Is £290m Manchester Airport bypass a road to nowhere?
Even before the Carillion collapse, Stockport council had said the bypass’s predicted opening of spring 2018, revised from Autumn 2017, will ‘more or less’ happen and ‘no final date’ had been set
After decades of planning, the £290m Manchester Airport bypass is shrouded in mystery and doubt.
And that was before the collapse of construction giant Carillion – one of two contractors tasked with completing the 6.2-mile dual carriageway from the A6 in Hazel Grove to the M56.
The terms of the contract mean the other partner, Morgan Sindall, will take over the Carillion’s commitments.
It’s unclear if this latest twist will add further delays to the road opening beyond the already predicted six months.
Even before the Carillion collapse, Stockport council had said the bypass’s predicted opening of spring 2018, revised from Autumn 2017, will ‘more or less’ happen and ‘no final date’ had been set.
It seems the project has been dogged with bad luck – from errant golf balls endangering cars, too much rain to complaints of workmen disturbing residents’ sleep.
The three councils involved – Stockport, Manchester and Cheshire East – insist it will all be worthwhile.
They say the road, which goes via the A555 in Bramhall, will dramatically ease congestion on the A6, boost the region’s economy by £2.5bn and improve access across south east Manchester and east Cheshire.
But from the very beginning, there has been opposition. Here, we take a look at many of them to ask the question: Is the Manchester Airport Relief Road a super highway or a highway to hell?
A bypass was first mooted as early as the 1930s. Various routes were suggested By late 2012, consultation had begun and among those to object were members of PAULA – Poynton Against Unnecessary Link-roads to the Airport.
Kim Barrett, from the group, said: “Whatever one’s opinion of the harm to the greenbelt, ancient woodland, wildlife and air quality this new dual carriageway will cause, claims that it will reduce congestion are clearly ludicrous.
“The traffic modelling shows that many roads will see a major increase in traffic.”
But the road also had its supporters and a planning application was approved in early 2014.
In January 2015, the government approved Stockport council’s purchase of land to make way for the road following a public inquiry the previous September.
Work finally began in March 2015, at which point the council said the project would take two-and-a-half years, finishing in autumn 2017.
Sex change questionnaire
Among the first things to raise eyebrows was a questionnaire asking respondents if they had undergone a sex change.
Part of the survey, sent out in 2012, consisted of a series of personal questions, including whether their birth gender is different to their current gender.
Others asked about disability, religion and beliefs, age, ethnicity and sexual orientation.
Resident John Theakston, of Syddal Road, Bramhall, said: “I was amazed. What on earth do any of these have to do with a proposed new road, unless Stockport council has somehow found a way of getting extra road grants if enough sex-change ethnic minority disabled groups of a particular age vote in favour?
“It is very important to respond to such questionnaires so that the council gets a feel for the views of the electorate.
“Please don’t be put off by the silly questions at the end, just strike the whole lot through.”
Jim McMahon, who was project director for the road, explained: “The three councils involved with the A6 to Manchester Airport relief road, have a duty towards equalities and social inclusion.
“Therefore, the questions were agreed to allow future analysis of all responses and demonstrate that the consultation reaches all areas of the community.
“The wording of these questions reflect national equalities guidance. These questions are purely optional.”
Too much rain
It was revealed in April last year that bad weather had caused a further delay to the relief road opening.
‘Heavy rain and localised flooding’ meant that the opening of the bypass – already pushed back from autumn 2017 to early 2018 – was further postponed untilspring 2018.
Stockport council simultaneously announced that a part of the relief road, between Yew Tree Avenue and Norbury Hollow Road, in Hazel Grove, was about to open to traffic.
So some of the road – albeit a very small part – is already in use.
In announcing delay caused by rain, a Stockport council spokesman said: “Since starting work in 2015, contractors have worked hard to develop the road scheme.
“However, heavy rainfall, localised flooding and poor ground conditions have led to changes to the construction programme being required and more time being needed for certain works.
“The relief road is now programmed to be opened in spring 2018.”
Too much soil
Unsurprisingly digging out the route of a 10km road produces a lot of excess soil that needs to be disposed of.
To this end a clever plan was devised to create ‘bunds’ – large mounds of earth along the route that would act as a barrier between the bypass and nearby homes.
But what did come as something of a shock was quite how much excess soil would be created.
In the end, 340,000 more tonnes than anticipated was produced with nowhere to go.
So planning permission was sought for eight additional bunds to be created along the route and also interwoven into the central reservation.
This came at an estimated cost of £1.1m.
Consideration had been given to disposing of the earth off site but this was ruled out as it would cost £3.2m and require 19,000 lorry journeys.
Even though the bund sites were in greenbelt land and giant mounds of soil are considered ‘inappropriate development’ it was argued ‘special circumstances’ exist as permission for them was fundamental to the completion of the bypass.
Not enough soil
It was also proposed to put an acoustic fence along the top of each ‘bund’
But residents in Ashbourne Road, in Hazel Grove, said the mound was around one metre lower than originally promised and did not have the fence.
They sent a petition to the council to raise their objections.
Resident Lisa Noel said: “It was planned to be big enough that we wouldn’t even be able to see high-sided vehicles from our bedroom windows but we still can.”
A council spokesman said: “We are aware of the concerns raised by residents of Ashbourne Road regarding the level of screening provided and is currently exploring potential design options to provide additional mitigation.
“The project team will continue to liaise with residents directly on this matter.”
Golf balls . . .
It seemed no-one had spotted the potential hazard posed from routing a major road past a golf course – until construction workers found errant balls were being hit their way.
Part of the relief road goes past the sixth hole at Hazel Grove Golf Club.
