MRN indicative map for Somerset. The improved version issued with the MRN national consultation showed without doubt that Glastonbury was intended to be on the route.

PUBLIC CONSULTATION

​A361 history part 6: February-April 2018

The Council Chamber at Glastonbury Town Hall is on the first floor of the early nineteenth century building, upstairs. It is a large, oblong room, nearly the full width of the building, with windows all along the wall that faces out towards the market place. The big solid table at which Councillors sit for meetings is set towards one end of the room, with a clock above the end at which the Mayor sits together with his or her deputy on her right. The Town Clerk sits to her left and the Councillors along each side – generally Conservatives to her right and Liberal Democrats (and latterly Greens) to her left. At the opposite end of the room, near to the door, are several rows of seats at which members of the public may sit if they wish to attend Council meetings.

The wall opposite the windows is used to display photographs; the largest, in the centre, is the 1950s aerial view of Glastonbury, the same one that Councillor Alan Tucker was casting his eye upon when it sprang to his mind that the route of the old railway would be better for a relief road than knocking a hole through a whole segment of the town. The rest, and there are many, are portraits of former Mayors. On the table, at the far end from the current Mayor, the Glastonbury Peace Candle is lit at the beginning of Council proceedings. The rest of the council table’s expanse is littered, when it is in use, with papers, and with jugs and glasses of water. The town’s coat of arms, together with its motto ‘May Glastonbury Flourish’, ought to be here somewhere though my mind’s eye cannot recall its location.

This collection of accumulated history has built up through regular and frequent use since Glastonbury first became a Borough in 1705 (though until 1818 the Council met upstairs in the old Market House, across the road). The atmosphere engendered is one of tradition mingled with dwindling responsibility. When the Borough was abolished in 1973, more than half the Council’s powers were removed to Mendip District; the resentment has not yet fully been expunged.

*   *   *

Glastonbury Town Council Planning Committee, January 2018

The Town Council meeting of January 9th 2018 resolved that the road questionnaire should be finalised and printed in time to be distributed on 14th February – that is, immediately after the Neighbourhood Plan questionnaires had been returned – “subject to amendments suggested at this meeting” and to be “ratified at the Planning Committee meeting on 23rd January”. (1) The Planning Committee, of course, was not responsible for such business, it was simply a convenient meeting at which the questionnaire could be finally agreed by Councillors in order to meet their short deadline.

Amendments suggested at the Council meeting were really no more than cosmetic, so that the time given for considering the overall content and the details of wording was limited to two short sessions, at this meeting and the A361 committee meeting the previous week. No consideration was given to whether the wording was ‘neutral’, in the sense of avoiding in-built bias that would lead respondents towards one answer rather than another; and no apparent notice was taken of Councillor Lindsay MacDougall’s expressed concern that the survey would mislead the public, because it did not make clear that substantial development would be a necessary prerequisite for any such road scheme to go ahead.

Meanwhile the Neighbourhood Plan questionnaires were distributed, as planned, during the week beginning 15th January. They were hand-delivered by members of the Steering Group themselves. Questions about housing or commercial development outside the development boundary … (response?) The Town Council could not justify spending £1500 on posting their questionnaires, so they too decided to deliver their own envelopes, and publicly they put a brave face on the situation.

Clearly, however, there was a feeling of uneasiness that the whole process had been rushed and that the wording had not been adequately discussed. On the Friday of the following week – four days before the Planning Committee meeting – Councillors were suddenly asked by email whether they agreed with the wording and given until Monday 22nd to respond. It did not help that the Town Clerk accidentally sent the wrong version of the draft questionnaire with this email; she quickly realised her mistake and followed it with the correct version, but not in time to avoid confusion. Jon Cousins, as Chair of the Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group, forwarded it (the correct version) to everyone on the Steering Group asking for any thoughts, comments or suggested amendments which he would combine into a composite response from the Steering Group as a whole. (2)
Why Jon had agreed to help draft the questionnaire in the first place I do not know. He told me that he had sketched out some preliminary thoughts, expecting a proper process to complete the draft in much the same way as the Neighbourhood Plan had been prepared. However, the A361 committee – which Jon Cousins was not a member of – had been told that it was “prepared jointly by Councillors I Tucker and J Cousins”, and this was not challenged. There was nevertheless no doubt that Ian Tucker had taken the lead role. Now Jon told the Steering Group that, “The speed with which the bypass consultation is being pushed has taken me a little by surprise.” He seems to have been completely wrong-footed, though he was also the first to point out that the preparation of the questionnaire had been inadequate.

