Government abandons plans to widen A303 through national park

The Department for Transport delighted conservationists and dismayed business groups this week by abandoning plans for a major road widening of the A303 through the Blackdown Hills in Somerset, an area of outstanding natural beauty.

Instead, the government has opted for an upgrade of the A358 from near Ilminster to the M5 at Taunton, saving the taxpayer £90 million over the A303 option, and improving north-south links in the area.

Transport Secretary, Alastair Darling said: “This decision reaffirms the Government’s commitment to add road capacity where necessary, whilst ensuring that environmental consequences are fully considered and mitigated. Improving the A358 will protect the Blackdown Hills and bring real benefits to the region – reducing journey times for tourist and business traffic heading to and from the South West.”

Business groups were not so optimistic. Stephen Grant, Chairman of the CBI in the South West said business would lose out as a result of the decision: “A strategic east-west road link is essential to enable South West companies to compete. But the Department of Transport has turned its back on the South West economy. Firms will be dismayed that the government has overlooked this pressing priority for road investment.”

Mr Grant said the A358 improvements were welcome but did not remove the need for an east-west road link.

The decision was to the delight of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, one of the main groups leading the fight against the road project. Paul Hamblin, CPRE’s head of transport policy said: “The Government’s decision to reject this highly damaging scheme means more people will be able to enjoy this beautiful countryside rather than lament the tarmac that would have damaged it.”

He said this was the first major test of policy since the publication of the Transport White Paper and was reassuring to see the government stand by its commitment to protect environmentally sensitive sites from road building.

Transport 2000 also welcomed the decision and called on the government to apply the same thinking to a number of other sensitive road schemes such as the A47 Acle Straight scheme in the Broads National Park and the Hastings to Bexhill Link Road.

Steve Hounsham of Transport 2000 said: “This is a glimmer of light at a time when the environment seems to be taking a back seat in talk on road schemes. The A358 offers a less damaging alternative to a dual carriageway through the Blackdown Hills, but what is really needed is an upgrade of the parallel rail line from Salisbury to Exeter.”

The Highways Agency will now prepare detailed plans for the A358 expansion so it can be considered for inclusion in the Targetted programme of Improvements, the government’s programme of approved road schemes.

By David Hopkins

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