ACCELERATING ON THE ROAD TO A FIASCO
The Times, Saturday July 29, 1995
On the day of protest against the Newbury bypass, OLIVER TICKELL uncovers evidence of a rushed and unsound decision.
Half an hour before leaving office as Transport Secretary in the last Cabinet reshuffle, Brian Mawhinney made his surprise announcement: the bitterly contentious A34 Newbury bypass in Berkshire was to go ahead.
"I now intend to move speedily ahead with the proposed scheme to bring much-needed relief to the town and its residents," he told the Commons. "I can see no justification for further investigation or delay."
Dr Mawhinney's move astounded environmental campaigners. Seven months earlier, he had announced a year-long review of the proposed nine-mile '70 million project. And only five months ago he launched a Transport debate in an attempt to solve, through "consensus and rational debate", the rash of disputes over road projects.
For a few months, environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth and the Council for the Protection of Rural England had been welcome guests of the Transport department as they engaged in civilized discussion with their former enemy. But with Dr Mawhinney's sudden decision, all the new understanding was destroyed. Why?
One unfounded conspiracy theory is based on the arithmetic of John Major's last leadership election. Sir David Mitchell, the Conservative MP for Northwest Hampshire, is a committed supporter of the bypass, which is due to run through his constituency. On July 1, with the leadership battle in full tilt, he wrote a letter to The Times full of praise for the Prime Minister's "truly remarkable deal" at Maastricht. On July 4, Major won the leadership battle. Next day, Sir David asked the Parliamentary question that enabled Dr Mawhinney's announcement.
Could some kind of deal have been done? No, Sir David suggests. "Any such suggestion is the product of the fevered atmosphere in Westminster this summer," he insists. "There is no truth in it whatosever. I would not have taken a decision on a matter of national importance on a constituency interest."
Environmental groups believe that the whole transport debate was a sham and that Dr Mawhinney had already made up his mind about the Newbury decision. Once he knew that he was leaving his job, the decision had to be announced, they argue, in case his successor reached a different conclusion'as the present Transport Secretary, the green-minded "bicycling baronet" Sir George Young, might well have done.
One of Dr Mawhinney's main duties as party chairman is to raise funds for the next election campaign. And by deciding to build the bypass he was both promising the construction industry a juicy contract, and signalling that the road-building programme was still on.
Certainly the decision was made at short notice. A week before the announcement, for example, DoT officials were telling Friends of the Earth how much they were looking forward to seeing its report on non-bypass solutions to Newbury's problems. The report is due out next month.
The Highways Agency (HA) report on which Dr Mawhinney would largely have based his decision is only 35 pages long, weak of argument, lacking in detail, and fails to meet its own terms of reference. It appears to have been written in a hurry.
Other influences had come to bear on the decision. Within weeks of Dr Mawhinney's original announcement to put the Newbury bypass on hold, a formidable pro-bypass alliance, the Newbury Bypass Forum, had been formed.
Clandestine meetings at Newbury District Council offices brought together organizations including the British Roads Federation, the Freight Transport Assocation, Hampshire and Berkshire county councils, Basingtoke and Dean Borough Council, and Vodaphone, Newbury's largest employer.
Within a week of the forum's launch, about '10,000 had been raised, with Vodaphone contributing '7,500, and the Newbury Weekly News printing an address for further donations. Newbury DC then added '8,000, let office space for the forum at the town hall, and allocated its information officer, Peter Gilmour, to work on the campaign.
To make sure that support remained solid, employees of Vodaphone were warned not to support the anti-bypass campaign openly. Newbury DC has imposed similar restrictions on its employees.
Sir David also played his part in the campaign. For example, he appealed through the local press for pro-bypass letters that could be presented to the Transport Secretary, and arranged a meeting between Dr Mawhinney and bypass supporters.
But when a constituent, Helen Anscomb, wrote on February 7 to oppose the bypass, he refused to pass on her letter. "Her views are exceedingly well-known to the DoT and it would have been superfluous to have done so," Sir David said. He also denied bypass opponents the opportunity to meet Dr Mahwinney. Their own attempts to arrange a meeting with Berkshire CC and Newbury DC were also rejected.
Commercial interests do stand to benefit from increased road capacity and construction contracts, but interests of another sort are involved. For example, Sutton Estate, which owns 7,500 acres, has launched a plan for 1,700 houses, a college campus, and a gold course in the bypass infill area (the area between the bypass and the town, which becomes available for development). The estate also wants to dig up its water meadows to provide most of the million or so tonnes of gravel needed for the bypass.
John Gummer, the Environment Secretary, has told Berkshire CC to provide for 40,000 extra houses by the year 2006. Bids are already in to build about 5,000 houses in the area between Newbury and the bypass. Ultimately, the town could expand by as much as a quarter towards the bypass, generating a lot of extra traffic.
"It's sacrilege, the whole thing,." says Jill Fraser, who runs the Watermill Theatre, a converted 19th-century mill on the banks of the River Lambourn at Bagnor, a pretty village two miles northeast of Newbury in the heart of the countryside. "Many people say they don't just come here for the plays, but for the peace and quiet. When the road comes, that tranquillity will be lost for ever."
The A34 bypass is planned to sweep across the valley a few hundred yards from Bagnor, but more than the village and its theatre will suffer. The swathe of noise, fumes and destruction will extend across 12 miles of pristine countryside.
