THE MENDIP EXPRESSWAY

This is an extended version of an article written for ‘The Oracle’, December 2017

Along the route of the old railway line below Glastonbury Tor …

In Glastonbury, traffic coming along the A361 down Chilkwell Street and Bere Lane is a serious problem, and many residents are very pleased to hear that a new relief road is being considered. There are worrying aspects to this proposal, however, and before jumping to the conclusion that anything is better than the appalling heavy traffic that is ruining our homes and our lives, it is worth having a look at what is actually going on. The most worrying aspect is that this relief road – together with associated development – would go along the route of the old railway line close to the Tor, causing serious damage to Glastonbury’s iconic landscape.

In response to protests and petitions, three years ago an A361 Committee was set up by Glastonbury Town Council to consider suggested solutions. There are several possible freight routes other than along the A39 and the A361, though this is the one preferred by the County Council – in consultation with the Freight Transport Association. It is the shortest route, which is not to say the most appropriate. This committee has found itself ignored and side-lined by Somerset County Council, which recently appears to have its own agenda: to build a relief road along the route of the old railway line from Steanbow to the Wells roundabout (formerly Tin Bridge). It has failed to answer questions or to follow up suggestions that lead in the direction of other options.

Property Development

The suggested relief road, if it happens, would be funded (to an unspecified extent) 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 likely 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. What is most important here would be disrespected, even desecrated, and made subservient to a crass version of ‘economic development’.

Even this 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 Glastonbury depends, would be flagrantly undermined.

New Road Building Programme

Although this has not been talked about much locally, the proposal is actually not just for a Glastonbury relief road – it is part of a much larger potential project that originates from the Department for Transport. The present government is very keen on road building, particularly where it might contribute to economic development. To this end, in 2015 the Highways Agency was privatised and replaced by Highways England Ltd. Since then a programme of building ‘expressways’ has been developed: dual carriageways with a central barrier and other features of motorways. They will be paid for by central government, together with ‘where appropriate’ private sector finance.

The Campaign for Better Transport is concerned that the development of expressways is ‘likely to be dominated by the needs of long-distance freight haulage’. The A303 is now set to become a ‘world class expressway to link the southwest and southeast of England’. This approach has been described as ‘saloon-bar policy making’, ignoring evidence that building new roads simply leads to more traffic and that the suggested economic benefits are largely illusory, though damage to the environment is extensive and very real indeed.

In July this year a new Transport Investment Strategy was presented to parliament, including further proposals for a ‘Major Roads Network’ (MRN): a middle tier of roads between the Strategic Roads Network (motorways and the up-coming expressways) and local roads. It will mean putting money into upgrading selected A-roads. At present there has been no firm decision as to which roads will be part of the MRN, nevertheless the A361/A39 between Nunney Catch near Frome and Junction 23 on the M5 is included as a selected A-road on the ‘indicative’ map that comes with this strategy. To function as part of the Major Roads Network this route would clearly need improvements, in particular to avoid pinch points such as at Chilkwell Street in Glastonbury.

In August, MP James Heappey came to Glastonbury to talk to the A361 Committee. Heappey is Parliamentary Private Secretary to Chris Grayling, Secretary of State for Transport. He was clearly lobbying for support for his scheme, stressing the supposed economic benefits for Glastonbury that would come as a result of a relief road and related development. Such development was described as essential, since government funding is not available for bypasses and relief roads just for the sake of improving the lives of local people, only for projects designed to contribute to economic development.

Map taken from a Somerset County Council report on potential funding sources for roads, September 2017.
Note the road marked in green (‘Selected A-roads’) south of Wells.

Misleading Messages

Members of the committee were left in no doubt about the extent and nature of the road, and those with business interests in property and other related sectors were given the clear (if subliminal) message that big profits were available if they played ball. This is the only occasion on which our MP, in a semi-public situation, has been candid about the real nature of his proposals. On his website he refers only to a road ‘bypassing Ashcott, Walton and Chilkwell Street in Glastonbury’ without mentioning that it would stretch all the way from Frome to the motorway.

