Solving the problem of the A34 will be the key to unlocking the future growth potential of the South Coast and its growth aspirations, says Robin Shepherd, partner of leading design and planning consultancy Barton Willmore.
Shepherd, based at Barton Willmore’s Southampton office, is calling for a radical re-think alongside substantial investment around a long-term strategic plan for the A34, which is a vital economic spinal route connecting the Midlands to the South Coast.
He welcomes the economic aspirations across the South Coast, totalling billions of pounds of private and public sector investment – including the Heathrow Southern Rail Link, ideas to extend both the container and passenger elements of the Port of Southampton, the expansion of Southampton airport and the public transport investment in and around cities. But Robin says the A34 is a key element of bringing all of this together and must be a priority to bring the full benefit of the expansion to the local economy.
Shepherd says the route is already overstretched and unsafe. Lorries currently make up one tenth of the traffic on the route and account for almost one in five accidents.
Shepherd said: “The A34 is a key spinal corridor running through the heart of England and it has vastly outgrown its original purposes. Without a radical and well considered plan for both car, HGV and public transport along this spine, this will become the achilles heel to our growth. It’s clear that the A34 is the ‘weakest link’ and it must be tackled now as a priority.
“Economies across the UK and world focus on transport corridors. While the M3, M4 and new expressway linking Oxford and Cambridge all have a strategy for their improvement, the A34 remains virtually untalked about – it’s just not on the political agenda – despite its importance to the Midlands, Oxfordshire and South Coast economies. The reason it is not at the moment is that the route crosses many local authorities and there are many political boundaries.”
To help improve the route, the government recently approved a major upgrade of Junction 9, including dedicated free flow lanes to allow drivers to avoid using the junction roundabout when joining the A34 from the M3. Robin welcomed the work as a short-term “plaster” on a much bigger wound, but said a strategy looking at the entire stretch was needed.
Shepherd added: “The A34 is just not on the debate – and we need a debate. We need everybody round the table with a solution that people can buy into – short-term and longer-term. It’s about everyone coming together and driving a strategic plan.”
Potential solutions, including limiting HGVs to the inside lane and improving signage, have been mooted for the A34. But Shepherd suggested more significant measures would be needed. Among solutions that could be explored is utilising the disused railway line that runs alongside the A34 to increase capacity or make better use of the line of the road to include a dedicated public transport route. Another option could be to develop it into an expressway with flyover junctions, motorway-style gantries, and better road surfaces. These are all ideas that other parts of the UK and overseas have been planning for many years – the A34 has just been left behind.
Shepherd said: “If we just tinker with the A34, I think we are missing the point. My point is we need to be driving an agenda. If we don’t have a clear plan for something we are going to do differently, then it’s just going to keep getting worse.
“I join the A34 many days and I’m confronted by tractors and combine harvesters. But I think there’s something much more fundamental than restrictions that needs to be done. What we need to do is look at other innovative infrastructure projects, such as the Oxford and Cambridge Expressway which will revolutionise east-west connectivity.
“We need the same kind of thinking applied to north-south in connecting the Midlands with the Thames Valley and South Coast. At the heart of the debate should be driving economic growth – and we can only drive growth by connecting places like Southampton, Winchester, Newbury and Oxford.”
Shepherd said the cost of improving the A34 could run into tens, potentially hundreds, of millions of pounds. He added: “Nobody knows the cost until we come up with a plan. The government are releasing funding and it’s paid for by economic growth. The priority now is to get a plan – and ask for it. The problem is that the cost of not doing something is much greater.”
Barton Willmore is the UK’s leading independent planning and design consultancy.