A361: Political Hot Potato

Blog Post 25/11/2019

 It seems that everyone is trying to blame someone else for the various plans that have emerged for ‘improvements’ to the A361, which shows that the whole scheme has become politically toxic. For instance, on 19th November James Heappey replied to people in Pilton who had written to him opposing plans for a Pilton bypass. Apparently he was “unaware of plans that included proposals for Pilton”, which seems rather lax of him, “and I obviously oppose all the routes currently suggested”. Obviously he would, during an election campaign.

He continued: “Given the limited economic benefit of improvements east of Glastonbury and the widespread opposition within the community, I would not support any other proposals brought forward by the District Council unless – and only if – the local community asked me to get behind any new proposals. The current plans will not be supported by the Government, and the County Council has subsequently written to Mendip District Council to suggest that they be withdrawn”. He was sure they would be, though “Since the plans were sponsored by MDC in the first place, the final decision must be theirs”.

Meanwhile a statement from MDC, apparently in response to the same ‘public outcry’, makes clear that if the schemes for Glastonbury and Pilton go forward, “they will be led by Somerset County Council” – as will any public consultations, which are now expected in mid-2020. The County Council is after all the highways authority. It is misleading to say that the plans were “sponsored by MDC”. They came forward under the previous Conservative administration, apparently as the result of some sort of back-room deal. Under the new Lib-Dem administration, however, nothing has been done to drop them or even to stop the District’s money being spent on further developing them.

​The word is that this is due to pressure from central government, and that the Mendip planners who produced the plans for ‘indicative routes’ are perfectly aware that they are all nonsense. The parties are now blaming each other for the results.

Heappey claims that the withdrawal of the Pilton schemes “really will be the end of the matter”, which is perhaps a statement that will come back to haunt him. However, technically this refers only to a Pilton bypass, not to the use of the Pilton–Glastonbury section of the A361 as part of the Major Road Network. Heappey’s reference to the ‘limited economic benefit of improvements east of Glastonbury’ suggests that he would now favour going ahead with one of the Glastonbury proposals without road congestion in Pilton being addressed at all.

An important part of the way forward must now be closer co-operation between Glastonbury and Pilton at Town/Parish Council and District Council levels; after all, the A361 as it is now cuts Pilton in half and makes any effort to walk down the road from the top of the village to the pub positively dangerous. ‘Improvements’ around Glastonbury would further increase traffic flow through Pilton.

If the Conservatives are elected in December with a working majority, then the MRN will go ahead and the least damaging option that would satisfy the likes of Heappey and also the hauliers would be the Ridge Lane route. Using Ridge Lane would probably provide a better ‘strategic route into the heart of Mendip’ (Heappey’s words) than coming through Pilton and Glastonbury. The case is based on incomplete traffic surveys, which suggest that only 30% of HGVs coming down the A361 continue beyond Glastonbury to the motorway (and similar figures in the opposite direction). It is extremely unlikely that 70% have Glastonbury as their destination, so a proportion (estimated 50% of total) must turn off at the B&Q roundabout and head down the A39 for Wells and beyond.

If this can be proven – which would require a 3-way Origin & Destination survey – the implication is that the Ridge Lane route would provide this proportion of HGVs with a shorter journey-time than via  the A361, whilst rebuilding the Ridge Lane route would also have at worst a negligible effect upon increasing traffic between Wells and Glastonbury through Coxley. The first point would interest the hauliers, who have historically supported the route, and the second would undermine the arguments put forward by St Cuthberts Out Parish Council against using such a route. Ridge Lane would also bypass Croscombe of course.

The original traffic survey was done by John Roberts of CPRE, a former council traffic engineer. He has only two cameras so that he is not equipped to carry out the necessary 3-way traffic survey; Glastonbury Town Council has been dragging its heals over providing a third, probably because they can’t get their heads around its significance. John is also opposed to upgrading Ridge Lane, which he would regard as new road building, and therefore against CPRE policy (as well as against Green Party and Friends of the Earth policy). He may have a point, but since all the current proposals involve building new roads – most of them across Grade 3 floodplain – it would be both environmentally preferable and cheaper.

If the Conservatives do not win the election, of course, then there is a good chance that building a new Major Road Network – and thus increasing road haulage and fossil fuel use – will be regarded as a bad idea in the light of climate change.