James McColl of the Campaign for Better Transport talks of zombie road projects which keep reappearing after they are scrapped. He makes reference to the Stonehenge section of the A303 to try to rubbish any improvements along the whole route. He maintains that officials ask the same question about projects in different ways until they get the answer they want. Perhaps that is because a long history of studies and shelving of schemes has done nothing to answer the problem.
Stonehenge is a unique World Heritage Site. To suggest that a scheme which will properly address not just the traffic issue but the importance of the Stones themselves and the surrounding landscape setting , with its 451 scheduled monuments, should be judged by traffic related cost benefits alone insults even ‘stone age’ thinking. In 1996 the Government accepted that if the landscape was to be respected then any upgrading to the A303 should be underground. The cost of such a solution for the site and the road should be a matter for the nation as a whole and not just the Department for Transport. Regardless of the rest of the route, the UK’s unwillingness to face up to its responsibilities for this site is a cultural disgrace.
The damage to the rail line at Dawlish highlighted the lack of resilience of South West transport links. With the line now restored we still have our beloved InterCity 125 trains, but contrary to local belief I am assured that the 125 stands for their top speed and not their expected life in service (currently 38 years).Growth in rail use continues, with Dawlish and Teignmouth alone having over 1.25M passengers per year. There is no doubt that we need more rail capacity.
However, the resilience problems are not only about rail links. The far South West has only one high standard highway route (M5) accessing a population of over 4M – a million more than Wales and a million fewer than Scotland. When the M5 is closed due to a serious accident there is no alternative route with sufficient capacity.
There are a number of places along the A303 that could be dualled at relatively modest cost. The land for some of these was bought decades ago. Not all sections need to be at the highest 70mph standard. Studies of the route have foundered in the past on the insistence of high standards throughout , which has resulted in unaffordable schemes.
Improvements to the A303, are predicted to generate over £40bn in economic benefits on top of substantial transport benefits, a reduction in carbon emissions, a large reduction of road casualties and substantial employment and other benefits to the blighted settlements along its route.
We have had route studies, multi-modal studies, regional assembly priorities and none of these have produced any progress. Delays in spending money - yes. Progress in resolving the problems - no.
The case for the improvement of the A303 has been made many times. It should be improved in phases at the earliest opportunity and not abandoned by using Stonehenge as an excuse for further delay. The route may have been established in the Stone Age but it is time it was brought into the 21st Century.
- Edward Chorlton is the former deputy chief executive and executive director of environment, economy and culture for Devon County Council