A bad attack of A350-itis
Given the sudden wish to develop this road with no apparent thought to the implications in terms of overall cross boundary Transport Master Planning and random unplanned development pods along the route it is worth considering the recent history of the A350.
Wiltshire Council has long held enthusiasm for making the A350 south of junction 17 on the M4 a major but (they insisted in 2008) not a strategic route.
At the 2008 Westbury bypass public enquiry they described it as an important local route, but also muttered about its significance in linking to Poole harbour.
They lost that enquiry: significantly the reasons given by the inspectors and supported by the Secretary of State were both economic and environmental.
The stretch of the road from Junction 17 south to the A303 has few options for major online strategic road developments, and the objections in 2008 hinged around the proposal to start the route “improvements” by building a bypass east of Westbury, through the Wellhead Valley at the foot of the Salisbury Plain escarpment under the Westbury White Horse.
Before they lost the enquiry, and even more frequently since then, Wiltshire Council have gradually built housing extensions to Chippenham, Trowbridge and Westbury, with more in the current pipeline.
As a result there are now more than 20 roundabouts on the A350, and even in the days of the SW Regional assembly the Freight Transport Association stated that it was not being designed to take larger HGVs. The consequence was that few of their drivers chose to use it. It could be that this configuration is one of the major reasons why more HGVs have resorted to using the Junction 18 A46/A36 over the Cleveland Bridge in Bath?
Those who know the A350 will be aware that south of the A303 it then takes a narrow and tortuous route through two protected landscapes with many historic villages full of listed buildings, often built very close to the road. It is narrow, slow and winding for many miles.
The coastal waters around Poole Harbour are now largely a marine protection zone, and Poole is not a designated port for expansion as a result.
Therefore the only stretch of the A350 that can be even considered to be an alternative to the A46/36 from Junction 18 is the northern section of the A350, but even that runs into major challenges where it meets the A36.
In 1986 the A36-A46 route was due to be de-trunked. The reasons were many: unstable bedrock both north and south of Bath, no room for dualling the route in a protected landscape (the Cotswolds AONB, and the Avon valley, and of course the damage to the fabric of structures within Bath City and the World Heritage Site. Wiltshire raised major objections to the de-trunking proposal, and the decision was overturned.
However it was considered that a better link to Southampton was required, and the plans were laid for the Newbury bypass to be built and the A34 upgraded to be a fitting strategic route. This was completed in 1998 and is now a fast and overall low gradient route via the M4, A34 to the M3 and then the M27 to Portsmouth and Southampton docks. For the larger, longer distance lorries this national strategic route is eminently more suitable, and should be clearly signed as the route for such traffic, and the information should be required on all satnav systems.
It is the stated National Strategic route to these ports.
Recently Wiltshire has been developing further plans to upgrade the A350, with many of the sections receiving contributions from housebuilders through the planning system. As a result it has largely been developed since the 2008 decision (and even before then) as a connecting road for the north Wiltshire towns’ expansion. Even in the 2008 enquiry it was noted in the report that Wiltshire was confused in the exact role they were proposing for this route: suggesting that it could at one and the same time serve both the north Wiltshire needs and as a route to the south coast ports.
What has this changed?
We now know only too well that new roads create more traffic, not only on the new road itself but also on those routes connecting to it.
The A350 is not a strategic route in the making, and in the view of those who fought for – and won – the battle to stop the damage to the communities of Wiltshire and the Wellhead Valley it is a mistake to assume that it would “provide a diversionary route for traffic from Wales to the South Coast”.