This became obvious at the Planning Committee meeting on the 23rd, though its shortcomings were not put right. Jon Cousins made a very strong statement about the consultation being hurried and badly drafted, but it was not minuted at all. Councillor Lindsay MacDougall was minuted as being “of the opinion that the consultation document has been hurried” though this was recorded as a contribution from the public gallery and she was not identified as a Town Councillor ‘in attendance’. Councillor John Keery, a Liberal Democrat, was “of the opinion that there needs to be more consultation”, presumably meaning more consultation with the Councillors over the wording.

During the discussion Councillor Denise Abbot said, without explaining why, that “the deadline for consultation from the Ministry of Transport is 14th March”. (3) This, it turned out, was determined by the Department of Transport’s closing date for the consultation period on their Major Road Network proposal. In spite of this, and the fact that they had used the words ‘strategic road’ in their own drafted document, the Councillors appeared to have no real idea that what they were discussing was substantially more than a local bypass for Glastonbury.

Later denials that the survey had been hurried and ill-prepared were, frankly, a nonsense – as became clear towards the end of the meeting when confusion arose over the two different versions of the draft text. This meant that disagreements about the finished version could not be resolved, especially not in the limited time available after a full agenda of actual planning business. The Mayor agreed to call a Special Meeting of the Council to finalise the draft, though this was very briefly and insufficiently minuted – “The Committee asked the Mayor would call a Special Meeting of the Council” –not recording the purpose of the requested meeting, nor the fact that the Mayor had agreed to arrange it. The Special Meeting never happened, however – it later transpired that the questionnaire had already been booked in at the printers for the following Friday afternoon, which apparently could not be changed.

It is worth saying that every member of the Council present, in a difficult and pressured situation, did seem to be doing his or her best in their own way; and that each, again in their own way, had the best interests of Glastonbury at heart. Nevertheless there were very different viewpoints each with strongly held views – and no-one seemed able to call a halt to this mess that the process had become. Emma George, chairing the meeting, resorted to insisting that the Town Council had already agreed the text, so that no further discussion was in order. This did not stop a thread of hurried emails amongst Town Councillors being exchanged over the next two or three days, which got accidentally leaked. It made clear that the Council was close to panic in its belated efforts to get the questionnaire right. What was actually needed was an unhurried and properly focused discussion – perhaps several – but the (quite unnecessary) ‘deadline from the Ministry of Transport’ made that impossible.

Map showing routes ‘A’ and ‘B’, from Glastonbury Town Council’s ‘Road Consultation’.

‘Road Consultation’, February 2018

Mysteriously, once the Town Council’s survey documents had been delivered to the printer and no more discussion was possible, the sense of urgency subsided. The questionnaire, now given the title ‘Road Consultation’, was not delivered to homes in the town on February 14th, nor the 15th nor the 16th. In fact there appeared to be a lack of effective organisation about the whole operation.

Councillors did, however, manage to get some publicity. An article in the Central Somerset Gazette confirmed that the Town Council’s Road Consultation was being carried out at the request of MP James Heappey, who had “asked the Town Council to consult the town on a choice of options”. The article went on to say that people in Glastonbury are “being asked to respond quickly, as the government has a short deadline for accepting proposals”. (4) In fact the MP had not asked for a consultation on a choice of options (though he had recommended its inclusion in the Neighbourhood Plan consultation), and the government did not have a short deadline for accepting proposals. Where this misinformation came from is hard to tell, though it must have been someone within the Town Council.

