Last night was the evening session of the Westbury Bypass enquiry that's presently running in that town, and Lisa and I attended and listened with interest.
A bit of history.
The town of Westbury is the largest town on the A350 that remains unbypassed and although the traffic delays through there are not as severe as some would wish us to believe, the town does slow down traffic from Warminster and the south headed up to the M4 motorway, and there are some narrow twists and turns on a road that wasn't intended for the traffic it now carries, leading to air pollution, noise, vibration, unsuitability of footways due to HGVs close by and much more - it can't be pleasant living on the road these days.
Various routes to the North and West of the town have been proposed in the past, serving the West Wilts Trading Estate - a growing industrial area - on their way around the town, but these are no longer under consideration and the route being proposed by Wiltshire County Council is to the South and East, with an additional link road in to the Trading Estate. Rather late in the day, a weight limit has been proposed on a critical bridge over the railway within the town of Westbury, in order to prevent HGV traffic from the West Wilts trading estate that's headed south from continuing to go through the town even if the bypass is built (but the weight limit won't, of course, stop cars using the old route rather than the new long way round)
The "West" route runs through six parishes, and there are many people there who have put up a spirited campaign to keep it away, although if the new road ran close to the railway line its disruption wouldn't be all that much, and it would give direct access to Westbury Station, and to the Trading Estate, without the need for artificial restrictions as I described above.
The "East" route runs through two parishes, through high quality agricultural land which is also beautiful countryside, with antiquities and more along the line. There's lots of wildlife around (some rare, I understand) and there's very serious concern that it's as close as it is to the Westbury White Horse.
The inspector's task is to recommend to the Minister for local government (I think) and the Minister for Transport, Ruth Kelly, whether or not to approve the Eastern route, for which a great deal of research has been done. The inspectors pointed out some 20 feet of paperwork on a shelf behind them that they have to consider, much of which has been prepared at my (taxpayer's) expense. The outcome of the enquiry cannot be a recommendation of approval for an alternative route; it has to be a "yes / no" but can be subject, as I understand it, to extra conditions being applied.
There were 7 speakers in favour of approval, followed by 14 speakers listed as objectors.
The speakers in favour of approval (with two exceptions) spoke of how they lived close by the current A350, and what a nightmare that made life there. And I really felt for them; I can understand their anguish even if it was laid on a bit heavy for the enquiry. But they weren't speaking to the support of the Eastern Route
- rather they were supporting any route, and they are behind this scheme simply because it's the only one on offer - "that or nothing".
The speakers listed as objectors, on the other hand, weren't saying "no, there shouldn't be a bypass", nor were they didn't encourage a solution being found for the first group of speakers - what they were saying was "this proposal doesn't make sense". Although the bypass to the east will relieve Westbury's town centre for its residents, the scheme as proposed does nothing for the Yarnbrook just to the north, already more of a hotspot than Westbury itself on the DfT's congestion delay map, already an accident blackspot, and destined to receive the traffic off a fast bypass funnelled back into 19th Century roads if the bypass goes ahead on current plans.
Other speakers talked of the loss of habitat, tranquillity, antiquities, and of the lassoing of a section of beautiful countryside between the town and the new bypass which would inevitably end up being in filled. They talked of the cutting off of Westbury from its major asset - the scarp face of Salisbury Plain with only limited crossings, and of a mitigating bridleway that will be too steep for horses to use in safety.
And they talked of scandals and the massaging of public opinion and statistics. Of councillors banned from talking at meeting, and banned from voting, because they lived close to the proposed road; as I understood it, Wiltshire County Council has described the scheme as having "the [full/overwhelming] support" of Westbury Town Council, when in fact only 5 out of 15 members voted in favour, with 4 voting against and 6 being either excluded of advised on legal grounds that they must abstain. Some of these spoke yesterday - all against the plans - and it sounded like some very serious flaws in the local democracy were being revealed to put it mildly.
Both Lisa and I were very struck by how the supporters weren't actually supporting the specific route proposed (just one exception) - they would / were supporting any route - the principle of a bypass. They would have been - again with that one exception - equally happy (and perhaps more happy) with a Western route which would take even more traffic away from their doors. And the objectors weren't actually objecting to measures to divert traffic away from Westbury town centre - but rather to a scheme which has serious flaws and has been pushed through as the only alternative in ways that may be legal, but don't seem to conform to the best of democratic standards.
We were very impressed by a well run evening that stuck to schedule, was very polite in spite of the differing views being strongly expressed, and by the inspectors who gave an impressive demonstration of being well organised and impartial.
My interests in this?
Firstly, an over engineered (an so expensive) bypass will act like a sponge and suck traffic into the area from far and wide - leading to a dramatic increase in traffic elsewhere on the A350 - Yarnbrook, Beanacre, North Melksham, and around Chippenham - all of which are either congested already or serious accident blackspots. Better a solution to deal with Westbury's issues; there seem to be a number of credible alternatives.
Secondly, there's a perfectly good railway line - linking Southampton with the Midlands and North that runs through Westbury and has capacity, and a trackbed that would allow it to be doubled without demolishing anyone's house or shoving more traffic past their front door. That's a lot of your freight dealt with. Then you should also run a decent passenger service - and you'll cut the car traffic too. I've made this point lots of times here already, so I won't go on further about it again. Just to say that ... if you MUST build the eastern bypass, please Mr WCC, cut back a little on the heavy engineering (I have some suggestions!) so that you don't sponge traffic in the area, and put a half of the money you save into a decent alternative rail service.
As fuel prices rise, metal on metal or rail rather then rubber on tarmac of road will make the heavy rail freight ever more environmental and economic. And as fuel prices rise, multi passenger fast public transport will be an ever more attractive way for people to get around - in the longer term, cheaper than individual road vehicles, and certainly far more environmentally friendly.
Illustrations - The A350 in Westbury, photographs taken after the session concluded between half past nine and a quarter to ten. And a picture that's about 2 years old (from my library) taken on top of the White Horse, looking across the the area where an Eastern bypass would run.
See also an earlier view of how Wiltshire might develop (written 2008-07-15, updated 2008-07-23)
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