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Road building lacks public accountability in Wiltshire

Patrick Kinnersly Secretary White Horse Alliance
12 June 2020

Your report ‘Wiltshire creates team to lead M4-South Coast road upgrade’ (LTT 29 May) makes it sound as if Wiltshire Council is making real progress towards creating a fast road from the M4 to the dying port of Poole. Bearing in mind the hideous cost and difficulty of just getting the A350 round Westbury – never mind building a string of bypasses through Dorset – the A350 expressway still faces all the obstacles I set out in my Viewpoint article ‘Seaside blues – bypassing the facts on the fantasy road to the M4’ (LTT 28 Sep 18).

What the story does show, however, is Wiltshire Council’s mastery of the new corporate apparatus for transport planning. In practice this means central and local government collaborating to get roads built without strategic planning along corridors of economic growth. This opens up land for sprawling housing and trading estates often with a remarkable absence of popular support and democratic scrutiny.

Nowhere is this more striking than in Wiltshire Council’s plans for the open countryside and the Avon Valley to the east of Chippenham. With a contempt for public consultation that outraged local MP James Gray and all the parish councils through which the road would pass, the council obtained a £75m grant from the Housing Infrastructure Fund to build a 9.5 km spine road to open up land for 7,500 houses and a million sq ft of industrial estates. 

Only a fragment of this project appears in your catalogue of A350 schemes: the A350-M4 junction 17 improvement will be needed to handle the extra traffic from this vast area of urbanised countryside now branded as ‘Future Chippenham’. Wiltshire Council wants to distinguish the project from its vision for the A350 growth corridor – even though the road would leave the A350 to the north and rejoins it to the south of town and would, the council says, reduce congestion in the town.

The council has embraced the role of property developer. A ‘Future Chippenham team’ will be “entirely separate and distinct from the council in its role as local planning authority”; future funding will be covered by borrowing £5.220m capital from reserves in the 2020/21 financial year. The council acknowledged (report to cabinet 24 March) that this budget is at risk if Homes England doesn’t finally sign off the £75m grant, the road is refused planning approval, or the new strategic housing and employment allocations do not make it into the next local plan.

A set of four new companies has been established to develop the council’s property assets – including the tenanted county farms lying along the route of the spine road. Councillors acting as directors of the new companies may be paid for duties beyond their normal roles. Officers will be granted an armoury of delegated powers.

While the schemes covered in your report on the A350 corridor are given a strategic planning gloss by approval from the Western Gateway shadow sub-national transport body (STB), the Future Chippenham project seems to have an existence independent of local democratic structures, its normal funding partner (the Swindon and Wiltshire Local Enterprise Partnership), and the new Western Gateway STB.

The White Horse Alliance and its member organisations in North and West Wiltshire are deeply disturbed by this new unaccountable corporatist approach to planning when the need has never been more urgent for sustainable transport and spatial planning to combat climate crisis and resource scarcity.

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Hertfordshire County Council
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