MISSING LINK: MPs cheer for Kier
By Simon Hacker | 30th October 2023
County MPs are not like buses. Overscheduled and trapped in their timetables, you're unlikely to spot two together outside their Westminster habitat. Yet that was exactly the case on Friday when Secretary of State for Transport and Forest of Dean MP Mark Harper stood alongside The Cotswolds MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown for a celebration of where we are on the replacement of the A417's 'missing link'.
These are turbulent political times. As our recent report reflected, the five Conservative MPs who represent the entirety of our county could understandably now be in fin de siècle mode. Aside from whatever your own politics may be, it would be refreshing, if not nice, for them to have something – anything – to celebrate.
But this really is that: an ambitious National HIghways project that has been a twinkle in the eye of Sir Geoffrey for more than three decades, a dream-come-true for Mr Harper ever since his pre-MP days when he'd commute from Swindon and sit in A417 sclerosis, knuckles white with frustration.
Coming here to celebrate clockwork progress by the contractor, the MPs went for a pre-interview coach tour of the key sections of work since the go-ahead was given last November.
And while inspecting Kier Highways' progress, they could ingest the key facts which – whatever happens come GE2024 – suggest an excellent achievement is well under way.
To spare you the hassle of a hard hat, these are the key facts: the project is a £460 million uncrinkling of the road map that will cut travel times for the 40,000 drivers who have to dawdle here each day; it will bring the M4 and M5 into closer embrace and unleash the desire for Londoners to pop to Gloucestershire's nether regions for a weekend, not to mention make escape to the capital, should anyone desire such a thing, hugely easier.
In terms of raw tarmac, we are talking 3.4 miles of dual carriageway which will restore Birdlip to its (literally) elevated status as somewhere nice to live and breathe, rather than a place to avoid. Above all, the project will also uncontestably stem the wretched succession of tragedies that have been associated with the network this work will replace.
Fresh off the tour bus, the MPs were ready to work through a succession of media interviews, but among a flurry of SPADs and advisors, Mr Harper disappeared into a hut for several minutes, rumour being he'd got an urgent call from number 10. No one knew whether it was a late instruction to avoid saying things like "I think Kier's doing an amazing job" but casual reference to the contractor's name could, of course, be a meme-maker's dream-come-true.
Given progress that's a million miles from the nighmares of HS2 though, Kier really is. So amid the unseasonable sunshine and framed by some jolly giant Tonka toys for a dash of colour, the MPs faced a favourable media stump.
Sir Geoffrey batted out the key points: "[The missing link] will be a benefit, not only to motorists but to hundreds of people who will no longer have cars driving through their narrow lanes in their villages when the road is closed... it will avoid all the accidents, but above all, there will be a really positive biodivesity gain because we are going to plant thousands of trees and cuttings will mean that people will not see the impact of the road and a lot of rare Cotswold grasses are going to be planted. So once this is finished and the landscape has settled down, drivers will benefit and – as far as a new road is possible – the environment will benefit, too."
And the county's business, Sir Geoffrey added, will also benefit: "If you're a business, trying to get goods to a receiving business, like a supermarket, you can't be certain at the moment how long that will take. Every minute's delay for a lorry costs that business."
Sec of State Mark Harper meanwhile defended the 15 years it's taken to get this far: "There are two reasons for that, the geography made it a challenge to get a scheme that would work, but also it's a very sensitive ennvironmental area, so it was a challenge to work with different environmental groups to get it into a position where, when my department signed the scheme off, the plan wasn't challenged because we'd taken all those people with us on the journey."
Dreams like this aren't cheap. At £460m for 3.4 miles, the latest estimated cost comes out at £135,294,118 per mile (albeit a snip against what the Telegraph recently reported as a £396m price for each mile of the HS2 project). But to Mr Harper, that £2,135.32p per inch is worthwhile for multiple reasons.
He explained: "This has got a good return on investment because of the huge number of people who are affected ever day by the congestion. We will reduce that and it will lead to a safer road as well - there are sadly too many people killed and injured on this road it will improve air quality through less congestion."
Kier has still to get stuck in to the sweatier parts of the job, but National Highways chief executive Nick Harris told me he's expecting to see some use of the new road, while final landscaping work is put into place, from September 2026.
And he was also keen to talk to me about the scheme's social and environmental measures.
Mr Harris said: "We are going to improve connectivity - the existing road pretty much cuts off some of the communities who sit alongside beside it we will be opening that up, while there are also many important habitats here and the scheme is an opportunity to connect them."
We see that consideration not least in the green bridges which, in addition to the Cotswold Way footbridge, will allow nature to literally flow from one side of the new road to the other: the hedge-lined and grassy Gloucestershire Way and the Cowley Lane bridges will be as much about the passage of flora and fauna as they are destined for human use.
What we never determined from today's insight, however, is what Mr Harris and his team did with 2,000 adders. In a revelation that conjures images of Saint Patrick requiring a bigger boat, these rarely seen reptiles have apparently been moved from the entire zone for the roadwork and taken to a "new location".
So while the legacy of this scheme will include five miles of new drystone walls, 5.6 miles of hedgerows and 25 ha of native woodland, somebody somewhere - presumably in Gloucestershire - might soon notice an upscaling of their snake population?
Perhaps that's a small price for progress. Come 2027, or whenever setbacks delay the cutting of the ribbon, this project looks likely to be held up as a bright example of 21st century civil engineering. Ironically, the missing link may work so well that the next generation of electric, auto-navigating drivers who glide through it will perhaps not notice its engineering finesse and its harmony with the natural Cotswold setting. But maybe that's just the point?
Punchline-Gloucester.com editor Mark Owen writes: "What a red letter day for our county! At last we can see the final flag for a project we've been collectively pushing for. By banishing the bottleneck, the hard work of the FSB, Business West, all of our six MPs and GFirst LEP will finally be rewarded. Dilligence in the planning process has paid off and the wish list of local communities, tourism, the environment and Gloucestershire business - now looks set to be delivered. Roll on 2027!"
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