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Questions Follow Relief After Council Decision to Review Road Hotspot Project for Ash

Published on: 1 Jul, 2020
Updated on: 2 Jul, 2020

The roundabout by the Junction of the A31 and the A331 Blackwater Relief Road. Google Street View

By David Reading

Ash residents are relieved to hear Guildford Borough Council’s decision to re-examine plans to alleviate traffic problems at three ‘hotspots’ affecting Ash and Tongham.  A proposal was initially proposed to close down or defer the projects because of a financial crisis triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic.

News that the improvements were to be shelved had caused an outcry among members of the two local residents’ associations and local Conservative councillors. As a result, the borough council Executive decided that a review was needed to investigate their concerns.

The three ‘hotspots’ are at the A31/A331 junction (where the Hog’s Back meets the Blackwater Valley Route); the A331 junction with the A323 Aldershot Road; and the A323 junction with the A324 Pirbright Road.

The image shows the total number of accidents at the two junctions from 2013 to 2017. Planned changes, including the introduction of traffic lights, would, it is hoped, reduce the number of collisions which have been put down to traffic queues and a failure to give way at the roundabout.

The proposal for dealing with the ‘hotspots’ goes back to 2016. As recently as December 2019 a borough council paper stated: “This project has recognised three key junctions as traffic ‘hotspots’ where peak time queues cause significant delays and safety issues. The assessed improvements would provide quicker and more reliable journey times for vehicles moving between the A31 and A331 and for the section of the A323 east of Ash. The improvements will also provide road safety benefits by reducing the incidence of slip-road traffic queuing back onto the A31 and A331 main carriageways presenting a hazard to other road users.”

But as the Covid-19 emergency caused financial soul-searching right across the UK, the borough council was forced to review its plans and see where cuts could be made. The traffic ‘hotspots’ project was among those that seemed destined to be shut down. Others included improvements in Guildford town centre.

The reason the residents are adamant that the three projects should go ahead is due to the local housing explosion. The Local Plan wants to see 1,750 new houses in the Ash and Tongham area, of which 1,006 have already been built or are close to completion.

The debate about traffic problems in Ash and Tongham intensified early last year when plans were announced for a new road bridge that will take traffic over the railway at Ash. This is now subject to a planning application. The debate centres on whether the bridge will alleviate local traffic delays, as the council hopes – or make them worse. Either way, there is a feeling locally that the improvements to local ‘hotspots’ must go ahead, with or without the new bridge.

The proposal to close down or defer the projects was due to be discussed by the borough council’s Executive on Tuesday, June 23. But prompted, in part, by the local outcry, the Executive had a change of mind and put a decision on hold. It now seems possible – but not certain – that the projects could eventually go ahead.

Sue Wyeth-Price, a member of AGRA (Ash Green Residents Association), said: “These junctions were local traffic hotspots long before the new housing developments arrived in the Ash area, with local air-quality issues at least since 2016.

“In the past three to four years, Ash has suffered the start of more than 1,000 houses being built, mostly in one ward. There are many more come.

“This isn’t just a financial matter, it’s a legal one, a safety one and a health one too. Yet it appears to have been considered on the cost savings of cancelling projects without considering the additional cost of not doing it.”

Tongham resident John Ferns said: “The BVR, where it links with the Hog’s Back, is a well-documented hotspot, which is just getting worse. What members should be aware of, is that this junction is also a significant accident blackspot.

“In the 60 months to December 2017, there were 24 serious ‘personal injury collisions’ resulting in police and ambulance attendance. Thirty months later, this can only be worse, with the greater volumes of traffic emanating from the 1,000 dwellings in Ash and Tongham already under construction and or occupied. But also we have the very major 4,000 housing development, one mile away in Aldershot. There are a further 750 homes in the Local Plan for approval in Ash.”

In announcing that the project would remain on the council agenda, A Lib Dem statement said: “We have decided, in conjunction with our coalition partners, that it would be premature to make a final decision on the project until these issues have been investigated fully and until it is possible to give the public answers to these questions…..No decision will be made until there is clarity on the key questions raised by the public.”

John Dymott, chair of ASHRA, the Ash Residents’ Association, had some questions. He said: “I would like to know more about this review. What is the timescale for the review to be presented to the public and when will the report go to the Executive? The review body needs to determine a timescale and bring the subject back to the Executive in order that work can proceed on at least two of the projects as soon as possible, that is before any more houses in the Tongham developments are occupied and before there is any further debate on the bridge.”

He added: “For me the priority is that work on the A331/A31 junction is carried out in order to allow safe movement of pedestrians and cyclists along the Christmas Pie trail and that the A323/A324 junction work is carried out to ease traffic backing up towards Ash during the morning commute. Following those improvements, further assessment regarding the requirements for the A323/A331 interchange and the bridge can be carried out based on revised traffic modelling.”

Cllr Paul Spooner

Paul Spooner, Conservative councillor for South Ash and Tongham, said he had been disappointed by the Executive’s move to cancel the ‘hotspots’ project, particularly as little progress had been made over the past year and there was a risk that the project could not be delivered during the period required by the Local Enterprise Partnership to ensure grant funds were not required to be returned.

He added: “I welcome the decision to review this in the light of the concerns raised locally and I hope that Guildford Borough Council will now do the right thing in reinstating and working with Surrey County Council in delivering a much-needed project for the community in Ash and Tongham.”

Some borough councillors are likely to ask why has the borough been landed with this work when the Highways Authority is Surrey County Council? The project has a price tag of £4 million, with an additional charge by Surrey to approve the work. This will fall on the borough at a time when Guildford’s finances are stretched to the limit. Could Surrey help cover the financial gap to finally get these road improvements off the ground?

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