Environmental campaigners have described Highways England’s consultation on a major road improvement in Gloucestershire as “a sham”, saying it only presents one realistic option.
Consultation ended last month on plans to upgrade the three-mile A417 ‘missing link’ in the vicinity of Air Balloon roundabout, the last single carriageway section of the 31-mile trunk road between the M5 at Gloucester and the M4 at Swindon.
The road lies within the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). The A417 drops steeply from the roundabout towards Gloucester and HE says there is “no straightforward upgrade”.
The consultation presented two options, with the preferred scheme (option 30) being a 3.4-mile surface scheme with an estimated cost of £485m and a benefit:cost (BCR) ratio of 1.04.
The other option presented (option 12) is a four-mile surface scheme with an estimated cost of £465m and a BCR of just 0.68 (LTT 16 Feb).
Tunnel options have been ruled out on cost and value for money grounds.
Gloucestershire County Council, which has pledged up to £4m to help HEdevelop a scheme, has endorsed the preferred option and says it would not object to option 12 if that was ultimately taken forward.
Lynden Stowe, Gloucestershire’s cabinet member, for economy, skills and growth, said: “A tunnel solution is clearly unaffordable and would pose its own ecological challenges in a sensitive area. Highways England is right to rule out these unrealistic and undeliverable options.”
But Chris Todd, roads campaigner at the Campaign for Better Transport (CBT), said the consultation was “a sham” and both options would cause “significant damage to the Cotswolds AONB”.
Todd said the Government’s £250m-£500m cost envelope for the scheme meant all tunnel options, which CBT might support, had been ruled out. “What we have here is a predetermined preferred option, based on an arbitrary cost constraint, with a previously rejected aunt sally (option 12) thrown in to try and give the pretence of choice.”
He said a previous landscape-led approach to finding a solution to the road problem appeared to have been “jettisoned without any explanation”.
The CBT said this was not the first time HE had presented such a narrow range of options in a consultation, adding that it was contrary to good practice.
“It is not until the formal consultation on the preferred route that the public would expect to only be consulted on one route. Before that time, good practice would encourage the public to be engaged in a wide number of options to allow HE to properly consider all the possibilities for delivering a particular scheme.”
The CBT said building the road in the AONB would go against the principles of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and the National Policy Statement for National Networks (NNPS).
The NPPF states: “Planning permission should be refused for major developments in these designated areas except in exceptional circumstances and where it can be demonstrated they are in the public interest.”
The NNPS states: “There is a strong presumption against any significant road widening or the building of new roads and strategic rail freight interchanges in... Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, unless it can be shown there are compelling reasons for the new or enhanced capacity and with any benefits outweighing the costs very significantly.”
Said the CBT: “The case for building this road is far from compelling given its very low or poor BCR and certainly does not meet the test for building in an AONB.” Building the road would “set a dangerous precedent, opening up nationally designated landscapes to all sorts of damaging developments”.
Andrew Alcorn, HE’s South West regional programme leader, said: “A solution for this route presents unique challenges and we are very aware that any upgrade needs to take into account the sensitive environment of the Cotswolds AONB.
“We have carried out a landscape study in recognition of the sensitive environment to ensure that the scheme is landscape-led in as much as the road fits into the landscape, rather than altering the landscape to accommodate the road.”
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