In Glastonbury, traffic coming along the A361 down Chilkwell Street and Bere Lane is a serious problem. In response to protests and petitions, three years ago an ‘A361 Committee’ was set up by the Town Council to consider possible solutions. This committee has, however, found itself ignored and side-lined by Somerset County Council, which appears to have its own agenda: to build a relief road along the route of the old railway line from West Pennard to the Wells roundabout (formerly Tin Bridge) – ultimately to become part of a proposed ‘Mendip Expressway’.
Before jumping to the conclusion that anything is better than the appalling heavy traffic that is right now ruining our homes and our lives, this relief road scheme needs to be looked at carefully.
It would be funded through ‘partnership’ with property developers, who would pay for the road in return for access to land for building houses and establishing light industry – initially in Brindham and Wick, though this would open up land along the whole route for future development.
The impact on the environment would be enormous. The heritage aspect of Glastonbury as a historical spiritual centre would be severely damaged. The Tor and Chalice Hill would be cut off from the open countryside and put in danger of becoming green blobs in the midst of urban sprawl. That which is most important here would be disrespected, even desecrated, and made subservient to a crass version of ‘economic development’.
Even this, however, would be an illusion. Most new enterprise that might be created in the development area would merely replace existing business that is at present situated nearer to the centre of the town. Meanwhile tourism, on which the town depends, would be flagrantly undermined.
Not many people realise that the Highways Agency was privatised in 2015 and replaced by a limited company, Highways England Ltd. Since then the government has been encouraging plans for a widespread and aggressive new road-building programme. This has been described as ‘saloon-bar policy making’, ignoring the evidence that building new roads simply leads to more traffic, that the suggested economic benefits are largely illusory, but that the damage to the environment is extensive and very real indeed. Construction work on the first wave of this programme is expected to begin in 2019.
In this context, Wells MP James Heappey has been promoting his plan for the so-called ‘Mendip Expressway’. Heappey is Parliamentary Private Secretary to Chris Grayling, the current Secretary of State for Transport. In its full extent, the ‘Expressway’ may go all the way from Nunney Catch near Frome, past Shepton Mallet and around Glastonbury, and then on to join the M5. However the signs are that it is to be presented as a series of local by-passes, each apparently meeting the needs of local communities desperate to escape the noise, pollution, damage and danger caused by an overwhelming volume of heavy traffic.
The reality of this proposal is actually for a major new road to carry this traffic through central Somerset to the motorway. There are right now several possible freight routes other than along the A361 and the A39, though this is the one preferred by the County Council – in consultation with the Freight Transport Association; it is the shortest route, not necessarily the best route. A new road would have very little to do with Glastonbury, Walton, or any of the towns and villages along the way, and would make little or no contribution to the economic well-being of these communities.
The problems on Chilkwell Street and Bere Lane may be alleviated in the short term, but this proposal would not be a long term solution. It would be a disaster for Glastonbury as a whole.
Updated 6/11/17: Glastonbury and the Major Road Network