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1.0 INTRODUCTION

The preamble to the constitution of the Liberal Democrats states: “The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives.”

 

With respect to decision making on major infrastructure projects the following excerpts are a relevant:

 

“We believe that each generation is responsible for the fate of our planet and, by safeguarding the balance of nature and the environment, for the long term continuity of life in all its forms. Upholding these values of individual and social justice, we reject all prejudice and discrimination based upon race, colour, religion, age, disability, sex or sexual orientation and oppose all forms of entrenched privilege and inequality. Recognising that the quest for freedom and justice can never end, we promote human rights and open government, a sustainable economy which serves genuine need, public services of the highest quality, international action based on a recognition of the interdependence of all the world’s peoples and responsible stewardship of the earth and its resources. We believe that people should be involved in running their communities. We are determined to strengthen the democratic process and ensure that there is a just and representative system of government with effective Parliamentary institutions, freedom of information, decisions taken at the lowest practicable level and a fair voting system for all elections. We will at all times defend the right to speak, write, worship, associate and vote freely, and we will protect the right of citizens to enjoy privacy in their own lives and homes….We similarly commit ourselves to the promotion of a flourishing system of democratic local government in which decisions are taken and services delivered at the most local level which is viable.

 

We will foster a strong and sustainable economy which encourages the necessary wealth creating processes, develops and uses the skills of the people and works to the benefit of all, with a just distribution of the rewards of success. We want to see democracy, participation and the co-operative principle in industry and commerce within a competitive environment in which the state allows the market to operate freely where possible but intervenes where necessary. We will promote scientific research and innovation and will harness technological change to human advantage.

 

We will work for a sense of partnership and community in all areas of life. We recognise that the independence of individuals is safeguarded by their personal ownership of property, but that the market alone does not distribute wealth or income fairly. We support the widest possible distribution of wealth and promote the rights of all citizens to social provision and cultural activity. We seek to make public services responsive to the people they serve, to encourage variety and innovation within them and to make them available on equal terms to all.

 

…. These are the conditions of liberty and social justice which it is the responsibility of each citizen and the duty of the state to protect and enlarge. The Liberal Democrats consist of women and men working together for the achievement of these aims.”

 

 

This response is prepared by Taunton Deane Liberal Democrats (TDLD) Local Party, guided by these values. The Local Party is a voluntary organisation and contributors are volunteers drawn from a range of roles and walks of life having significant expertise as officers, local councillors and professional experts who work for local people in furtherance of these values.

 

 

2.0 SUMMARY

 

Whilst Taunton Deane Liberal Democrats support the need to dual the A358 between Taunton and the A303, it strongly opposes Highways England’s Taunton to Southfields Option 8/8A presented in this consultation.

 

TDLD’s view is that Highways England’s (HE) Taunton to Southfields proposals are unacceptable due to:

-       its failure to support strategic and policy objectives established for Taunton and Taunton town centre;

-       its failure to address the access issues at the Hankridge retail park;

-       its failure to support the Nexus 25 business development, contrary to the Government’s and Highways England’s own polices, and

-       its failure to provide a meaningful solution to the volume of traffic and passing through and level of pollution affecting Thornfalcon and Henladen.

 

The need for a dual carriageway link between Taunton and the A303 is something Liberal Democrats have worked for a long time. LibDem MPs and Ministers were able to secure both policy and budgetary support for this in the 2014 Autumn Statement and as a result of this success it was Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg who announced the proposal in 2014 following work by a range of LibDem MPs at the time including Jeremy Browne MP for Taunton Deane between 2005 and 2015.

 

Road schemes however cannot be justified simply in their own right. Given the challenge of our climate and the wider environment they must secure real and measurable environmental benefits such as reduced pollution and improved human health and amenity within existing settlements, without giving rise to unacceptable environmental impacts elsewhere. It is Taunton Deane Liberal Democrats’ view that the preferred Option 8/8B+NFS fails completely to achieve these objectives and must be significantly changed before it can be accepted.

 

The failure of this scheme to successfully achieve the improvements required is emphasised by the failure of Highways England to fully consider the options before it, including through consultation.

