In response to concerns raised by Kearsley residents about a proposed extension to the M60 motorway, I hosted a public meeting at Kearsley Mount Methodist Church on Friday 25 January 2019, with guest speaker Jacqui Allen, a Divisional Director from Highways England.
Highways England have been commissioned by the Department of Transport to progress the Manchester North West Quadrant scheme, which will consider ways of alleviating congestion between Junctions 8 to 18 of the M60 motorway. The new smart motorway technology on the M60 is improving journeys by keeping traffic flowing and tackling stop-start conditions as well as helping traffic officers and the emergency services respond to incidents. Ms Allen explained that Highways England haven’t been able to convert the hard shoulder to an extra lane on the M60 due to the impact it would have on air quality for people living close to the motorway. It is therefore still necessary to increase capacity to accommodate the forecasted traffic growth in the region some of which will be generated by the significant number of future developments which are going to be delivered by local authorities and Transport for Greater Manchester.
In 2014, the Department of Transport commissioned Highways England to undertake a strategic study to better understand the transport issues now and in the future impacting the M60 between junctions 8 and 18. The study was completed in 2016 and identified a number of potential packages of improvements. The Department commissioned Ms Allen’s team, within Highways England, to carry out further analysis on the optimised in-corridor package, which came out of this study. They are currently in stage one of a seven stage process.
In stage one, the team will look at the list of suggested interventions from the optimised in-corridor package. For each one, they will look at all the possibilities in terms of the design, talk to the local authorities, environmental bodies and other experts to understand issues, constraints around the land, or plans in those areas. In addition, they will undertake desk research, walk the suggested routes and install cameras to count traffic and footfall. Using this information, they will investigate potential options, looking at their benefits and potential impacts on road users, the environment and economy. This may result in some initial options being dropped but eventually, they will end up with a list of options that are feasible and credible to take to public consultation in stage 2. They don’t consult the public at stage one, because they don’t want to cause them unnecessary anxiety about something which may not happen. They hope to have a list of credible options by the end of 2019 to take to public consultation in 2020.
At stage two, Highways England will hold a non-statutory consultation to explain their options to the public and seek their views. Consultation feedback and new information helps to inform a preferred route. At the end of stage 2, Highways England will present their preferred route to the Secretary of State, and seek approval to move into the next stage.
If the Secretary of State decides that the project should proceed, it moves to stage three. The preferred route will be developed in more detail during stage three, building on desktop based study, and will include ground investigations and environmental surveys to see if they need to adjust their designs further. This stage will also conduct a formal public consultation on the progressed design options.
At stage four, they must go through the Development Consent Order (DCO) process, which is the process of obtaining planning permission for Nationally Significant infrastructure projects. In order to do this, they have to present everything to the Planning Inspectorate, including a report on the consultation undertaken. The Planning Inspectorate will then send a report to the Secretary of State, which Highways England will not see, who will then decide whether or not to give consent for the project to proceed.
Reaching stage five involves rigorous investigation, and concludes with a presentation to the Secretary of State. Only at the end of stage five will Highways England be permitted to begin any construction works. There will be further public engagement just before the construction phase begins, to let everyone know how it will impact them such as diversion routes, noise, etc.
Ms Allen, speaking on behalf of Highways England clarified that the details of the interventions being considered from the strategic study were within literature made available to those who attended and on the project website: https://highwaysengland.co.uk/projects/manchester-north-west-quadrant/
A few months, ago, as part of the Stage 1 investigations, Highways England wrote to some local residents to inform them that they would be carrying out environmental surveys on their land. However, upon receiving these letters, some residents became concerned that their land and homes might be compulsorily purchased and asked for further information.
Ms. Allen attended the meeting to respond to these anxieties, and clarified that Highways England do not have a preferred route, or even any route at all as yet. Potential routes are not decided upon until stage two, so it is not possible for Highways England to confirm what or where the options are. Similarly, there were questions about specific details of the motorway, such as the number of lanes. Again, this information is currently unknown because no route or concrete plan has been decided upon yet.