The options on offer in the questionnaire were the ‘northern route’ – using the old railway line north of the Tor – and the ‘southern route’ – reviving a plan from nearly fifty years before: a relief road running from near to Millfield’s prep school at Edgarley to the Butleigh road where it approaches the town next to the Actis estate. Some people living on the Actis estate were so alarmed about this route that they considered putting their houses on the market. However, it seemed such an unlikely option that perhaps it was there just to provide the appearance of a democratic choice when really it was a non-starter.

Councillors did not deliver the questionnaires themselves; they employed someone to do it for them. It was one poor chap doing it all on his own and it seemed there would be little chance of all the questionnaires being delivered in good time. This proved to be the case: quite a number of people never received them, such as those living in flats above High Street shops and also in some parts of Bove Town. The whole of Windmill Hill received them very late, with only two or three days to get them back to the Information Centre next to the Town Hall. When it came to organising the delivery to houses, the Town Council’s competence was no better than when producing the questionnaire in the first place.

One member of the A361 committee who lives just up the road from my own house in Chilkwell Street did not receive a questionnaire, although the rest of Chilkwell Street did. She went down to the Information Centre to ask for one, and discovered that there were in fact people from all over the town who were doing the same.

Many of those who had received them were angry at what they saw. One woman, who assumed that it was part of the MRN consultation, wrote to the Transport Department to complain about its inherent bias and the lack of adequate time for responses. She got a polite reply saying that “We are not seeking views on which specific schemes should be approved for funding”, which at least confirmed that point. At the same time they went on: “This will be developed by sub-national bodies [i.e. a new regional bureaucracy to be set up] once the guidance is published at the end of the year. In so doing they will need to seek the views of all interested parties.” This seemed to be saying that the only chance of a proper consultation would be organised at least a year hence, and at a county or regional level.

When people did get questionnaires to complete, one of the first things many noticed was that there was space for only one person from each household to fill it in. When challenged about this, one Town Councillor said that surely married couples could agree together how they should respond. Perhaps there were some who did just this, though it hardly said a lot for the organisers’ democratic awareness. Some people went down to the Information Centre and demanded a second copy, or photocopied the one they had received. And some couples ticked two different boxes on the same form. Multiple-occupancy households mostly seem not to have bothered. In total 4,200 questionnaire forms were distributed, which is more than the number of households in the town but considerably less than the number of adult residents.

Love Our Levels leaflet header, February 2018.

Love Our Levels

An impromptu group calling itself ‘Love Our Levels’ came together, and produced a leaflet countering the omissions and assumptions that so flawed the Council’s questionnaire. The main points covered were that a road without substantial development would not be an option, and this would be in the order of 1,000 new houses; that this would not be a local bypass but part of a new national road network, with key decisions made in London and other implications including an increase in overall traffic flow; and that the resulting damage to the landscape would be a big environmental issue and could cause serious problems for the Glastonbury’s tourist trade. None of this had been included in the ‘background information’ accompanying the questionnaire.

‘Love Our Levels’ believed at the time that the haste with which the questionnaire had been produced was deliberate, probably on the advice of James Heappey, with the intention of bouncing Glastonbury residents into responding without giving the issue proper thought. The MP’s role was not at all clear, but certainly seemed suspect. Since his intervention the previous August, Glastonbury’s A361 Committee had given up looking for an acceptable alternative route for freight traffic, the Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group had been fending off pressure from influential Town Councillors, and due process in public consultation had been threatened or undermined.

It now seems unlikely that the enforced haste was a deliberate tactic, though at the time the level of ill-informed assumption and plain stupidity of Town Councillors was hard to imagine, let alone understand as being the real cause of the situation. In any case a knee-jerk reaction in favour of a bypass was the effective result of the Council’s actions, at least initially. So LOL were off the mark quickly, in fact more quickly than the Council, with volunteers out delivering the leaflets before the questionnaires had arrived; and the leafleting campaign did achieve its objective of getting a lively discussion going about the road right across the town. This would probably mean a split vote when the responses were collated.