 

These failings in pre-application process are so serious that a subsequent application for Development Consent is likely to fail the legal test (the pre-application requirements set out in s55) and is likely to be rejected by the Planning Inspectorate at the first hurdle.

 

The failings as compared with other schemes promoted by public and private bodies are so great as to raise the question of whether HE expects this scheme to falter as a result, providing it with an excuse to drop the entire A358 improvement project given the criticism of the Government controlled company by the National Audit Office (NAO) due to its spiralling programme costs. (The NAO in its report[1] says that HE has identified 16 unnamed projects which present a risk to value for money).

 

The scrapping of the entire scheme would be contrary to all the promises given by the current Conservative Government to continue with the project dual the A358 and would be a cynical move completely opposed by Taunton Deane Liberal Democrats.

 

The approach that people throughout Taunton Deane both want and expect from this Government company is that they listen to the views expressed in the current consultation and come back and consult properly on more than one option and then review and develop the scheme for application and consent.

 

3.0 LEGAL AND POLICY REQUIREMENTS ON NATIONALLY SIGNIFICANT INFRASTRUCTURE PROJECTS

 

The proposed Taunton to Southfields project is brought forward by Highways England as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project as defined under the Planning Act 2008. The pre-application process required of Highways England is set out in the Act and in regulations made under the Act. This response sets out a number of areas where Highways England has not complied with the legal and policy requirements placed upon it by this legislation as follows.

 

Paragraph 18 of Planning Act 2008: Guidance on the Pre-application process (March 2015) refers to the key benefits of proper consultation, namely:

“18. Early involvement of local communities, local authorities and statutory consultees can bring about significant benefits for all parties, by

… enabling members of the public to influence proposed projects, feedback on potential options, and encouraging the community to help shape the proposal to maximise local benefits and minimise any downsides;

helping local people understand the potential nature and local impact of the proposed project, with the potential to dispel misapprehensions at an early stage;

….enabling potential mitigating measures to be considered and, if appropriate, built into the project before an application is submitted; and

identifying ways in which the project could, without significant costs to promoters, support wider strategic or local objectives.”

The Guidance continues: “Without adequate consultation, the subsequent application will not be accepted when it is submitted.” (Emphasis added).

 

Section 55 of the PA2008 states that in deciding whether to accept the application Inspectors appointed by the Secretary of State “must have regard to” inter alia “any adequacy of consultation representation received by the Secretary of State from a local authority consultee, and (c) the extent to which the application has had regard to any guidance issued under section 50” i.e. the Guidance above.   

 

The ways in which HE has failed to carry out consultation according to good practice and the requirements laid out in the Guidance are as follows:

 

3.1 by HE only carrying out an informal and selective consultation unguided by any Statement of Community Consultation, the formal pre-application consultation is required by the PA2008 to be subject to a Statement of Community Consultation (SOCC), on which the local authorities should first be consulted, following this the Statement should be published in local newspapers. No SOCC process has been completed nor has one been published in the required newspapers. Instead HE has opted for a non-statutory informal consultation. (This means there has been no requirement to identify all concerned bodies and landowners raising the question as to whether key individual have not been consulted). Whilst an early informal consultation is perfectly permissible early consultations are, by definition, usually carried out before all the options have already been selected. In addition, informal consultations are not a substitute for pre-application consultation required by the Act. By failing to open consideration of options up to public consultation it is difficult to see how HE can discharge its duty to have considered alternatives to significant adverse environmental impacts and to compulsory acquisition of land (as required in “Planning Act 2008: Guidance related to procedures for the compulsory acquisition of land” Sept 2013). It is extraordinary that HE consider that on a project of this scale its only legally compliant consultation will take place after it has made all the key decisions and once all alternative options have already been dismissed without consultation upon them. The risk of presenting what will appear to be rubber stamping exercise of the final scheme is enormous and will fundamentally undermine the whole process for preparing such projects according to thorough consultation. It could not be clearer that HE is not conducting this consultation with intention of considering other options. Further evidence is set out in the following excerpt of the Technical Appraisal Report (TAR) on the project indicating that HE has simply chosen the cheapest option which has smallest benefit to the local community and offers the worst value for money for the taxpayer:

 