He also says that it now ‘features’ in the Mendip local plan, though it is nowhere mentioned there. He says that ‘the leadership’ of Mendip District Council (as well as Sedgemoor, and Somerset County Council), have given ‘universal support for the scheme’, and furthermore that Mendip has provided some money towards the cost of the necessary feasibility studies. At least as far as Mendip is concerned, none of this appears to be true.

He was quoted in the Central Somerset Gazette on October 5th, saying that ‘a new road bypassing Walton and Glastonbury’ is needed, ‘to be funded by local development and central government’. Again there is no mention that this would be a part of the proposed Major Roads Network, though he enlarges on his theme on his website: here he states that this road should be ‘an economic development project’, since moving traffic more quickly from the M5 into ‘Glastonbury, Street, Wells and Shepton Mallet’ would deliver ‘a huge boost to the Mendip economy’. He refers to it as the ‘Mendip Expressway’.

This seems to be predicated on the assumption that saving five or ten minutes travelling from the M5 to central Somerset would in itself mean a ‘huge boost’ to the local economy. The real economic boost would be very short term, to the civil engineering and building industry, and would also perhaps encourage vehicle manufacturers and road hauliers. The local economy would scarcely benefit at all, and may well suffer.

Glastonbury is due to have a consultation process concerning this road proposal in the new year, and on November 3rd the Mayor wrote to the MP asking for a ‘full and comprehensive explanation’ of what he is proposing and what its implications are. At the time of writing there is as yet no reply.

Lobbying Campaign

Mendip’s planners are aware that James Heappey has made statements that ‘wrap up bypasses for Walton, Ashcott and Street and other improvements as part of the same lobbying campaign’. Nevertheless there are currently no formal proposals or considerations being given to his scheme at either a District or County level. There are, however, informal discussions taking place at County Hall.

The people of Glastonbury, and in particular members of the A361 committee, are clearly amongst those being lobbied. The reality of this proposal is actually part of a national network being planned by the Department for Transport. It has little to do with Glastonbury, or Walton and Ashcott – which have also been promised bypasses – except that we happen to be on the route.

Nevertheless local support is important, and at the present time this is perhaps the most realistic way of getting finance for all or any of the local bypasses Mr Heappy has mentioned. He is an ambitious young MP looking to make a name for himself, and he will be confident of getting the public support that he seeks. His lobbying tactics seem calculated to create the impression that there is already universal support for his proposals.

The danger is that support for local bypasses will be translated into support for a major freight route, without people really being aware of what is at stake.

Economic Development vs Sacred Landscape

Glastonbury is a town that for more than thirty years has been divided culturally, and there are two very different visions of what its future might be. The issue of this relief road has come up at a time when the two sides of the long-standing divide are beginning to work constructively together, and there is a danger that the result will be renewed division. It is difficult to see how an attitude that regards economic development and economic growth as the hallmark 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; but this is the challenge.

It has hardly helped that community leaders with a background in ecological and sustainable thinking have, as part of the lobbying campaign, been told that the proposed development will include the opportunity for ‘eco-business’ and suchlike. Let us be realistic: although the A361 will remain the responsibility of the County Council, funding for its up-grading would come from central government – almost certainly in partnership with corporate property developers, who would have free access along the route to land that they consider to have development potential. As has happened with other road schemes that have been justified on economic development grounds, the nature of the development would, when it came to it, be completely out of the control of local people.

We therefore need to be very careful about what we let ourselves agree to in advance. What this situation requires is for Glastonbury to stand up for itself, to refuse to be bullied by government, corporate concerns, outside planners, or anyone who puts the claims of ‘economic necessity’ before the real needs of human beings. We do not want to be overwhelmed any longer by heavy traffic coming from somewhere to the east on its way to somewhere to the west: it can and should go by a different route. The people of Glastonbury should not be presented with an impossible choice between what we do not want and what we cannot stand. Instead we can turn this into an opportunity to create the future that we do want for the town that we love.