Saturday, November 27, 2010
The Highways Agency are the Statutory Authority for trunk roads in the UK, so where a retail application might impact upon the national network, it is incumbent upon them to form and take a position as a key Statutory Consultee. In this role the Highways Agency duly placed a holding Objection on the Hattersley Tesco Extra application around May of last year, with the proposed store being adjacent to the highly congested M67 roundabout. This hold was pending closer examination of the matter and could, I believe, have been maintained indefinitely until the Agency were fully satisfied that the proposal would have no adverse impact on the trunk route East and West of the location (M67/A57/A628).
Had the Highways Agency Holding Objection been maintained, firstly, it would have been hard for Tameside to even hear the application let alone legally pass it. It would certainly have established the matter as one of national importance for the Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government, Eric Pickles. Whilst accepting there are numerous other issues with this store, I would venture to suggest therefore that their powers made the Highways Agency the “key or decisive witness” and their actions as a public body particularly worthy of scrutiny.
The Highways Agency in their role as statutory consultee employed Halcrow as consultants to review the evidence supplied by Waterman Boreham on behalf of the applicant, CTP (for Tesco). The evidence Halcrow looked at was based on work commissioned by Tameside Council (a retail study by White Young & Green) with projections employed - rather than facts - by Waterman Boreham to make traffic behaviour assumptions. In this rather circular way (considering the multiple involvement of Tameside Council) all the various transport consultants involved - Waterman Boreham, Halcrow and ultimately the Agency - reached the same very surprising conclusion.
Far from being the obvious traffic nightmare there would be a net reduction in trips at the M67 corridor as a result of the application for a Tesco at Hattersley! The more than dubious case, made on the basis of some hypotheses, was that reduction of outward journeys from Hattersley would offset any increase of inward traffic resulting in a benign outcome for the M67 corridor. A particular test of the M67 roundabout in this scenario was, as I have read it, thus considered an unnecessary further step.
This happens to be completely the opposite of what everyone could possibly expect to be the case, as witnessed by letters in the press and objections sent to the Planning Authority and the Secretary of State, who all see things in a far less favourable light. The general consensus in this area is that these findings simply cannot be right and a very sizeable consensus it is too, with over 2,500 people. Everyone apart from these traffic agencies/consultants seem to prefer the evidence of their own eyes, rather than guesswork and extrapolations within a retail study. They seem to think that a store with over 525 parking places in a road system operating at full capacity does not make any sense in planning or any other terms you care to think of. They appear to feel - with it must be said some considerable logic - that they will suffer adversely in many ways, with respect to falling property values, and a very considerable deterioration of quality of life, due to continual slow moving traffic in the area, i.e. gridlock. This is to the extent that people are talking about upping sticks and moving away. However once the Highways Agency, as representative of the Secretary of State, adopted the position given by Halcrow, the traffic implications of the Hattersley Tesco were suddenly going to be virtually impossible to challenge; the influence of the Highways Agency, whether contrary to obvious sense or not, being decisive in these considerations.
The issue therefore seems to be whether the Highways Agency are expected to follow some safe pattern of assessment, and whether that assessment is fully independent, complete and cannot be connected with the applicant in any way and is thus shown to be fundamentally sound - or not. Also, if the Agency has skimped the job - for whatever reason - by not conducting their own survey, or in view of the congestion have conducted only a low level study, then how are the interests of the public within their remit protected?
Either we live in a despotic state, where the the public fund a planning process which is simply a facade, or the Highways Agency as Statutory Consultee to the process for its transport element should be able and willing to indicate adherence to a clear and satisfactory set of assessment guidelines, which are not ad hoc but firmly applicable in all cases. It would seem extraordinary if such guidelines do not exist for them and that in this case it cannot be demonstrated minutely, with full documentation, to show how they have been followed. The public, through representatives or themselves, would seem to have a clear right to scrutinise and test this process to satisfy themselves, particularly where such doubt exists as to the conclusions - as in this case.
There therefore remain questions to be answered, of perhaps both local and national importance here, regarding the transparency of the Highways Agency as a public body. Perhaps answering those questions will help in this particular matter?