·         Option 1/1B +NFS     Benefit: £471.14m         Estimated Cost:   £256.9m         Net Benefit:               £214.24m       

·         Option 2A/2B          Benefit: £620.05m      Estimated Cost:    £284.1m          Net Benefit:            £335.95m       

·         Option 8/8B + Jct 25   Benefit: £524.87m   Estimated Cost    £266.3m         Net Benefit:            £258.57m       

·         Option 8/8B + NFS      Benefit:  £420.41m   Estimated Cost    £243.9m          Net Benefit:          £176.51m       

 

3.2 by the failure to consult on any options other than Option 8/8B+NFS: this is in stark contrast to other public and private sector scheme promoters, for example National Grid, in designing its similarly linear Hinkley Connector transmission line project not only consulted on differing route options it even made an application for consent for two options enabling the Inspectors/secretary of State considering the application to determine the best route. The excuse given by HE at Consultation Events is that it is not consulting on other options because it would be unwilling to promote the other options due to cost. This is not an excuse that has found favour with decision makers. Again, in the context of National Grid numerous transmission lines, (especially where they pass through National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty) have been required to be undergrounded through the examination and decision making process despite protestations from the Grid regarding cost. It is clear that giving cost as a reason for not even consulting at the earliest stage on the options available flies entirely in the face of all good consultation practice and guidance

 

3.3 by the Conservative Government controlled HE launching the consultation just before the programmed County Council election campaign (within which the Conservative Government also called a General Election) with events and promotional activities scheduled throughout the election campaign, whilst this appears to have stayed just within the Election Guidance to Civil Servants it gave the appearance of being launched in time for elections to benefit the Conservative MPs and Government as part of their increasingly “pork barrel” approach to politics where sums of cash are awarded to areas in the country (most recently Northern Ireland) just in time to maximise political advantage https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Progress-with-the-Road-Investment-Strategy.pdf

 

3.4 by failing to provide the key documentation at consultation events – only a minimalist brochure and display boards were available at the consultation events with the Technical Appraisal Report being only available online, HE did not even provide a laptop or terminal at the event so people could consult the TAR. HE appear to consider that members of the public are incapable of understanding anything but the most simple information and is in marked contrast to nearly all other DCO consultation events at which all documentation is available and staff are briefed to understand them and address questions on them.

 

TDLD strongly believes that Somerset County Council and Taunton Deane Borough Council, should submit representations that consultation was “inadequate” when they are consulted under Section 55 as part of the decision on whether or not to accept the application is taken by Inspectors/the Secretary of State.

 

4.0 SCHEME IMPACTS

 

TDLD is very concerned about the following key failings of Option 8/8AB+NFS which appears to have been selected, as mentioned above, entirely because it is the cheapest option.

 

Key concerns are set out below.

 

4.1      Failure to support strategic and policy objectives established for Taunton or for Taunton town centre

 

In addition to the scheme’s failure to deal with local bypass issues (see below) the scheme, in an apparent attempt to side step the issues at Junction 25 that require a solution, entirely bypasses the main junction for entering Taunton for all traffic approaching from the southeast along the A358. This fails to capitalise on Taunton as a destination and has significant additional adverse impacts.

 

4.2 Failure to address the access issues at the Hankridge Retail Park

 

One of the most significant pieces of evidence of the need for any A358 scheme to connect with and address problems at Junction 25 is the regular backing up of traffic feeding into and out of Hankridge Retail Park. Despite HE’s Technical Appraisal Report recognising Hankridge as Taunton’s biggest retail park (page 12) the preferred option would not even connect with Junction 25, close to and affected by the retail park. The economic cost of this congestion is thousands of pounds of lost time spent in traffic jams in around Junction 25 and this needs to be addressed. A better junction and better access into and out of the retail park at this point on the A358 cannot be left out of a scheme to upgrade the A358 and expect to be supported. As it stands the preferred option fails to address the National Networks National Policy Statement need set out below:

 

“There is also a need for development on the national networks to support national and local economic growth.”

