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.