It is almost a year to the day when we woke up to the chainsaws slashing all the trees at the entrance to the village, our “green gateway” – with no prior notification whatsoever from Highways England. We were filled with shock, distress and anger. This was quickly followed by intensive day and nightworks and residents had no knowledge of what would be happening when. Many residents were being subjected to long sleepless nights of high levels of noise, particularly distressing for families at A Level and GCSE time. We immediately set about trying to find out who was responsible for making decisions and ensuring compliance with planning conditions and, indeed, what the conditions/permissions were for noise, nightworks, air pollution and tree felling.
Not an easy task and like getting blood out of a stone at times, it seemed. It turns out that building major roads is not like building houses. It is National Government which makes the rules and sets the planning conditions. It’s left to the local authority, South Cambs District Council, to exercise control over those conditions but, despite the ever-increasing number of complaints from residents, this has taken some time. This is something that the Council has acknowledged.
In the meantime, Highways England and the A14 Delivery Team have been forging ahead with their largest single infrastructure project in the country. They have shown that they are able to achieve complex construction feats such as the installation of bridges at Bar Hill.
What is baffling is why they are able to design and deliver such complexity and yet they can’t provide high quality community engagement, consultation and communication.
It seems like a long time but in less than 12 months since we were elected as your District Councillors and after many months of organised complaints and campaigning led by residents and councillors through the local A14 Action Group and A14 HIOP facebook page, South Cambs District Council is now getting it right:
- SCDC has contracted expert independent technical assistance in major infrastructure works, specifically in noise and vibrations;
- SCDC has set a strict regime for day and nightworks including maximum noise and vibration thresholds and the timely provision to eligible residents of legal entitlements to glazing insulation and housing relocation. This is established through the Section 61 prior consent for construction works under the Control of Pollution Act.
- Highways England has accepted the changes in thresholds and conditions to the Section 61 which are a departure from the thresholds they had originally submitted for consideration by SCDC. The A14 Project Director has made it clear that these new thresholds are difficult to meet; that they will mean less nightworks and, therefore, this will mean that the construction process will take longer.
- Highways England and the A14 Delivery Team have been working hard over last month to apply all their design and engineering expertise to make changes to their original programme so that they now comply with the Section 61 whilst avoiding long delays – and also so that they reduce the impact of the works on residents, especially those who are suffering the most. They have particularly made efforts to reduce impact around the A Level and GCSE exam period, they say. These changes were presented at a public meeting last night, Thursday 9th May, at the Holiday Inn, just by Junction 32.
- The A14 Project Delivery Team are, as yet, unable to provide specific dates for the forthcoming schedule. They say this is due to the many significant changes being made to the works.
- The A14 Project Director has, however, agreed to provide advance notification of works on a rolling basis. Whenever nightworks are involved, residents on the mailing list will be provided with details of the next 10 days of works, so that residents can plan ahead. This is in addition to the daily notifications sent out by the A14 Community Engagement Officer. The first of these forward-looking 10-day notifications will be sent out to residents at the end of this week.
- SCDC has contracted a Comms and Focal Point for the A14 works, Katherine Southwood, who started work on the 1st May and will make it her job to get to know the community and improve communications and responsese to complaints.
- SCDC has set up an Engagement Steering Group which has been meeting periodically to review the situation at Junction 32 (noise, air quality, trees etc) and review progress by a series of joint working groups on i) landscaping/replanting to restore the green gateway and provide visual, noise and air pollution protection and ii) long-term noise reduction measures. The Engagement Steering Group includes: SCDC (senior environmental health and planning officers and comms focal point), A14 Project Director (plus focal point and key relevant staff), County Councillor David Jenkins, District Councillors Pippa Heylings and Martin Cahn, HISIMP Parish Councillor Simon Jocelyn, Orchard Park Community Councillors Andrew Chan and Rob Nixon, and founding members of the H&I&OP A14 Action Group Ros Hathorn and Irina Szmelskyj.
The road still has to be built and, even with the changes being made, there will be significant disruption to residents over the next few months. This is one of the most intensive periods of construction and some people will have their lives turned upside down. There are also still many questions and concerns around the breach in conditions around air quality monitoring – and what the air quality data is showing.
But, we are starting to get it right and we have better measures and controls in place to look after those worst-hit by the works. Communications should get better. Complaints are still the most effective way of ensuring that these are all used and complied with effectively. And we have the engagement process to follow up on this, and to work on the longer-term positive legacy (or at least a reduction in harm) in terms of replanting and landscaping, noise and air quality for all.