She was asked whether a tunnel had been considered, and noted all options including tunnels would be considered during stage 1.
Audience members raised concerns about compulsory powers. Ms Allen responded that discussions around compulsory powers would not be broached until stage two, because as yet there is no route, and therefore no point in approaching and concerning residents with a hypothetical plan that may not come to fruition. Compulsory powers would not be enacted until the Highways England have been through the DCO process and gained approval from the Secretary of State to proceed.
At present no searches on property websites would show the proposed options to buyers, as a route has not yet been defined. An important point was raised about additional costs involved for homeowners, such as solicitor fees, estate agent fees and other disbursements. Ms Allen said that there is a separate department within Highways England which would deal with all applications of this nature, and would provide clarity on what would be considered. A further question was asked regarding the demolition of schools, in the event of a route cutting through a school. Ms Allen stated that this was a final resort and was not particularly desirable from Highways England’s point of view, but that adequate compensation would be considered to allow alternative sites to be developed, should this occur.
Building on this, audience members asked about the impact of the motorway near properties, such as air and noise pollution. Highways England have previously curtailed plans because of poor air quality, so it is a concern that is taken seriously. Assessments will be conducted throughout the project and data relating to this will be made public at some stage, although Ms Allen could not specify when. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will also provide air quality and pollution projections to support the planning stage.
It was highlighted that the railway line which runs through Kearsley is not heavily used at present, and could be used as a means of reducing traffic by allowing freight on that line, as well encouraging further public transport use. Ms Allen stated that public transport was the remit of Transport for Greater Manchester and Transport for the North, but the final outcome may involve a collaborative approach with other bodies. Nevertheless, as part of the strategic study, before the project was passed to Ms. Allen’s team, public transport options had been examined and the conclusion had been reached that a solely public transport solution would not be sufficient to resolve the issue.
Numerous questions were asked about the role of public consultation throughout the project, in relation to Highways England and the Secretary of State. Ms Allen noted that public views would always be taken into account, and there are clear dedicated points in the process which allow the public to contribute and they actively encourage participation. However, the Secretary of State is the person who will make the final planning decision, not Highways England. I, as MP for Bolton South East, will relay my constituent’s thoughts on the matter if and when it reaches that stage.
There is no appeal process with Highways England, because Highways England are not the decision makers; rather, their job is to present plans and options to the Department of Transport who will make the final decision, if planning consent is given, for the scheme to go ahead.
I was asked why I had not been informed of the proposal, and why I was unable to divulge detailed information at the previous meeting. Ms Allen was able to confirm that I was missed out of the original stakeholder communication list in error. For my part, I learned of this only when I was contacted by concerned constituents, and I contacted Highways England immediately. I was not previously privy to detailed information, and so convened the meeting with Highways England so they could offer their expert insight, as I am not a specialist in motorway design or construction. Additionally, audience members asked why the public had only just learnt of these proposals. Ms Allen stated that the project was at a very early stage, and that there are very few concrete details that could be offered.
In sum of the meeting, whilst it is disappointing that I was not previously privy to the details of the project, I am entirely satisfied that Highways England is engaging with stakeholders and that there is a strong public consultation element to the process. If we reach the stage where residents are unhappy with a confirmed proposal, I would strongly encourage you to contact me so I can advocate on the community’s behalf and convey your thoughts and feelings to the Secretary of State. I am very grateful that Jacqui Allen attended the meeting, representing Highways England, because it gives me hope that a community voice will be heard clearly throughout this process. I appreciate that it can be frustrating to know that the extension might impact residents, and that without further details, many residents feel that they are stuck in limbo. I want to assure you that no details can be provided because no formal proposal has been put forth yet, and no final decision has been made. If it comes to it, I promise to represent my constituents in this regard, and ensure that they are fully listened to.