COMMENT: If a relief road is the wrong answer, what’s the right one?
Finally, some common sense. Not discounting the need for an Iver Relief Road, or the difficulties that many have experienced since the “experimental closure” of Chequers Bridge, treating these two issues as one and the same always felt a little convenient and unlikely.
Slough Borough Council’s decision to temporarily close the north-south link, to gather data ahead of a permanent closure to give it a stronger negotiating position with the likes of the Western Rail Access to Heathrow (WRAtH) project and – possibly – HS2 was undoubtedly bold and proactive. However, it was badly implemented and poorly communicated. And with the Council the primary driver of WRAtH which created the problem in the first place, it was always a self-serving measure.
The Hollow Hill/Mansion Lane route is (was?) an increasingly over-used cut-through many came to rely on when the motorways seized up – as they all too frequently do in recent years.
But building a new road because our motorways are broken is fixing the wrong problem.
WRAtH drew up six alternative routes three of which avoided a road closure. They were deemed too expensive, suffering from geological challenges, or would not achieve the target 6 minute journey time from Slough to Heathrow. Closing the road was the easy way out.
It’s time to think again. Given the dramatic growth in Slough’s population forecast over the next 20 years, mitigating a few “pinch points” is not going to help. The inconvenient truth is that WRAtH needs to go back to the drawing board.
Similarly with an HGV relief road in Iver.
Groups in Iver have lobbied for a new road for decades and the problem on Iver High Street is undeniable. Buckinghamshire County Council has sympathised but cost and viable route remain blockers. So close to the M25 but unable to access it, most routes proposed over the years have generally sought to divert trucks onto Slough roads with little consideration of the impact elsewhere.
In a breath of fresh air last year Bucks council noted that the problem needed to be tackled at source with one or more of Iver’s HGV bases being relocated or redeveloped.
The paper prepared for consideration by councillors on the Neighbourhood Scrutiny Committee this coming Tuesday made eight pretty obvious points that will probably be read with nodding heads – albeit with some disappointment.
Community groups and their elected representatives have been putting pressure on the wrong fix, helped by a populist backlash to the current issues, and petitions that mischievously combine support for unrelated issues.
Slough’s paper might help to rebalance that conversation but it will, more likely, be received with: “well, they would say that“.
In its recent consultation WRAtH found that 81% of those who responded were in favour of the new link railway to Heathrow. Like the Populus surveys that ask if you are “for” or “against” Heathrow, it was a misleading question designed to make for an easy path through the decision-making process. Is there a better way of doing it? is the question that should have been asked, and which we should be pushing for now.
Likewise, with new Local Plans under development in all local authorities currently there has never been a better time to lobby for bold changes to address fundamental HGV problems that have been allowed to build up over time by poor decision-making and outdated planning rules.
If only the unprecedented outpouring of anger at local congestion could be channeled into more realistic goals, who knows what could be achieved?
Eight reasons why a relief road won’t help
A report prepared by Masum Choudhury, Slough Council’s Transport Strategy Team Leader, lists eight reasons why a new road is not the answer:
A relief road would not unequivocally serve the expected function of relieving existing Slough or Langley congestion, though conversely it is expected to serve some of the existing HGV and congestion issues experienced in Iver. Iver currently experience significant HGV issues due to the proximity of the M25 and HGV parks. A relief road is likely to release this movement through Slough and Langley, inadvertently making the route a viable alternative to queuing on/onto/off the M25.
In transport planning terms a new road is generally expected to attract more traffic due to improved flow, leading to additional cars on the road network. In built up areas this can add to existing problems in congested areas such as Langley, Colnbrook or displacement onto other areas in Slough. Additionally, the proximity of the M25 and M4 motorway means traffic is likely to divert onto the local road network in Slough, in order to avoid delays experienced on the motorway. A relief road means that a diversion via Slough onto the M4/M25 and vice versa becomes a realistic and viable alternative.
A relief road would attract a far greater volume of traffic then the pre-closure traffic volumes observed at Hollow Hill Lane/Market Lane of approximately 8000 vehicles. A new road needs to be built to set design standards in the DMRB. As greater capacity and flow attracts greater volumes of traffic, this would only serve to compound the issues in Slough and Langley. i.e. a greater volume of traffic would be drawn towards pinch points and junctions in the area.
Regardless of the experimental road closure or any associated relief road there are existing pre-closure issues with congestion in several places in the borough. The planned closure of Hollow Hill Lane/Mansion Lane has provided an opportunity to address these congestion areas. Therefore the opportunity to simultaneously mitigate a HHL closure, but also against the future forecasted demand and congestion issues arising from growth, increasing economic activity and density in the region. Pursuing a relief road could compromise this opportunity by focussing effort to a solution that may not be viable either due to cost or other constraints. It may also be a counter-productive option as smaller packages serve to address localised congestion without a negative influence on demand changes (i.e. encouraging increase traffic flows and volume) whereas a new road enables greater volumes to access the town as a through route.
Estimating the cost of a new road and structure is an extremely involving and complex process due to multiple issues and unknowns, such as cost of land purchases, compensation for adjoining land owners, asset protection, numerous stakeholder interests and public enquiry outcomes.
In addition to technical viability there are financial and economic feasibility concerns which would also need to be overcome for a project such as a relief road to commence. For example, an asset protection requirement by Network Rail is considered to be very high risk to the council with unknown value or underwriting costs. There are also costs associated with operation and maintenance and the cost for road and rail closures during such operation, including the management of structure damage and any associated cost for operational and remedial work that follows. (Additional background information in this area can be found in publically available documents published by HM Treasury such as the Green Book and also by the National Audit Office that validate the complex project risks and uncertainty with infrastructure schemes).
The length of negotiation with the scheme sponsors and the associated clawback agreement. The implication being that complicated negotiations regarding a relief road at this stage could mean the opportunity for mitigation passes altogether. In addition, if a relief road does not come to realisation at some date in the future, funds would need to be returned and therefore the opportunity cost of not having pursued a package of mitigation proposals.
A new road classed as a major infrastructure scheme would need to pass the DFT WebTAG process which could become a significant barrier to such a proposal at this stage. From a professional standpoint, Slough Borough Council would support a relief road proposal on the back of significant development or where large benefits are forecast for the economy or community, such as; where proposals are underpinned by the significant unlocking of land for housing development or economic growth and activity.