A417 – road safety & environmental concerns remain after 20 years of delay

On 24 January I gave evidence to the examination by government inspectors of plans to build a new section of the A417 connecting Cirencester to Gloucester right through the current Air Balloon roundabout (and the pub).

The current road, which narrows from a dual carriageway down to the Air Balloon and then turns sharp left down the hill past Crickley Hill towards Brockworth has been the subject of heated debate for decades. It has an appalling safety record and there has been widespread public support for something to be done for more than 20 years. But any solution would have to be built through the beautiful Costwold escarpment between a site of special scientific interest and one of the most important ancient sites in the country. Big schemes like this are the responsibility of government departments and agencies like National Highways (formerly Highways England).

From 2001 onwards study after study after study was done as government failed to bring forward a plan that was safe and environmentally friendly and they would pay for. Conservative politicians campaigned hard for the economic benefits of the scheme although the latest documents show only an underwhelming five minute improvement in journey times and the rest of the country is looking for ways to delink economic growth from more and more car journeys in any case. But a better road safety solution remains a shared priority for everyone.

The so-called ‘Brown route’ pushed very hard by our Conservative-led county council for many years (Route option 12 on the map below) was finally discarded as the preferred option after it was found to present ‘the biggest challenges in safety’ according to National Highways – exactly as many of us had warned when being pressured to support it. It was found that ‘the tunnel options, Options 3, 21, 24 and 29 outperformed the surface options in most of the economy, environmental and social measures’ (Highways England A417 Scheme Assessment Report March 2019 p85). But the Treasury refused to pay for them. The environment obviously doesn’t represent value for money for our Conservative government.

So we are left with Option 30 – a surface option further from the key local site of special scientific interest and with a longer gentler approach to the hill incline. It does at least look less environmentally harmful and certainly safer than Option 12.

But the examination evidence library contains some shocking revelations. One is a traffic map that shows traffic through Leckhampton increasing by 51% if the scheme goes ahead. That doesn’t just have implications for traffic congestion and air quality – already issues for the south of Cheltenham – but obviously for traffic safety. We don’t want to trade an unsafe A417 for more accidents here from huge increases in local traffic. Three local councils have called for National Highways to ‘provide more information to demonstrate how the impacts associated with the traffic increases on the local road network can be mitigated and how these measures would be secured and implemented.’ I strongly supported this call at the examination.

Another was the projected increase in carbon emissions and loss of biodiversity from the scheme as planned. Biodiversity loss in the immediate area is estimated at 20-25% while increased carbon emissions were modelled at the equivalent of nearly a million tonnes of CO2 over a 60 year period.

A raft of other environmental concerns have been raised by Natural England, the Woodland Trust and Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust (custodians of Crickley Hill). But government’s new planning rules don’t allow me or anyone else to question the fundamental justification for ‘Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects’ like this at this stage. So I strongly supported all these organisations’ calls for much more mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, better protection for nearby wildlife habitats and ancient woodlands and more ‘green bridging’ connecting the nature reserves at Crickley Hill with Barrow Wake across the A417.

I was particularly interested in Gloucestershire Ramblers’ suggestion that we could almost revert to something closer to the more environmentally-friendly tunnel options by radically widening the ‘green bridges’ to up to 150m under government construction rules and asked examiners to look closely at this possibility.

I also pointed out that the encampment on Crickley Hill was, at more than 5700 years old, more ancient than Stonehenge and hugely significant. Nearly a million artefacts have been unearthed at this site. Emma’s Grove nearby dates back to the bronze age. Yet the evidence of the Council for British Archaeology’s view is that major schemes like this that claim to be ‘landscape-led’ must treat landscape in this context as encompassing
not just natural beauty but also archaeology, heritage and the historic environment but that this scheme falls short.

It is really tragic that after 20 years, the fatal and serious accidents are still happening on the A417 but that after all that time government have come up with a scheme that still seems to have so many problems – environmental, cultural and even in road safety for the local road network in the area.

We can now only cross our fingers and hope that the inspectors presiding over this examination come up with clear, strong recommendations to go ahead with a scheme with much stronger environmental, cultural and safety outcomes and that government don’t use these as an excuse to delay even further.