Bosses decided a 95m long 20m high fence to catch the golf balls was the answer.
A planning application was submitted but residents near the site were once again unhappy and petitioned the council with their protests.
They argued the giant fence and its ‘pylon’ supports would be an eyesore on greenbelt land and the problem should have been foreseen years ago.
John Bramhall, 63, who organised the petition, said: “This plan is very 12th hour I can’t believe they didn’t pick up on the potential hazard from golf balls several years ago.
“This came out of the blue and this thing would be the tallest, most intrusive thing on the entire bypass scheme.
“It will be two and a half times bigger than our houses.”
The planning application was passed in April and the fence is now stopping bad shots from getting onto the relief road.
Coun Oliver Johnstone said: “We completely get why residents aren’t happy with this.
“But we can’t open the road if there are golf balls flying onto traffic, we don’t have a huge amount of options.”
As the deadline for completion of the road came closer, it was perhaps inevitable work would be stepped up a notch – but to still be digging at 3am?
That’s what Rachael Whyment, of Buxton Road, Hazel Grove, found for a week in September last year.
She said efforts to install ducting, road surfacing and heavy machinery were shaking her house in the early hours of the morning and keeping her awake.
Rachael, 27, said: “I absolutely support the project as it will improve the network. It is just the way it is being handled.
“I work as a project planner and this could have been planned much, much better. They should be embarrassed, I would be.”
“I’m getting pretty poor treatment, the digging outside is inconsiderate. I’m getting no sleep.”
Stockport Council said the work was being done ‘in accordance with legal powers in place’ and that the project team was speaking to Rachael to keep her informed and discuss her concerns.
A spokesman added: “These works were timed in order to minimise disruption to traffic on the A6 and undertaken in accordance with the working practices in place for the project.
“All neighbouring properties were informed about the works ahead of them taking place.”
In fairness, any major highway project will inevitably cause traffic disruption – but that doesn’t make it any less annoying to be caught up in it.
Many of the roadworks to help make way for the bypass are around the A6, the hugely-congested road that this whole project is aiming to alleviate.
In addition to building connections and junctions for the road, there has also been separate efforts to divert utility cables and pipes.
A major part of the work was the diversion of gas lines outside the Thai Fusion restaurant, on Buxton Road.
This saw temporary traffic lights there round the clock for nearly three weeks.
National Grid staff were also in the area early last year for cable diversion work although temporary lights were only in place for a week this time.
Residents in High Lane have also complained that the bypass will actually increase traffic on their part of the A6 as motorists travel to get onto the new road.
The council looked at demolishing two homes to improve and widen the A6 Buxton Road junction with Windlehurst Lane.
But this idea to ease the potential burden has yet to progress to the planning application stage.
It could get bigger
A potential extension to the bypass through Stockport’s countryside would be even more expensive than the original road.
There has already been large protests against the mooted extension that would link the A6 end of the relief road to the M60 at Bredbury.
Estimates place the cost of this at £477m and if the go-ahead is given, the future road would go through the popular Goyt and Poise Brook valleys.
Currently this proposal is at the stage where a full business case is being prepared, following a full council vote of 41 to 14 in favour of doing so in early December.
This follows a draft business case being produced, which prompted a 7,061 signature petition in opposition organised by the Goyt Valley SOS group.
Rachel Houghton, the group’s chair, said: “The council should not waste any more public money on this useless, destructive project.
“The bypass will do great harm to Offerton and its green space, cause more traffic problems, save minimal time for rush-hour drivers on other Stockport roads, go next to seven schools and threaten Lower Bredbury with noise and pollution.
“We urgently need alternative plans that reduce people’s reliance on the car to get anywhere.”
The outline business case states that the £477m spent will be ‘very good value for money’ as over 60 years the time saved by drivers would benefit the economy to four times this figure.
Council leader Alex Ganotis says that even the development of a full business case is no guarantee plans for the road will be taken forward.
He said: “This still will not mean money to take the project forward will have been secured.
“Even if this money is secured for this, subsequent development plans will still then be subject to full public consultation and environmental impact assessments before any final decision.”
So how close to the finish are we?
The exact answer to that question is unclear as no firm opening date has been given beyond spring 2018.
But Stockport council has given details of the work that has been completed so far.
This includes all structures – 11 bridges and six retaining walls – being complete as is the excavation of 1.1m cubic metres earthworks material.
A little over 40km of drainage has been installed, as have 23km of kerbing and 30,000sq m of the road surface has been laid.
Sections of the road that are completed include the junctions with the A6 Buxton Road, in Hazel Grove, Clay Lane junction in Handforth, and the A555/Woodford Road junction.
And what will we get for all of this?
Stockport council – along with its partnering authorities Manchester and Cheshire East – say the relief road will ‘transform transport links’ for everyone.
They do acknowledge that the project has not been without its problems but say these have been rectified as quickly as possible.
A spokesman said: “By reducing congestion, connecting residents and businesses directly to the jobs and opportunities emerging at Manchester Airport and providing a much needed road link, the new A6 to Manchester Airport relief road will transform transport links for everyone along the route and in the wider area when it opens.
“The scale of the A6 to Manchester Airport relief road project is huge, and on a scale that the borough has never seen before.
“All of the construction work is being carefully managed by the project team, in conjunction with partners. We continue to work closely with communities and residents informing them about the works taking place and responding to their enquiries.
“On the occasions that unexpected events do occur, we work swiftly with the contractors to address and rectify these in order to ensure that the impact on the wider programme is minimised.
“We’d like to thank residents and businesses again for their continued patience whilst the construction work takes place.”