Kudos to Winterbourne Stoke Parish Council for doing everything in their earthly powers over the last 6 weeks to elicit more information from Highways England to enable everybody in the village to come to an “informed decision” about which bypass route to choose, based not purely on naked self-interest, but also to promote the interests of the village as a whole. Inform, educate, illuminate.
Sadly it has all turned out to be a largely fruitless exercise that has resulted in very little incremental relevant information being made available. In many ways nobody is much wiser about key elements of the scheme than they were when the consultation process opened on the 12th January.
Understandably therefore, the Parish Council has asked Highways England for a “stay of execution” and for the consultation period to be extended. It is a noble gesture, but I suspect, one that is bound to end in failure for two very simple reasons – time and money.
A number of people (myself included) have, since the 12th January, repeatedly requested that the consultation period be extended. However, those requests have invariably fallen on deaf ears. Why? Probably because Highways England are under huge pressure to complete the entire project planning process 20% quicker than normal, in order for the project to be approved and funding obtained (£2bn) by the start of the next Parliament in 2020. Miss that deadline and Highways England potentially miss the project funding that has been “ring fenced.”
In order to meet their tight deadlines, it was always extremely unlikely that Highways England would go the extra mile and provide anybody with any additional information on the scheme. After all why would they? If they could argue that they were following correct Government guidelines during the consultation process, why would they go to the time and expense of providing additional information at this stage of the planning process?
The Parish Council’s response to the Highways England questionnaire appears to rest on 3 key assumptions:
A) Highways England did not follow “best practice” and should have provided additional information, particularly on the subject of traffic noise.
B) Any choice of route, that was not “informed” with this additional important information, was therefore invalidated and could not be made.
C) This together with the fact that the choice of route was complicated (aka “non-binary”) excused the Parish Council from the responsibility of making an extremely difficult choice between a northern or a southern route, and also excused them from reflecting the majority view on the scheme within the village.
For the record, and at the risk of being unpopular, I think all 3 assumptions are seriously flawed.
1. Did Highways England follow “best practice” during the consultation process, particularly on the subject of the environmental and ecological impact of the scheme?
Having spoken to the ecological survey team who were carrying out a detailed ecological survey on Manor Farm last week, they were clear that detailed surveys of the variety they were carrying out, were not usually carried out until AFTER the selection of a preferred route was made. They claimed that they were “ahead of the game”, by starting their survey before the Government’s announcement of a preferred route was made in the summer.
As far as Environmental Impact surveys are concerned, the Highways England Technical Appraisal report makes it very clear that “ the appraisal using methods set out in the TAG Unit A3 guidance, can be carried out at any stage in the development of proposals. However, it should be noted that the guidance calls for a proportionate approach to be adopted with excessive detail avoided. At Project Control Framework 1 (PCF1), the level of details will not be as much as when a preferred route option has been selected and a full Environmental Impact Assessment is being undertaken.”
What this seems to imply is quite simply that while the entire consultation process may be deeply flawed, Highways England can claim, perfectly validly, that they have behaved perfectly reasonably and have just been following official Government guidelines. Indeed, that is the view that John Glen, has consistently taken.
2. Unless you have all the information to hand, you can’t make a valid choice about which bypass route to select.
This is a perfectly valid theoretical response if, for example, you are submitting a paper based on purely scientific data. However in the “real” (and imperfect) world, we all have to make choices either on the basis of imperfect (politically filtered) information (such as that provided by Highways England) or independent 3rd party research, or our own “best judgement”. Such is democracy.
Winterbourne Stoke Parish Council hasn’t had the finances to commission independent reports on these issues, so they have had to rely on the information that has been provided by Highways England as well as their judgement about its accuracy. This is the same dilemma that, mutatis mutandis, everybody in the village has been faced with when filling out the Highways England questionnaire – how to choose between two imperfect options based on incomplete information.
Faced with that dilemma, what Winterbourne Stoke Parish Council should in my opinion have done, was, rather than sitting on the fence, reflect the views of the majority (65-70%) of villagers who were in favour of a northern route, (albeit with significant modifications), as well as making recommendations as to how a northern bypass could be modified to ensure that it was in the best interests of the village as a whole.
3. Because the choice of route was complicated (aka “non-binary”) it was not appropriate for the Parish Council to make a choice between a northern or a southern route, whatever the views of villagers on the subject might be.
Unfortunately, many of the decisions that a parish council have to make are “non-binary” or complicated. One of the fundamental reasons that a parish council exists, is to exercise their best judgement and make difficult decisions having first taken a sounding board of local opinion. It’s called “democracy” rather than “autocracy”.
At various stages over the last 6 weeks it has been suggested to the Parish Council that a formal vote or secret ballot should be taken in order to democratically determine what the majority view in the village was about which bypass route should be chosen. For whatever reason,(it would cost too much, take too long, would be based on imperfect information, the village couldn’t be trusted to make the right decision, it would be too divisive etc etc) the Parish Council decided that a vote should not be taken.
The door stepping survey in the village that was undertaken by the Southern Till Valley Preservation Group in late February may not have been 100% accurate, but what was very clear from that survey, was that a clear majority (65-70%) of villagers supported a northern route. It may have been an inconvenient truth, but it was based on an honest response to an objective presentation about the known facts.
For Winterbourne Stoke Parish Council not to reflect that majority view (however under informed it may have been), and instead decide unilaterally to abstain from choosing a preferred route that would, on the basis of available information, be in the “best interests of the village”, significantly increases the risk that a southern bypass will eventually emerge as the Government’s preferred route in the summer. If that comes to pass, I really wonder whether it will prove to be in the “best interests” of the village and whether people in years to come will ask why the Parish Council didn’t do more to support the “lesser of two evils” and come out in favour of a modified northern route, particularly when the “response of local communities” was known to be so critical in determining the eventual choice of bypass route. That is ultimately a question, I cannot answer.