What Lies Beneath?

Earlier on today,we noticed that Wiltshire Archaeology were back in the recently harvested field between the Berwick St James road and the River Till.  When they were last there, back in the spring before the Oilseed Rape had even sprouted, they were conducting a magnetometer survey to see if there was anything of interest in the ground that could impact on plans for a southern bypass route for Winterbourne Stoke.  Today, they had upped the ante, and were using ground penetrating radar (GPR) – a technique that can, depending on the terrain and soil composition, look deeper in the ground than magnetometry and also establish the depth of buried archaeology.

We have to ask ourselves: “Why?”

Speculation is all we have for the moment, which isn’t ideal, but there would seem to be two likely situations.  First, that the magnetometer survey found nothing and the GPR survey is something of a belt and braces activity to double-check; as once covered by a dual carriageway if the Southern route was selected, it wouldn’t be possible to look again. So it’s being done for completeness.

Second, the magnetometer survey found something interesting and they are now back for a more detailed look.  Time will tell.

The only certainty is, that along with all the other archaeology and environmental surveys for both the northern and southern routes that have been undertaken on behalf of Highways England for the A303 Stonehenge to Berwick Down Scheme, all the results SHOULD be made public.

 

Government Looking at Private Finance to Improve the A303 – Delays Seem Inevitable

Villagers may be very interested to made aware of the 2017 Annual Report on the Government Major Projects Portfolio (GMPP) from the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA),  published yesterday (18 July 2017) by the Cabinet Office.

Buried in one of the supporting documents is the following text relating to the Stonehenge to Berwick Down A303 Project:

Construction of twin-bored tunnel of at least 1.8 miles as the road passes Stonehenge coupled with a dual carriageway bypass for Winterbourne Stoke to link the existing dual carriageway section around Amesbury with the dual carriageway at Berwick Down. Project aims are: – To create a high quality route between the South East and the South West that meets future needs of traffic – To enable growth in jobs and housing by providing a free-flowing and reliable connection between the South East and the South West – To help conserve and enhance the World heritage site and to make it easier to reach and explore – To improve biodiversity and provide a positive legacy for nearby communities.

The red delivery confidence rating (This means:Successful delivery of the project appears to be unachievable. There are major issues with project definition, schedule, budget, quality and/or benefits delivery, which at this stage do not appear to be manageable or resolvable. The project may need re-scoping and/or its overall viability reassessed. ED) that was awarded at Gateway 1 reflects the complexity of the project. To improve this rating an action plan was put in place. A review of progress made against the recommendations was carried out in October 2016, in which the delivery confidence rating was upgraded to red/amber (This means the project is now viewed as follows:  Successful delivery of the project is in doubt, with major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas. Urgent action is needed to address these problems and/or assess whether resolution is feasible.)

. The review team acknowledged the progress made by the project team but proposed a review of the delivery schedule, in light of the recent decision from HMT to adopt a Private Finance DBFM approach. The project team will ensure successful, timely delivery of the project by undertaking the recommendations proposed by the review team.

Project is on track with the option selection process prior to a statutory pre-application public consultation planned for January 2018 as part of the Development Consent Order Process. The Road Investment Strategy (RIS) has set a challenging target of starting works within the first RIS period, i.e. prior to April 2020. This target can only be achieved if the project is publicly financed. A revised Private Finance delivery programme is being developed.

The key take home-message seems to be that successful delivery of the project is still in doubt, the Treasury have decided to adopt a privately-financed design, build, finance and maintain (DBFM) approach to funding this scheme – despite the assurances that the funding had been ring-fenced.   So, the time scales we have previously been given (start in 2020 and completion by 2024) are now, seemingly, irrelevant.

A Lot of Furious Paddling

It has been almost a week since we held the Meeting for the Parish to discuss concerns about the proposed A303 bypass routes around Winterbourne Stoke. If everything seems to have gone quiet, rest assured that that is simply an illusion – like the old saw that describes a swan gliding silently along the river, whilst underwater its legs are paddling away furiously, we have been asking further questions and keeping the pressure on both John Glen MP and the Highways Agency. That has been a constant, daily effort.

Many questions were asked last week by villagers, some who supported one or other of the options and others who were desperate for some hard evidence to help them decide; feeling that what Highways England had offered so far was woefully insufficient. John Glen offered to seek answers to many of these questions and to ask Highways England to release some of the information that underpinned the high level assessments of each route in their Technical Appraisal Report (TAR). So far, whilst we have yet to receive an answer to any of the questions posed, or receive any further information, we know that John has been in touch with Highways England on our behalf and asked them for it. Furthermore, he’s been told that Highways England are working on responses to to both our questions and those asked by other interested parties.

