Glastonbury Southern Bypass proposal

Blog post, 2/3/2019

I was surprised to discover that, in spite of the government’s preoccupation with Brexit negotiations, the Transport Department has made some progress with its Major Road Network proposals – more or less on schedule. The ‘Peninsula Transport Shadow Sub National Transport Body’ has been set up, with its chief responsibility being to prioritise road schemes from the South West for submission to the Transport Department for approval and funding.

Ten schemes have been short-listed (seven MRN schemes and three ‘Large Local Major’ schemes, though the difference is not entirely clear). These include three in Somerset, one of them called ‘A361 Glastonbury Bypass and Pilton’. Regarding this, Somerset County Council has produced an ‘Options Assessment Report’ on the basis of which a Glastonbury Southern Bypass has been proposed. The previously suggested northern route, along the old railway line behind the Tor, does not get a mention.

There are two options for the proposed southern bypass: the ‘Short Route’ – essentially the southern route that was included in the Town Council’s survey last year, from Edgarley Road near Millfield Prep School to the junction between Bere Lane and Fisher’s Hill – and a ‘Long Route’ that would continue across South Moor (or just above it along the foot of Wearyall Hill), cross the River Brue and join the A39 at the roundabout on the Glastonbury side of Street. The short route has an ‘indicative scheme cost’ of £40 million, and the long route £70 million (both of which figures are probably optimistically low). The County Council claims that the ‘Benefit to Cost Ratio’ in either case would be at least 10:1, on the basis of a so-called ‘high-level benefits analysis’ – presumably the kind of estimates and suppositions that were discredited by the CPRE two years ago in their report ‘The end of the road?’.

The short route, of course, would not do the job; although it would bypass Chilkwell Street and Bere Lane, it would actually increase the volume of heavy traffic using Fisher’s Hill and Street Road, and the endless debate would simply continue, just shifted along a bit. The long route, on the other hand, would have to cross a significant stretch of wetland and bridge the River Brue, very expensive engineering work which would almost certainly incur substantial cost over-runs. This is important because the Transport Department is only offering to provide funds up to £50 million per scheme, and there is an overall cap of £100 million on any one MRN project.

A minimum of 15% of the overall costs, and an expected average of 30%, would have to be met ‘locally’. This would actually mean through partnership funding from housing and property developers, who would effectively be able to buy planning permission for development associated with the road scheme.

So what about the “and Pilton” that is tacked on to the end of the title of the proposal? The County Council’s submission acknowledges that Pilton is affected by HGV traffic in much the same way as Glastonbury, though it avoids mentioning that  if Glastonbury had a bypass but Pilton did not, overall traffic through Pilton would increase and the ‘pinch point’ there would become intolerable. What it does say is that “in Pilton the scheme options have not yet been established”, which seems rather strange at this stage; but that “a key consideration” will be the nearby Glastonbury Festival site, presumably because they would like to put a definitive stop to traffic problems related to large numbers arriving for and leaving from the event. But how this can be included in the same scheme as a Glastonbury bypass and still be kept within what would clearly be tight budget restrictions is a mystery yet to be solved.

There is also the problem of Ashcott and Walton, which would need to be bypassed if this route were to become fit for purpose as part of the Major Road Network. The Ashcott and Walton bypass is also on the regional short-list, though included as an ‘LLM’ scheme rather than as part of the MRN, apparently because with an ‘indicative cost’ of £90 million it is outside the range of current MRN bids. 

The Peninsula Transport Shadow Sub National Transport Body meets at County Hall in Exeter. It has five committee members including Councillor John Woodman, Somerset County Council’s cabinet member for transport. There are also a number of co-optees but these do not include either of Glastonbury and Street’s County Councillors – who have not even been kept informed of these developments. There was a meeting in Exeter on Friday March 1st at which it was agreed to choose three of the ten short-listed schemes in time to be presented for government perusal in July. The only scheduled meeting before then will be on May 24th. (Press and public are able to attend – except when items concerned with the nitty gritty of finances are being discussed; these are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act).

It seems rather unlikely, if only three schemes are to be chosen from the whole of the southwest, that more than one will be from Somerset. Peninsula Transport’s three proposals will then be prioritised by the government along with other road schemes proposed from other regions. How many will actually be chosen is not clear. Any that do get through all these hoops will then be set to go ahead during the financial year 2024/25 – by which time anything could have happened to the UK’s politics and economy, not to mention likely rising water levels on the Somerset Levels and Moors due to climate change. In my opinion, our MP James Heappey will only see his plan for a ‘strategic road into the heart of Mendip’ come about if he has a very persuasive word in the ear of his boss, Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling.

For anyone who would like to look at all this more fully, here are links to details of the MRN and LLM prioritisation process and to details of the ten scheme submissions being considered by Peninsula Transport (Glastonbury is on pages 23-26, including a larger copy of the map above). Happy reading!