for a solution to their traffic problems, many are deeply unhappy about the route of the proposed western bypass and there is substantial local opposition. According to a comprehensive recent survey, 80% of local businesses that responded said that they oppose the bypass or believe that alternative solutions to the town's problems should be tried before the road is built.
Poor Value for Money
The �101 million of public money allocated (the current official cost of the bypass), would be far better spent on a range of public transport and traffic management measures for local and regional traffic. There are many other transport investments which would yield better value for money, be less controversial, reflect modern thinking on sustainable transport strategies and not cause major environmental destruction.
A package of local traffic reduction measures for Newbury would have much longer term benefits than the bypass at a fraction of the cost. The most costly proposal would be to upgrade the Southampton to Midlands railway to take so-called 'piggyback' freight services, where heavy lorries travel on specially designed trains. The equivalent 'Channel Tunnel to Glasgow' piggyback line will take 400,000 lorry journeys off the roads every year after it opens in 1997, with huge savings on pollution and road maintenance.
The decision to proceed with the bypass in July 1995 was a direct result of the concerted lobbying by local politicians, the roads lobby and those with vested interests. There was no formal consultation or opportunity for debate during the review period. The Highways Agency refused to meet representatives from Newbury or from national environmental organisations. No input was sought from the other statutory bodies. The final report was prepared by a few people in a Government agency committed only to road-building. The day before the Chancellor revealed details of the 1995 budget, it was confirmed that the Newbury bypass scheme was to go ahead. This announcement was made in the face of massive cuts in the roads programme announced in the budget that will probably make the Newbury bypass the only major trunk road to be started next year. This remarkable given the tremendous controversy generated by the road and the strength of the environmental and traffic arguments against it.
The day after the budget, the Secretary of State for Transport, Sir George Young, was selected as the next Conservative candidate for the safe Tory seat of Hampshire North- west. Sir David Mitchell, the present MP, is to retire. This seat is situated at the Southern end of the bypass, where many prominent and influential bypass proponents reside. Sir George Young has thus escaped his present marginal seat in Ealing.
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