Last Saturday at the Manor Barn, and contrary to things that had been said to villagers and Parish Councillors at previous meetings, Highways England finally admitted that they hold information on the predicted noise levels for each property within the 1.2 Km corridor (i.e. 600 metre either side of the centre line) for each of the alternative route Options 1N and 1S. This has been asked for informally through the consultation process and also formally as a Freedom of Information Act request. This is the critical bit of assessment that will give some idea of likely unmitigated sound levels at the properties close to each route and can be used to give at least a little idea of likely sound levels in Winterbourne Stoke in the case of the northern route and both Winterbourne Stoke and Berwick St James in the case of the southern route. It will be interesting to see when and if this information will be provided, either to John Glen or individuals.

One of the other key questions we asked of John was in relation to the relative weights Highways England would put on consultation responses from, say, the occupant of Rivendell, Winterbourne Stoke compared to the occupant of Rivendell in the Upper Hutt Valley in New Zealand. Both are at liberty to respond to the consultation exercise and both can express a preference as to the route. We would like to think that the views of those living locally would count for more than those living further away for instance. In a private response, which we hope John is happy to have repeated here, he said: “It is clear that there will be a very strong emphasis on qualitative responses – not a tally of votes for either option”.

We tackled Andrew Alcorn, Highways England’s Project manager for the scheme on the same issue last Saturday. He also gave reassurance that the route wouldn’t be decided on the basis of a simple vote count, but didn’t give much away when it came to the relative weights of locals (despite their being a box for a postcode on every hardcopy and softcopy response), versus antipodeans and everyone else with a view between here and there, versus pressure groups of every conceivable flavour. We had assumed that, having done this sort of thing in the past, Highways England would have a process in place to handle the qualitative (and sometimes quantitative) feedback it was receiving in a way that could weight responses in relation to the respondent and capture critical information in a logical and formal way. It’s the sort of thing we Brits do very well, we even “invented” the science of Operational Research back in WWII to deal with these sorts of issues. It’s now called Operational Analysis(OA) and has spread into every walk of life from how to arrange goods on supermarket shelves to working out the best GCSE courses to take to maximise your chances of becoming a doctor. OA is frequently used in the field of transport; it’s what the Highways Agency are doing when they model traffic flows like those shown in the displays at the Manor Barn. So Highways England should be well versed in it and there is a whole branch called “soft operational analysis” that deals with the sort of “fluffy”, qualitative information they are going to receive back from the consultation process. Consequently, we were very surprised to hear from Mr Alcorn that Highways England have no specific process in place to tackle these responses. Let’s just hope he is wrong and those charged with doing the work are familiar with the sort of methods that could, and should, be employed.

Highways England have insisted, from the outset, that there is some latitude in the proposals they have put forward. The big question of the week is just how much latitude? Why ask about this sort of thing now? Well, if the degree of latitude meant that the southern route might be sunk in an earth-walled cutting rather than stuck up on a high embankment, or the northern route could be pushed further north and with a similar profile to the route that was found acceptable back in 2005, then folks might look slightly differently about the viability of each of the two routes. The same would be true of the location and design of the interchange with the A360 – how much latitude would there be here? Can this latitude, even at this early stage, be bounded; what would be seen as reasonable and what wouldn’t. If we knew the broad limitations within which Highways England are working, we wouldn’t waste time pushing for the unachievable, how ever sensible such a form of mitigation might appear to us, and decision making would be much easier.

BT’s Response on Superfast Broadband in the Village

Following our email yesterday,  BT’s Bill Murphy immediately undertook to chase things up with the regional team working with Wiltshire Council’s superfast broadband team, on our behalf.   Today (4:00pm on 08/12/2016) we received the following email”

If you can’t read the original above, the important bit says:

“…Work is progressing on bringing fibre broadband to Winterbourne Stoke. There are no outstanding way leave issues but we will need to use a  “mole plough” to install the fibre along part of the route which may require a road closure – the detailed plans are in preparation to identify whether this will be needed.   
We anticipate that the new cabinet will be installed and accepting orders in the spring of next year.

Clearly, this calls into question everything that Terry Young has been told recently by Wiltshire Council officials working for Wiltshire Online.  It will be interesting to see what Wiltshire Online now come up with, as clearly either they or BT are wrong.   Sadly, no information that Wiltshire Online have provided to villagers, in response to legitimate questions, has yet proved reliable.

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