If you’ve ever wanted to witness the consequences of having a public sector that operates without joined up thinking or consideration for the impacts on real life that its actions will have, you won’t need to look much further than the structural work that Highways England are undertaking on bridges around the Junction 11 area of the M5.
As a regular user of the road between the B4063 near Gloucestershire Airport (what many will remember the lights at The Plough), and The Gallagher Retail Park or Crosshands on The A4019 Tewkesbury Road in Cheltenham passing the House in the Tree, I’ve been experiencing the impact of one of the associated road closures for over a year now.
When Staverton Bridge was closed in the summer of 2020 – for what everyone was told would be a period of some 13 months (the signs said July 2020 – August 2021), it was very quickly clear that very little thought had been given to the project in terms of how drivers would respond and how they would then find their way around.
With many drivers choosing to reach their destination by diverting through Staverton Village and Boddington, local residents have already had over a year of speeding torture and dangerously broken up roads. Those problems have only been made worse by the apparent rescheduling of the works which took place this Summer, meaning that the work to Staverton Bridge and the road closure will not end until at least next spring.
Although I have often thought about publishing a picture of the great plywood back door of a speed camera van that the Villagers in Staverton have created to encourage passing motorists to slow down, it was the news I have seen today published in the My Churchdown Magazine recently about the upcoming closure of the bridge between Churchdown and Badgeworth on Brookfield Road that made me feel it was really the right time to write.
As a Borough Councillor, I experienced how the different agencies of Government interacted and worked – or rather didn’t work together over projects like these, and how the truth about small matters like consultations and handling bad news to the public would be spun and manipulated so that people would react in the most favourable way possible, rather than creating problems for decision makers which were in the majority of cases based upon very reasonable thinking rather than over the top demands.
With the experience that I have, I do not believe that it was ever the intention that Staverton Bridge would be finished within 13 months as initially suggested, and that the arrival of scaffolding over the Bridge in only the past couple of weeks for the reconstructive phases of the project demonstrates that planners will have almost certainly known just how long it would take to carefully complete such a specialist task.
The reality is that those responsible know that if they had gone straight in with a two-year time frame for Staverton Bridge to be closed, there would have been a public outcry of a level that would have been too much politically for them to withstand. Instead, it appears that they have cynically and deliberately strategically moved the goalposts, right at the time when people had got used to the change and were least likely to open up publicly to make a stand.
I believe this view relevant, as the work that will close one of the two direct routes to Cheltenham from Churchdown is likely to be closed for much longer than the 12-month time frame suggests, and with the chaos to commuters, bus routes, school journeys and all other forms of travel that depend on this link every day of the year, this is a project that has a cost to the local area that under these plans is simply too high just to be imposed upon us by a public sector organisation which is under no direct political control.
Yes, the bridge work needs to be done. But why does it have to be done in this way?
Whichever way Highways England complete this work, it will be expensive. But the real, expense needs to be calculated in terms of what the cost will be not just to their own budget, but to everyone else too.
Many of you will have seen the video on social media where a railway bridge in Germany is closed, demolished and completely replaced and open again within 4 days. It begs the question why the authorities and the powers that be cannot think like this and use holidays and night times to minimise disruption and the time that key local roads have to be closed – rather than maintaining this obsession that the roads (motorways) under their supervision must at all costs remain open, unless it is for a purpose that they should choose.