When is a road not a rural road? Quite simply, when the Highways Agency (HA) have anything to do with it and it suits them.
We mentioned in a previous post that we'd put in a Freedom of Information Act request using the What do They Know website to ask the Highways Agency a fairly simple question - how wide was the A303 as it passed through our village of Winterbourne Stoke.
The reason we asked the question was that at certain points within the village, the A303 looks and feels much narrower than on other parts of the single-carriageway stretches of the road between Beacon Hill and Honiton. We suspected the reason for the narrowness of the A303 in Winterbourne Stoke was the bridge over the River Till, a Grade II listed structure, built in 1939 and pre-dating the creation of the A303 trunk road in 1958.
We'd already made a few measurements of the road ourselves - on the premise of never ask an FOIA unless you already have, or strongly suspect you have, the answer. So whilst we hoped we might get some genuine data, we half-expected we might get a less than satisfactory response - and so it turned out.
Click on the picture to see an enlarged view. Basically, the HA claimed that the A303 is shown in their HAPMS database to be 7.3 metres wide at 20 sites on a 1 mile stretch of the A303 as it runs through the village. This, according to our own measurements, was clearly complete and utter nonsense and it looked as if the HA had simply recorded the minimum desirable width of a an A road as the actual width of the A303. An honest mistake, dodgy instrumentation, incompetence or worse? Well that is for others to establish, but we couldn't let it rest and went back to the HA for further clarification and to point out what we thought was a problem with the data.
The reason that this is so important is that public inquiries, reviews and other studies, rely on the HA to produce accurate data on roads to enable those inquiries to come to informed decisions as to how poor roads might be and how essential it might be to upgrade them. Given incorrect data, they might be led to the wrong decisions. This might have already happened in the past and might happen again in the forthcoming review of the A303.
Yesterday, we received a follow-up answer from the HA and I had to confess that my jaw hit the floor when I saw, shortly before I burst into bouts of uncontrollable laughter. Strangely, others who saw the letter had a similar reaction, making comments such as:
"What (expletive deleted) planet are they on?"
"Does the HA provide LSD for its staff?"
"Have they ever been on the A303?"
What could possibly have provoked such a reaction?
Well, how about the HA statement that the "A303 through Winterbourne Stoke is most suitably referred to as an Urban setting".
I am not quite sure how the HA 'expert' arrived at this conclusion, nor does he explain, but we would have thought that the definition of urban is very clear - it relates to a town or city - not a small village with under 80 dwellings set in a rural parish, in a rural ward of a rural county.
However, to make life very straightforward for the HA and to avoid any possible confusion, we have pointed out that there is an HMG definition of rural and urban. Both the HA and the Department for Transport use this definition in their publications - so you might expect that it would be used in defining whether a road is urban or rural. The UK government define "urban" as outlined below:
"As a standard for general purposes a threshold population of 10,000 is recommended, with
all settlements of over 10,000 treated as urban areas and smaller settlements, together
with all other land, treated as rural".
So, a road in an urban setting would be one that ran through a population centre with a population of 10,000 or more. Hmm, Winterbourne Stoke has just over 200 - hardly an urban setting then. Unless, of course, the HA are counting the people stuck in traffic jams in Winterbourne Stoke as being part of the permanent resident population - well I suppose it does sometimes feel a bit like that.
We've gone back to the HA to ask them to try again and to point out to their expert the difference between rural and urban settings. We've also asked them to clarify where, in their alternate reality, to the east and west of Winterbourne Stoke, does the urban setting of the A303 turn into a rural setting.
This set us thinking a bit. If HA are right and we really are an urban setting, then it is government policy to have speeds of no more than 30 mph through the village because of the houses alongside the road. They would prefer the speed limit should be reduced to 20mph because of the number of properties with entrances onto the A303 in the village (>20- try counting, you'll probably have more than enough time) - along with suitable traffic calming measures - road humps, chicanes, planters, etc. So HA - if you are correct, remove the 40mph sign and lower the speed limit to meet government policy recommendations. Whilst you may not be able to enforce the speed limit, the traffic calming measures would ensure a 24/7 traffic jam that would achieve the effect for you.
Of course, if Winterbourne Stoke is a rural setting, as we strongly suspect it might be, then the A303 is structurally too narrow to be a rural, all-purpose, mainline road road and that gives the HA a bit of a head-ache. What are they going to do? By rights, you'd think they should de-trunk the road.
What is abundantly clear is that the HA can't be allowed have it both ways - and perhaps they should draw the attention of Ministers to their past mistakes to avoid repetition in the coming months.
Finally, you'll note in the HA's second response that the author accepts our road measurement without question. Not only does the author accept it, he re-states it as a matter of fact. A suspicious person might conclude, on the basis of this, that the HA's first answer to us was intended to deceive. Now why might that be?