Whilst the leafleters were out and about they met the man delivering the Council’s questionnaires. He was very supportive, and said he was sorry he couldn’t put the leaflets in with the questionnaires but it would get him into trouble. The community radio station Glastonbury FM picked up on the issue and invited two of the group onto a radio discussion programme (though this was unfortunately postponed until after the consultation period, due to heavy unseasonal snow in early March). Veterans of the 1990s road protest movement were beginning to look forward to a reunion out on the Somerset Levels. Perhaps most significant of all, Glastonbury’s alternative community, mostly apolitical and often disinterested, was suddenly waking up. Glastonbury’s sacred landscape was under threat.

This is a town that for more than thirty years has been divided culturally, and there are clearly two very different visions of what its future might be. The issue of the bypass had come up at a time when the two sides of this long-standing divide were beginning to work constructively together. The danger was that the result would be renewed division. It is difficult to see how an attitude that regards economic development and economic growth as the hallmarks of success can, in all honesty, sit comfortably with a desire to maintain the essentially spiritual value of a landscape rich in history, heritage and legend.

The landscape around the Tor would not have a road built through it without determined opposition. And this was not understood by people such as Denise Abbott, who have not experienced the history and who do not know much of Glastonbury. Gerard Tucker is another such person; and, of course, James Heappey.

In the midst of all this upsurge of feeling, James Heappey was interviewed on BBC Somerset radio one morning and said not only that he favoured the railway line route for a bypass, but that it could be continued beyond Steanbow all the way to East Pennard (5) – where it would presumably join up with the A37. Perhaps he had looked at the map without understanding the implications or knowing the geography on the ground. The route he was suggesting would go right through the middle of Worthy Farm, the site for Glastonbury Festival.

Michael Eavis was not amused, and managed to challenge Mr Heappey at a social function in the constituency. “No Michael, of course not. You know that I am such a huge fan of the festival.” Hmmm. Besides anything else, this left rather a big unanswered question as to how the ‘improved’ A361 was going to bypass the little village of Pilton. Michael was to put considerable effort into trying to revive the ‘ridge route’ – which would divert traffic from Shepton Mallet towards Wells, so avoiding Pilton and all but the eastern edge of Glastonbury.

Road survey responses

The stated closing date for responses to the ‘Road Consultation’ was Monday March 12th, though it was said quite freely that if they turned up a few days late that was no problem. After all, the last deliveries of the questionnaire had not arrived until Friday March 9th. And once they were all collected in, who was going to collate them? Everyone with a reasonable level of competence in the task was already fully engaged in processing the Neighbourhood Plan questionnaires. There never was much chance that it would be done within a week and completed in time for the closing date of the MRN consultation. Achieving that was not even attempted. I believe Denise Abbott did most of the work herself, and it took more than three weeks.

The A361 committee finally met, with the ‘results’ available, on April 5th. The Neighbourhood Plan questionnaire had achieved a response rate of 31% – twice the national average for such surveys – so this set a benchmark and the committee were pleased that of their 4,200 questionnaires distributed, 1,236 came back completed. This meant they could claim a response rate of 29.4% which was ‘nearly as good as the Neighbourhood Plan consultation’. In fact as a percentage of the total number of voters it was only about 15%, whereas the Neighbourhood Plan had achieved more than 25%.

Of the 1,246 responses to the Road Consultation, 695 preferred the ‘northern route’ to the ‘southern route’ and of these, 570 felt that development would be ‘acceptable’. So 46% of respondents could be said to have endorsed the proposal as put forward by James Heappey: that is, a bypass following the route of the old railway line, together with associated development. Of course if a realistic estimate of the scale of development required had been included with the questionnaire, suggesting a 25% increase in the size of Glastonbury, then those supporting the suggestion would almost certainly have been less; but according to the Town Council’s own figures, 46% supported their favoured proposal.

It was noted later by Green Party Councillors who had access to the questionnaire forms that approximately one in ten of these also had a tick for another option, but that these forms were to be found in the ‘pro-bypass’ pile. It was also noted that the ‘pro-bypass/pro-development’ responses just had ticks against those options, whereas those who disagreed were those who added comments and suggestions, most of which have not seen the light of day. Although there was space for respondents to write suggestions for other possibilities, there was no information provided at all as to what these might be – suggesting that those who disagreed with the bypass proposal were those who had taken more trouble to find out information and to think about the issue.