 

 

4.3 Failure to support the Nexus 25 business park development, contrary to the Government’s and Highways England’s own polices

 

As highlighted in the response of Taunton Deane Borough Council on 16th March 2017 a statement from Highways England stated that £4Million of the scheme’s funding was allocated from the Government’s Growth and Housing Fund to “unlock a 35 hectare local authority led development site, with the potential to deliver up to 2,400 jobs and substantial benefits to the strategic roads network.”

 

Opting to progress a scheme which has the least impact on supporting the Nexus 25 employment site is not consistent with either the pro ised use of this money or with Highways England objective of “encouraging economic growth”, nor does it in any meaningful sense “support wider strategic or local objectives” as set out in PA2008 Guidance above.

 

 

4.4 Failure to provide a meaningful solution to the volume of traffic and passing through and levels of pollution affecting Thornfalcon and Henlade.

 

Whilst the National Networks National Policy Statement (NPS) is the main policy relating to this scheme and with which the Act requires the final decision to be in accordance with other policy documents which are also important and relevant to the decision.

 

These include the Taunton Deane Core Strategy and thus the failure to address the need for a bypass of Thornfalcon/Henlade for any traffic heading to the north and/or into Taunton the scheme completely fails a major policy test which is likely to beexposed during the public examination of the application following any submission.

 

TDLD and LibDem local councillors have been campaigning for many years for improvement of the air quality for people living along the A358 in Henlade/Thornfalcon. The HE TAR states that the preferred option creates a “disbenefit” for Henlade in terms of air quality but fails to provide assessment of the traffic levels on the remaining A358 at this location. Taunton Deane Borough Council states:

 

“A significant and arguably the most concerning issue with the consultation is the lack of information to properly assess the impact on Henlade and particularly whether the proposed route will result in significant traffic reduction travelling along the existing A358 through the community.” 

 

TDLD goes further and believes that HE is failing here to treat the existing Air Quality Management Area issues at Thornfalcon/Henlade with the seriousness that it deserves. In short a scheme that does not fully solve this blight on the residents of this part of Taunton – or the congestion - undermines the raison d’etre for the whole scheme.

 

4.5 Environmental and Social Impacts

 

There are significant adverse impacts and given the poor value for money, accident reduction gains and the low level of reduction in traffic volumes through Thornfalcon and Henlade these impacts are difficult to impossible to justify.

 

Ancient Woodlands at Thurlbear are cited as one receptor. Planning policy protection for Ancient Woodlands was first introduced in the Overarching Energy National Policy Statement NPS EN1 by a Liberal Democrat Secretary of State in 2011. The protection was republished in the same form in the National Networks National Policy Statement, in accordance with which the final decision on this project is required to be made (subject to the exceptions in s104).  The relevant NPS policy is:

 

“The Secretary of State should not grant development consent for any development that would result in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats including ancient woodland and the loss of aged or veteran trees found outside ancient woodland, unless the national need for and benefits of the development, in that location, clearly outweigh the loss.”

 

The HE preferred option 8/8B is assessed as having “moderate adverse” impacts on ancient woodland. (It is stated that all options have moderate adverse impacts on ancient woodland but Option 2A/2B appears to have no such impact).

 

TDLD also share a number of the concerns raised by Taunton Deane Borough Council including the failure of HE to identify and/or propose retention and protection of East Deane Way and Neroche Herepath public rights of way and Thorn Clump Special Landscape Feature. TDLD shares the Council’s concern about the potential unacceptable adverse impact on Huish Woods and Scout Camp.

 

TDLD would expect any new road scheme to maximise the opportunities for pedestrians and cyclists given the high priority we place on climate and environmental and public health policy. The proposals provided fail include any detailed proposals for cyclists or pedestrians – this poses the question of whether the HE proposals meet the requirements of the National requirements NPS for this scheme that states:

 

“The Government expects applicants to use reasonable endeavours to address the needs of cyclists and pedestrians in the design of new schemes.”

 

Given the failure to adequately address the impacts on the local community, especially in air quality terms in Thornfalcon/Henlade these environmental impacts cannot be considered justified or acceptable and TDLD strongly opposes the preferred option that HE is taking forward for the Taunton Southfields project.

 

15th July 2017

Taunton Deane Liberal Democrats

 

[1] https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Progress-with-the-Road-Investment-Strategy.pdf