The bulldozers could move in within months, and heath, bog, water meadow, ancient woodland and part of the site of the First Battle of Newbury (1643) will give way to an all-purpose dual carriageway. The road will cut across the rivers Kennet and Lambourn, clear-running chalk streams which are due to be designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). According to the National Rivers Authority, the bridges planned for the crossings are too narrow, giving only four metres clearance on either side of the banks. Upstream floods are likely to be more severe, by nearly a metre and the corridor will be too narrow for the free passage of wildlife along the rivers.
Next to the Lambourn, just outside Bagnor, the Rack Marsh nature reserve will be traversed by 13 metre high embankments. Snelsmore Common, a rare heathland SSSI, will lose a corner of the road, and traffic noise will mask the song of its nightjars'increasingly rare birds protected under the EU Birds Directive'perhaps reducing their chances of successful breeding. To the south, a National Trust nature reserve, the Chase, will be similarly blighted.
So what has English Nature (EN), the statutory body for wildlife conservation, done to protect these jewels of natural history?
Not a lot. EN's national policy is to "oppose vigorously road proposals that adversely and irreversibly affect SSSIs" and makes it clear that "loss or damage to certain parts [of SSSIs] would then detract significantly from the whole". However, EN made no objection to the western bypass.
David Henshilwood, of English Nature, says: "We did not object to the route, having already obtained a major change'the original proposal was to go through the middle of Snelsmore Common."
When the pre-construction works started last year, a variety of legally protected animal species was found along the route, including badgers, a colony of endangered dormice, and six rare species of bat. Again, EN did not come to the rescue. "The scale of the problems encountered did not warrant recommending that the public inquiry be re-opened," Mr Henshilwood says.
Notwithstanding the environmental impacts of the bypass, most of Newbury's residents welcome the scheme. As Mr Gilmour, Newbury DC's information officer, puts it: "This spectre is being created of the environment being destroyed by the bypass. But the environment extends to the town as well as the countryside. What about all the children suffering from asthma along the route? How do you weigh that up?"
Using the A34 through Newbury can be a horrible experience, and not just for motorists. Pollution, Mr Gilmour says, is three times worse than in other parts of the town. The houses along the road are barricaded against the filth and noise that rage all day and much of the night. An unusually high proportion of the traffic consists of heavy goods vehicles.
Traffic congestion means that it can take more than an hour to get across the town during the morning and evening peaks'a distance that could be covered in ten minutes on a bypass. About 50,000 vehicles a day pass along the central section of the A34, more per lane than on the A4. The Highways Agency estimates that, even with no action, this could rise to 78,000 a day by the year 2010.
The present road, Mr Gilmour says, is the weak link in a continuous motorway and dual carriageway from Glasgow to Southampton, and that two-thirds of the vehicles comprise through traffic.
But things are not always as they seem. Traffic figures show that this "through" does indeed make up two-thirds of vehicles'but only on the lightly used southern stretch,
The inner Newbury section of the A34 carries more than double the traffic, most of which is local rather than "through". So, crucially, more than two-thirds of the vehicles in the congested centre are local and would not be displaced by a bypass. In addition, town-centre traffic that at present is put off by congestion would return.
According to the HA, this would add a tenth or more to its traffic forecasts. Because the new traffic would be mainly local, the extraordinary conclusion is that overall congestion could get worse.
Keith Buchan, of the Metropolitan Transport Research Unit, says: "Someone may be able to save time by using the bypassed road, but in the process of getting on and off it, they will slow down other traffic so much that the benefit evaporates. Newbury is already congested, so the induced traffic demand on the network will bring it near to gridlock."
Dr Mawhinney's description of the bypass as "the best solution to the problems of congestion in Newbury" that will offer "much-needed relief to the town and its residents" seems far from reality.
Of course, all these questions should have been analysed in the HA report. Its terms of reference were to "look again at the published route and at any other practical alternative options for reducing congestion at Newbury including, but not limited to, those already considered", while applying "current traffic and environmental assessment procedures".
Barely a page and a half of the agency's report is devoted to wildlife impacts. Its performance on traffic assessment is no better. Last year, a government committee published a revolutionary report which concluded that new roads induce new traffic, and that the wider congestion caused by this induced traffic can greatly reduce or even wipe out the economic benefits a new road is meant to deliver.
Following this report, the HA was instructed to re-assess all road schemes for induced traffic, even those that had been subject to a public inquiry. However, its report on Newbury did not update its traffic forecasting systems; it just added a modest 10 per cent to its previous forecasts, for both the new and old A34s.
How did the agency reach its figure of 10 per cent? "It's a bit of a guesstimate at this stage," a spokesman said. "We cannot say how much traffic will or will not be attracted until the scheme is in place."
What happened to non-bypass solutions to the town's congestion?
The HA report dismissed them in four pages. Rail, it said, cannot provide an alternative because of the existing poor service. But, Mr Buchan says: "The HA is comparing the present underfunded service with a future high-spend road scheme."
The idea of encouraging a switch to buses through bus lane priority measures is also summarily rejected on the grounds that this "would generally cause a reduction in capacity for the remaining traffic". But Mr Buchan says that the HA's review is a sham. "There is government guidance on all these matters that they should have followed, and if they haven't, the report should be pulled.
"Either there is a much more detailed document that we have not seen behind the published report, or they haven't done the work."
Charles Secrett, director of Friends of the Earth, says: "The Government has sold the environment a pup. A week before the decision over Newbury, Department of Transport officials were telling us how they were looking forward to seeing our independent report on how traffic management can solve Newbury's problems, which we commissioned at a cost of more than '15,000.
"Who is ever going to trust this Government again? We will do all we can to stop the bypass."
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