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The waiting game

Leybourne bypass - After 15 years, a bypass around the Kent villages of Leybourne and West Malling is finally taking shape. Mark Hansford finds out what took so long.

For anyone who bemoans how long it has taken to get his or her road scheme off the drawing board and into the ground, here is a sobering statistic - by the time it opens in September 2006, engineers on the 4km A228 Leybourne policy will have spent 10 times as long planning than they have delivering.

Consultant Peter Brett Associates (PBA) has been with it all the way, right back to the firm's appointment as project designer by Kent County Council in 1990.

In that time, the scheme has gone from scratch to planning approval twice. Just under 10 years were spent developing the route under the 1990s ethos of 'predict and provide' before the 1996 roads moratorium and 1998 New Deal for Transport white paper sent everyone back to the drawing board. The scheme was reborn in 2000, and five years on, work is finally under way.

'We spent almost 10 years promoting one form of the scheme before government policy changed. Now we've been through the same processes again in under five. That is the good news. The bad news is the previous 10, ' says PBA project director Malcolm Cleaver.

'We've been through at least six public consultations, produced two environmental statements and two planning applications, and had two public inquiries, ' says Cleaver. 'So it's fair to say that this scheme addresses all concerns.' And without doubt there were concerns. The route cuts through a sliver of green belt that separates upmarket West Malling from Maidstone's urban sprawl.

On either side of the bypass are scattered ancient monuments, and the route skims the edge of ancient woodlands.

But there were also pressing needs. There are few north-south routes in Kent, and the A228 carries 29,000 vehicles a day between Tunbridge Wells and the Medway towns and the M20 to the north. At peak hours traffic backs up onto the M20, causing frequent accidents. Once off the M20, traffic on the 'strategic' route races past residential houses on the edge of Leybourne, and even separates the Church of England Leybourne Primary School from its church.

The rst outline plan for an 'on line' improvement was identified by Kent County Council (KCC) in 1978. But the plan stayed there as an undeveloped idea awaiting prioritisation.

This came in 1990, by which time 'predict and provide' was in vogue. This called for enough capacity to meet demand for at least 15 years after opening - which for the A228 meant a partially off-line, dual three lane grade separated highway.

The rst public consultation was held in autumn 1990, from which a preferred 'Orange' route was selected. This demanded a new junction with the M20 and 13 new bridges. Between the A20 and M20, the road would split from its existing alignment completely and run through greenfield land. The scheme would have had a current day cost of £40M.

It was considered at the Medway Gap Local Plan Inquiry in January 1993. By today's standards the scheme would not have stood a chance, but then the planning inspector approved it 'lock stock and barrel', says Cleaver.

The inquiry did, however, reveal public concerns about the scale of the scheme and, notwithstanding the secretary of state's approval, KCC decided cut it back to two lane dual carriageway. Two more years of consultations to refine the route followed before planning permission was granted in 1996.

Then the bombshell hit. Just as KCC was about to publish draft orders, the Highways Agency binned its plans to upgrade the M20 and withdrew its support for the A228 scheme.

The New Labour roads moratorium had arrived.

Two years later, the 1998 white paper confirmed the shift in government thinking and it was back to square one.

'In 1999 we reconsidered the scheme and changed its nature from rural standard to urban, ' explains Cleaver. This allowed tighter geometric alignments, at grade junctions and meant that the existing M20 junction could be used.

Additional facilities for pedestrians, cyclists and buses, and a scheme to provide better access to West Malling railway station were also designed in.

Land take was reduced, as were environmental impacts, addressing the concerns raised at the original public inquiry.

To minimise the road's visual impact, it has been designed with 'false cuttings' - shielded by new embankments going back at a 1:12 slope. These slopes will be returned to agricultural use once the work is complete.

Just five extended or new bridges are needed (including one grade-separated junction with the A20). One more will be moved (see box). The new scheme will cost £28M.

Then followed more public consultation (2000 and 2001), a fresh planning application (2001), fresh environmental appraisals (2001), yet more consultation (2001), referral to the secretary of state (April 2002), a new public inquiry (April 2003), secretary of state approval (2004) and, finally, funding (March 2005).

Main contractor Birse Civils' contract is worth around £14M. It was recruited in April 2004, a year before funding was approved to allow it to have a hand in the detailed design.

'We didn't want to design reinforcement detailing on bridges only to find Birse saying it could have done it cheaper another way, ' says PBA project manager Bob Jacoby.

'On all our current schemes, we are trying to get the contractor in early and save abortive design costs, ' says KCC regeneration and projects manager Geoff Cripps. The move has already paid off, with Birse offering up alternative - cheaper - designs for the Lucks Hill bridge (where it has gone for precast concrete beams instead of post-tensioned) and the widened railway crossing (where it has used its railways experience to choose more manageable span lengths).

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