Amidst the latest Brexit wranglings some really vital news affecting Gloucestershire was almost completely lost last week – the announcement by Highways England of a preferred route for the A417 Air Balloon scheme.
I have become hugely frustrated by the slow place of this scheme but nonetheless recognise that this is a crucial milestone for this major roads project. Confirmation that ‘Option 30’ has been approved means Highways England can now progress to the detailed planning stage, ahead of spades in the ground in 2021.
It’s been a real slog coaxing the scheme to this point – involving bringing ministers to Cheltenham, public consultation events, meeting after meeting with Highways England, and even taking the Prime Minister to task in the House of Commons.
I am as determined as ever to get this over the line. Some 38,000 passengers a day use this road, which has seen at least 345 casualties in the past 15 years. It is arguably the worst pinch-point on our non-motorway network, with double average congestion and corresponding environmental damage. What’s more, the congestion has hampered economic growth locally and regionally given its connection between the M4 and M5. That is increasingly important for Cheltenham as our town’s cyber vision takes shape. To fulfil Cheltenham’s huge potential in this sector, transport infrastructure will be key.
So what happens next? Although the main parameters of the route have now been set, I am making the case to Highways England engineers for two key detailed elements. First, I want to see the old route ‘re-greened’, restored to nature, so that the environmental impact is mitigated. Second, I want to make sure that access to Cheltenham for vehicles coming from Swindon is as streamlined as possible. So I’m in discussions with engineers about the nature of the slip road that feeds into Leckhampton Hill/Road.
We’re not there yet. But we are closer than ever. I will continue to do everything in my power to deliver this scheme which will save lives and boost Cheltenham’s economy.