46% support for the Council’s favoured option was not the way the figures were publicly presented. The Town Council’s headline figure was that 76.5% of respondents were in favour of ‘a relief road’. (6) This included all those supporting either the northern or southern route, whether or not they felt that development was ‘acceptable’; so 76.5% was hardly surprising, especially since the survey had essentially been designed as a choice between the two historic bypass routes. Nevertheless it was acclaimed as a “landslide victory” at the A361 committee meeting, and this presentation of the responses still remains on the Town Council’s website.

A proposal from Ian Tucker was for a ‘three-stage plan’: that we should have short-term aims, such as getting the A361 properly maintained and having more effective speed restrictions in place; the medium term aim of putting more pressure on Somerset County Council to remove the Freight Route designation from the road through Glastonbury; and a long-term aim of supporting and encouraging the by-pass, preferably along the olds railway line. The first two aims would be supported by the town as a whole, but the third would most certainly not. This was the most important issue that the town had faced in decades, and if the Council was to encourage and support a course of action that more than half the town disagreed with, then the result would be a divided community. Most councilors, however, seemed to have convinced themselves that they were representing the town’s ‘silent majority’.

Many people were not impressed with the Council’s interpretation of the responses. Liz Payne, Planning Officer for Somerset CPRE, described the results as “contentious” and suggested that by offering respondents a choice between two bypass routes the questionnaire had given the impression that these two options had been properly evaluated and were considered the best available. In fact this was quite untrue, and “the consultation will have raised expectations in Glastonbury to a dangerous level”. (7)

Several professionals in the field of statistics and data analysis have offered opinions that the survey was appallingly substandard. One data research scientist said that it was “seriously flawed and biased to make it look as if a new road was the only option”. As regards the Council’s presentation of the ‘results’ he added, “If I presented this as a document in my job I would be fired.” (8)
Planners at Mendip District Council described both options A and B as very unlikely ever to be built, pointing out that the old railway line route is far longer than needed and for most of its length it is on very soft floodplain ground, which would make building a road there both difficult and expensive whilst development alongside it would be all but impossible. Mendip’s planners had not been consulted prior to the ‘Consultation’, but a copy of the questionnaire had found its way into their office and seems to have been a source of some amusement.

The Central Somerset Gazette’s headline read “Majority support A361 relief route”. More interesting, however, were comments from James Heappey. He was clearly aware that the exercise had become very controversial locally and he pointedly referred to it as a ‘survey’ rather than a ‘consultation’: “Glastonbury Town Council’s survey is a useful – albeit imperfect – measure of local public opinion … It is important, however, that nobody confuses a survey broadly exploring two rough options as a full consultation.” He suggested that a formal consultation would be needed in “a few years time”. (9)

A flawed consultation

Terry Napper – one of Glastonbury’s Town Councillors most strongly in support of a bypass – appeared in a Glastonbury FM radio discussion on the subject, a month after the ‘Road Consultation’ had closed. During that programme he said of the questionnaire and its supporting ‘background information’, “It may have been a bit rushed and ‘back-of-an-envelope’, but we did our best.” (10) Emma George, at that time Glastonbury’s Mayor and a Green Party Town Councillor, also admitted that the questionnaire had been “rushed” and “imperfect”, but claimed that “to spend any more time refining the content would have risked failure to meet the deadline of 19th March.” (11) She did not explain why that deadline had to be met.

Emma George was not alone in believing, quite genuinely I am sure, that consultation of the public is in principle a good and worthwhile thing to do. Nevertheless I did offer her this perspective: “If people are apparently consulted without being given the information needed to make an informed choice, then that is not consultation but manipulation.” Nevertheless she was not about to admit that the Town Council’s documentation did not just need ‘refining’, but re-writing from scratch.

