The Government has today announced an ambitious £15 billion plan to triple levels of spending by the end of the decade to increase the capacity and condition of England’s roads. Most significantly for us here in Cheltenham, the Government has agreed to fund the £255m ‘Missing Link’ infrastructure project to ease the gridlock at the Air Balloon.
This is a fantastic win for Cheltenham. It represents a commitment to the single most important, and expensive, piece of transport infrastructure needed in our county. It follows a campaign that I and Gloucestershire’s five Conservative Members of Parliament have been at the heart of. Together we lobbied the Transport Secretary in person when he recently visited the Air Balloon roundabout to see for himself the problems, and I took the opportunity to raise it with the PM in Downing Street just a few weeks ago.
For those not familiar with this issue, the A417 joins the M4 at Swindon, Junction 15, and the M5 at Gloucester, Junction 11A. The road is entirely dualled with the exception of a short, single carriageway, 2-3 mile section in the middle, and the difficult to navigate 'Air Balloon’ roundabout at the northern end. Some 38,000 passengers a day use this road. Between Crickley Hill and Nettleton Bottom there have been nine deaths, and more accidents, in the last year alone. This makes the road arguably the worst pinch point on our non-motorway network, with double average congestion and corresponding environmental damage. Not only is the Missing Link dangerous, it has hampered economic growth locally, regionally and nationally given its connection between the M4 and M5.
This announcement just goes to show what an effective campaign can achieve. It has been disappointing not to have had a shred of support from Cheltenham’s Lib Dem MP. Despite the grim toll of fatalities and the growing damage to our local economy caused by gridlock and delays, Martin Horwood has failed to back the plan at every turn. Fortunately it did not prove enough to damage a very strong case. However the Government has indicated that before the funding will be released, the relevant stakeholders need to get behind the proposed scheme. Major local controversy could derail it. That’s why it’s more essential than ever that people come out in support. Fence-sitting makes it more likely that the money will simply sit in the Government's bank account.
We have reached this stage through unity of purpose across the county and beyond. Now we need to make this happen.