Hereford Bypass? Yes Please!
By Robert Owens in GLD Challenge magazine 2019-20
Recently it was announced that funding for a bypass around the city of Hereford was being withdrawn, putting the future of the project in doubt. For me this was very disappointing news, as I strongly support building it. Now, you might reasonably ask why would a Green Liberal Democrat feel that way? More roads are bad, right? Well, although I once opposed it, I have become convinced that building this road is in the best interests of local people.
Building a bypass is often contentious but here there's a surprising amount of support. Surveys show that most people in Hereford, sick of traffic jams, want a route around the city. A recent poll by the local newspaper found that 73% of respondents are in favour of a bypass. The project has a long, turbulent history and looked set to founder 10 years ago, when many road projects were scrapped following the 2008 financial crisis. Local Liberal Democrats worked with conservative councillors to revive the plan. Both were able to make good use of our links to government during the coalition and secured £27 million pounds from the Marches Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP). The reason for this effort was that the planned road ties into many vital local issues. Herefordshire has a severe housing shortage and housing developments are underway to the west and north of the city, with more planned that will now not happen. The new road is a crucial piece of infrastructure to support this growth, as well as the business park linked to the new engineering university being set up.
The latest bump in the road has resulted from the local elections last May. Herefordshire Council is now controlled by the self-styled 'Herefordshire Alliance' formed by two groupings of independents and a small group of Green Party councillors. Unable to agree amongst themselves about the project the new administration dragged their heels to such an extent that the LEP has decided to withdraw the money, including £3.8 million already spent on the project, that will have to be repaid.
Hereford is a victim of 1960's traffic planning. The A49, a national trunk road runs right through the middle. It cuts the city in half, dividing east from west just as the river Wye divides it north from south. Most of the cities car traffic is funnelled onto this route and in addition one lorry after another, travelling form South Wales to the North West of England, crawls through the centre spewing out exhaust gasses into homes schools and nurseries.
The communities that live along the A49 are amongst the most deprived in the county. They have no choice but to breathe in the fumes of traffic that moves with glacial slowness, to cross the only road bridge built in the city for 500 years.
Because this road is controlled by Highways England there is little the Local Authority can do to improve the situation. The building of a bypass would allow the A49 to be re-routed around the city, local politicians could take control of the road network in the city, we could deliver measures for traffic calming and travel change. The council's own engineers agree that the only way to make space for walking, cycling and better public transport is to reduce traffic flow into the city.
Since the ascendancy of the car in the late Twentieth Century there has been a move in cities across Europe to reclaim urban space for people. Perhaps the best local example of this is Birmingham. In the 1960's it was radically redeveloped to become a place where the car was king. Over the last couple of decades, the city centre has been increasingly pedestrianised, and the road system restructured, to change traffic flow and enable other forms of travel. Recently Birmingham council announced a plan to divert the A38 out of the city centre, to reduce pollution.
When a Hereford bypass was first mooted, about 30 years ago, it was planned to the east of the city over a large flood plain, which is the largest and best preserved lamas meadow in Europe (A system of land management that predates the Doomsday Book). This unique habitat is a SSSI which is home to 2 nationally rare plant species. I fought hard against that proposal for many years, as I considered the environmental and cultural cost to be too great. We were successful in making our case and when it was changed to a western route, initially I was sceptical about whether the city needed a bypass at all.
So, I looked at the evidence and realised that it was about far more than just building another road. It's about meeting the current and future needs of local people and improving their lives. The most frustrating aspect of this is that the procrastination of these councillors has jeopardised the things so desperately needed by the people they were elected to serve, not just cleaner air and more sustainable travel but affordable housing and better paid jobs. Although the bypass now faces a further delay, I will keep campaigning and arguing for it, to improve the quality of life and opportunity for my community.