There was no information about the context of the government’s Major Road Network proposal or its implications – in fact no indication at all that the suggested bypass would be anything but a purely local scheme. No information was provided about any possible disadvantages of the northern route, for instance damage to the environment and landscape, or the expense created by engineering problems related to building a road on peat soil in a floodplain. There was virtually no information provided about the apparent alternative southern route, and none whatsoever about possible alternative routes or other alternative solutionsThere was a failure to make clear that substantial development and a proportion of developer funding for a bypass would be a necessary condition for it to be constructed, and a complete failure to provide any indication of the scale of such development. All this made informed consideration of the proposal quite impossible.

The survey’s failings, however, were not only in relation to the people of Glastonbury, and the lack of information that rendered the whole exercise inadequate as a proper gauge of public opinion. It also failed to address the issues raised by the MP James Heappey, which had been the rationale for carrying out the survey in the first place.

When he had spoken to the A361 committee the previous August he had “emphasised very strongly that the role of the committee would be to ensure that the community of Glastonbury understood the economic basis of the bypass application and demonstrated local commitment to it.” The committee, however, had failed entirely to do either. In particular, understanding the economic basis for the bypass proposal would have meant not just understanding the need for ‘some’ additional development, but the whole scheme’s contribution to “regional economic benefits” and to the “secondary growth zone” as described at the August meeting. (12)

There is nothing to show that the committee had understood this themselves, and in fact what appeared in the questionnaire had been merely a muddle of different ideas: “As with any spending of public money, there will need to be significant economic benefit to the Mendip area. Therefore, if a road was built there will be additional housing and commercial development”. (13)

Heappey had also made clear that “all aspects of the proposed project should be included … in consultations with the community concerning jobs, homes and preferred routes.” Beyond an inadequate attempt to garner opinions on preferred routes, “all aspects of the proposed project”, such as “implications for the zoning of land for industrial and residential development and resultant potential growth of the local infrastructure” were otherwise ignored – or, perhaps more accurately, failed to make an impression on most committee members’ limited concept of what “the proposed project” was intended to entail.

The exasperated MP had already distanced himself from this botched attempt at public consultation through his comments in the press. Away from the immediate glare of publicity he was more forthright, though he managed to remain just about polite. In a letter to the Town Council dated May 2nd, he expressed his surprise at seeing “on the one hand a survey being distributed by Glastonbury Town Council, and on the other hand Glastonbury town councillors writing to ask me what Glastonbury Town Council was doing!” I am not sure what had prompted this comment; but he continued:

“I would encourage some perspective over the process that we are embarked on. Your survey was, by your own design, an attempt to simply gauge public opinion. Nobody is going to build a road based solely on that survey and the routes that you showed were of your own devising and drawn with a computer programme akin to Microsoft Paint! … If we were to ever get a new road it would only happen if town council, district council, county council and MP were all working as one to make it happen. Hitherto, I had thought that was what we were doing.” (14)

  Notes and References

1. Glastonbury Town Council minutes, 9 January 2018.
2. Email from Councillor Jon Cousins to members of the Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group, 19 January 2018.
3. Glastonbury Town Council Planning Committee minutes, 23 January 2018. The Town Clerk was not present at this meeting; it was recorded by an assistant who was presumably very inexperienced at taking minutes.
4. Residents to have say on choice of options to resolve HGV crisis, Central Somerset Gazette, 15 February 2018.
5. James Heappey, BBC Somerset, 20 February 2018.
6. Glastonbury Town Council/A361 committee, Road Consultation – April 2018, 5 April 2018.
7. Liz Payne in private conversation. She also raised concerns over the survey at a public meeting in Glastonbury Town Hall, 7 June 2018, in particular that “key stakeholders such as Mendip District Council planners and the National Trust had not been consulted”.
8. ‘P.R.’, data research scientist living in Glastonbury, quoted at a public meeting in Glastonbury Town Hall, 7 June 2018.
9. Bodhi Maia, Majority support A361 relief route, Central Somerset Gazette 26 April 2018.
Glastonbury FM, Media Talk, hosted by Philip Welch (former Central Somerset Gzette editor), 19 April 2018.
10. Personal communication from Councillor Emma George, 3 February 2018.
11. A361 committee minutes, 24 August 2017.
12. Glastonbury Town Council, Road Consultation, February 2018.
13. James Heappey MP, letter to Glastonbury Town Council, 2 May 2018.