A Strategic Traffic Route
A Watlington Relief Road (WRR) is described by Oxfordshire County Council (OCC) as a new strategic route for all traffic from the west to and from M40 Junction 6. Route choice would be impacted both locally and long distance. Car journeys would be more attractive with shorter journey times. The effect of schemes that increase capacity for traffic is they increase vehicle miles travelled (VMT), called induced traffic. Reduction in greenhouse gases by alleviating congestion is short lived.
These wider impacts of a WRR need to be evaluated alongside the claimed benefits of easing the village’s congestion, noise and air quality. Especially when the county has a detailed plan to deliver benefits without building a road (see Alternatives).
Oxfordshire like all highway authorities has to meet statutory carbon reduction targets for net zero road transport by 2050. A rapid transition is required of up to 55% reduction in emissions by 2030 and up to 90% by 2040. The county’s claim a WRR will contribute to reducing traffic has been repeatedly challenged – see Oxford Civic Society Transport Group and Objections.
Currently, HGVs and larger vehicles have to navigate a constrained route and are restricted by a 7.5 tonne weight limit to be in the area only for local delivery and collection. A purpose-designed HGV route with faster access to a nearby motorway junction increases space specifically for road freight, which has significant emissions and uncertain technology for decarbonisation.
The county council has faced serious questions that a WRR does not have a Key Performance Indicator on road safety, that it will increase road hazard and national guidance and local policies on road safety will not apply.
Surrounding parishes highlight that a WRR will increase traffic on fast, rural roads that are significantly more deadly, and reduce it on urban, or 20mph roads, where fewer, or no serious accidents or fatalities are recorded. The County Council has no plan to mitigate the increased hazard of more traffic where there are known black spots.
The county’s main road safety policy of 20mph would not apply to a WRR, despite the county’s own transport control officers, on two occasions, stating the road that serves new residential areas must be 20mph. Where the road passes the school, dividing the site from its playing field, national guidance from the Department for Transport of 20mph would not be applied. The scheme would be 30mph.
More traffic, particularly HGVs, will discourage sustainable modes like cycling for trips between villages in favour of increased motorised transport. Not enough land has been negotiated by the County Council for dedicated cycle paths on both sides along the length of the relief road. The council says to do this would mean using its CPO powers for land acquisition, which it does not have time for. Outdated cycle facilities would be built, despite national guidance from the Department for Transport saying cycle infrastructure must meet the standards set out in advice note LTN 1/20.
Uninterrupted traffic through new housing estates
New residents would find themselves living on a strategic route for uninterrupted traffic, known as a limited access distributor road and quite different to local access roads for housing. Limited access roads are used to separate strategic traffic from local, but a WRR goes through residential estates, not around, and has housing alongside.
Properties alongside do not have direct access and join the main distributor road at side road junctions. Side roads are reached by a single lane for vehicles fronting properties where usually there would be front gardens. Space for cars is quadrupuled, which uses up far more of irreplaceable countryside with off-putting and inhospitable hard surfacing of over 40 metres between house frontages. This would divide the new community with a sea of tarmac and make it harder and less pleasant to walk or cycle. The easiest option for people will be to get in their cars to drive where they want to go.
Heritage and Landscape
A WRR has a rural boundary with the Chilterns National Landscape (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty). Increased traffic could harm the sensitive landscape, according to the Chilterns Conservation Board: “In removing the bottleneck of traffic in the town the bypass may attract and increase traffic, influencing route choice. In time development may be attracted to the land next to the bypass.” Upstream of Watlington, all traffic passes through historic Shirburn, an environmentally sensitive area with a number of heritage properties including the Grade 1 Listed Shirburn Castle and its Registered Parkland. The proposed route would cross the rare ecosystem of Chalgrove Brook, chalk stream and Flood Zone 3/2.
Progressed by stealth
Public consultation since the project was announced in 2018 has been limited to a 28 day survey in March 2023 (see Consultation Concerns). No feedback has been published. Key dates allowed six months to consider a planning application. This is expected in December this year.
Watlington Relief Road is one of a number of “strategic transport schemes” triggered by the strategic site at Chalgrove for 3000 houses. This has not progressed and is recommended to be deallocated. Housing required to fund, or justify a WRR remains undefined. Oxfordshire County Council merely states a Watlington Relief Road will enable “future development” in addition to 400 houses at Watlington.
Consultations must give adequate information and be clear about what is being consulted on, or they can be considered inadequate and unfair.