50 Years of Talk

Published as a letter in the Central Somerset Gazette, November 30 2017

traffic on a361 orig

Traffic on the A361 (from The Central Somerset Gazette, October 5 2017).

This year we can celebrate a special fiftieth anniversary. In 1967, Somerset’s County Surveyor first publicly stated the expert opinion that the road through Chilkwell Street and Coursing Batch in Glastonbury was ‘a substantially sub-standard section of the A361’. So there have now been fifty years of discussions and arguments over this vexed question.

At the time the debate led to the building of the Actis Estate, together with a 600-metre section of the proposed new southern relief road (now Bretenoux Road). It was constructed as a ‘planning gain’ by the housing developers, but County and District Councils, landowners and developers, could not agree on the route and the finance for its completion. The rest of the road was never built and the controversy has continued ever since.

In the 1990s a new plan for what was then called the eastern relief road was agreed, to be constructed along the route of the old railway line from Steanbow to Tin Bridge, running behind the Tor. Then the new Labour government called a halt to building roads (at the time, as some may remember, it felt like the entire country was being steadily covered in tarmac). So this scheme, like its predecessor, never saw the light of day.

Our MP James Heappey has now tried to step in where angels (and various Glastonbury-type entities) have recently feared to tread. Last July the government presented a new scheme to create a Major Road Network – a new tier of roads in between motorways and ordinary local roads – and Mr Heappey, who happens to be Parliamentary Private Secretary to the transport minister, must have seen what looks like an opportunity to make a name for himself.

The A361/A39 between Frome and the M5 is on the map as a possible road to become part of this new network; to remain under County Council control, but with improvements paid for by the government. Since July our MP has been lobbying all and sundry for support for ‘bypasses’ and money for feasibility studies. So far as Glastonbury is concerned, the favourite appears to be a revival of what is now called the northern route – along the old railway line, behind the Tor.

Either route would present expensive engineering problems, since they would have to be built on the very edge of what is, historically, a wetland flood plain. And, taken together with developers and their ‘planning gain’, either would cause untold damage to Glastonbury’s world-renowned landscape. Even so, some people in Chilkwell Street will no doubt feel that anything is better than the still-growing traffic problem that rumbles incessantly past their front doors.

My advice to my neighbours is, don’t hold your breath waiting. Even the enthusiastic Mr Heappey advises that ‘these things do not happen overnight’ and ‘it will take a number of years’. Well, it’s already taken fifty. What we must also bear in mind is that this would not be just a local bypass scheme: rather part of a government proposal, designed to get traffic more quickly from somewhere over in that direction to somewhere else in the other direction. Local considerations would not be a high priority.

The only real answer must be to shift the designated freight route onto more appropriate roads that mostly already exist. The County Council has always told us that this is not possible, but sooner or later the Freight Transport Association will surely demand a different route – because Chilkwell Street will have become so congested and dangerous that it simply won’t be viable. Then, I am sure, we shall finally discover that a different route is possible after all.

Bruce Garrard, 63 Chilkwell Street, Glastonbury