Why you won’t see an improved A303 any time soon

Ellie Kendall  www.somersetlive.co.uk 

Most of us who use the A303 west of Ilminster can share horror stories about being held up there.

Being stuck behind a tractor on Ham Hill, crawling along in first or second gear.

Waiting to pull out of the Eagle Tavern junction after a hard day’s work in Taunton.

Desperately trying to pass a lorry on the last bit of dual carriageway before you enter the Blackdown Hills.

If you find yourself in this situation, you could be forgiven for wondering why this road hasn’t been turned into a dual carriageway.

And with the coronavirus lockdown continuing for the foreseeable future, many of us will be pining for a clear run to Devon’s beaches or the Cornish coast for a much-needed break when this is all over.

But sadly, improvements to this part of the A303 won’t be happening any time soon – and here’s why…

What’s the road like at the moment?

If you head west from the Southfields roundabout – where the A303 joins the A358 – you’ll find the road alternating between single and dual carriageway, as it does on the Ilminster bypass.

But after the turning to Broadway, it’s single carriageway all the way through to the Devon border at Marsh.

Here the road briefly opens out to two lanes each way again, before shrinking back to one lane around some tight bends and a steep hill or two through the villages east of Honiton, where it joins the A30.

The A30 then opens out to a dual carriageway at Honiton and remains that way all the way through to Exeter.

How did we get to this point?

The government’s first road investment strategy (known as RIS1) was published by the Department for Transport back in February 2015.

It committed the delivery of a large number of transport schemes through Highways England, including improvements to three sections of the A303 and A358:

  • A new A303 dual carriageway tunnel under Stonehenge
  • Dualling the A303 between Ilchester and Sparkford
  • Dualling the A358 between Ilminster and Taunton

Theresa May reaffirmed this when she was prime minister, telling Somerton and Frome MP David Warburton in January 2017 that her government was “committed to creating a dual carriageway on the A303 from the M3 to the M5”.

Since this announcement, progress has been made on all three schemes.

Both the Stonehenge tunnel and Sparkford schemes have gone through public consultation, detailed designs and a public inquiry each (which concluded in October and June 2019 respectively).

A final decision on the Sparkford scheme was due on December 12, but this was pushed back due to the general election being held on that date.

Decisions on both schemes have been further delayed by the coronavirus outbreak.

The A358 scheme is at a much earlier stage, with Highways England announcing its preferred route in June 2019.

What about the A303 west of Ilminster?

As things stand, the A358 dualling will remove the need for a dual carriageway west of the Southfields roundabout (as far as the government is concerned) – but it wasn’t always certain this would be the case.

A report for Highways England (then called the Highways Agency) back in 2015 looked at options for dualling three sections of the main road between Ilminster and Honiton:

  • The A303 between Broadway and the Eagle Tavern pub
  • The A303 between the Stopgate Cross junction (the B3170 towards Taunton) and Rawridge Hill (where the A303 meets the A30)
  • The A30 between Rawridge Hill and Honiton

Devon County Council put forward detailed proposals in 2017 for dualling the A30 between Honiton and the junction with the A303 (also known as Devonshire Inn).

The route put forward would have bypassed the village of Monkton to the south, with the old A30 running alongside up to a new junction with the A303 and the A30 through to Chard via Yarcombe.

These proposals were submitted to the DfT in early-2017, but have not been taken forward to date.

Why hasn’t anything happened?

Notwithstanding the cost of these proposals – nearly £180M at 2015 prices – the scheme faced a fair amount of opposition from environmental and transport groups.

The Blackdown Hills is an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) – meaning it enjoys a similar level of legal protection as the UK’s national parks.

As such, it is difficult to carry out any large-scale development or infrastructure building here – such as a dual carriageway – without undermining the character of the area and the quality of life of the people living in it.

James MacColl, head of campaigns at the Campaign for Better Transport, was incredibly vocal in his opposition to the plans back in August 2016.

Speaking at the time, he said: “You cannot protect and enhance an AONB by building a road through it.

“New roads create new traffic, which the Blackdown Hills and nearby towns need like a hole in the head.

“What Devon County Council should be considering is how to get unnecessary trips off the road including through long term investment in local public transport.”

[Owl has a lot of experience on how development in an AONB can be justified by observing many years of EDDC decisions in the EasT Devon AONB. The small print let out clause in the NPPF can be found in paragraph 172:  Planning permission should be refused for major development other than in exceptional circumstances, and where it can be demonstrated that the development is in the public interest. Consideration of such applications should include an assessment of: a) the need for the development, including in terms of any national considerations, and the impact of permitting it, or refusing it, upon the local economy……]

Have any changes been made?

As part of RIS1, Highways England did undertake some smaller scale improvements to the A303 and A30 – changing little things here and there to make the existing route safer, rather than dualling small sections.

A spokesman said: “We committed in RIS1 to undertake smaller scale improvements in the Blackdown Hills.

“As part of this we undertook a safety study, which generated a safety scheme consisting of a number of minor improvements, including improved lining and signing between Marsh and Honiton.

“The signage, lining and resurfacing scheme encompassed work along various sections of the A30, including the removal of a shared third lane to the east of Honiton and improved signage at Rawridge Hill. The work was completed in March.”

On the Somerset site of the border, some minor changes were put in place at the Eagle Tavern junction – a busy staggered junction, frequently used by farm vehicles and traffic coming through the Blackdown Hills from Taunton to avoid the M5.

But Highways England has said it has no immediate plans to make further improvements to this junction.

Their spokesman said: “Regarding the Eagle Tavern junction, the speed limit has been lowered to 50mph in that location, with speed enforcement in place.

“We continually monitor collisions across the region and will always look to the provision of solutions where we can identify issues that highway improvements will have a positive effect.”

What happens next?

As part of the latest road investment strategy (RIS2), Highways England will erect additional signage on the A30 near Honiton later this year.

These will include signs at the junction between the A30 and A35 toward Axminster, and signs east of Honiton to discourage people during U-turns on the single carriageway sections.

In Somerset, a second round of public consultation on the A358 dualling is expected – though the dates won’t be announced until after the current lockdown period ends.

If the DfT grants permission to the Sparkford scheme, work could get under way later this year and be completed by the end of 2022.

The A358 scheme could be completed by 2024 if all goes well with the new consultation, the resulting public inquiry and the government giving the final nod.

Improvements to the Ilminster bypass – long seen as an accident black spot – could be brought forward as part of the next road investment strategy (RIS3) after 2025.