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How A3 planning kept eco groups happy

ROADS AND BRIDGES

When planning how to increase the A3's capacity through protected National Trust land, the Highways Agency worked hard to ensure environmental groups were involved from the outset. Alasdair Reisner reports

THE POTENTIAL for eco-protests against plans to build major roads improvements across the UK is no small consideration.The cost of building the Newbury Bypass ballooned by more than £20 million when a major security operation was needed to evict site protesters and safeguard those building the scheme.

So there is a clear financial case for ensuring that protests on that scale are never allowed to happen again.This presented a problem for the Highways Agency as it developed plans to increase the capacity of the A3 between London and Portsmouth to full dual carriageway.The problem stems from the fact that the last remaining non-dualled section runs through the heart of the Devil's Punchbowl, near Hindhead, an area that has more environmental designations than you could shake a greater crested newt at.As well as being an area of outstanding natural beauty, it is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and an EC-dictated special protection area for wild birds - and is owned in part by the National Trust, which is under no obligation to give up its land for construction. Clearly the scheme had plenty of potential to become a battleground for the anti-roads lobby.

To avoid this, the Highways Agency has gone to great lengths to ensure that it consults with any group or person that may be affected by any new project, including the Hindhead scheme.This has been helped by the agency's introduction of early contractor involvement (ECI) contracts, allowing the firms that will build the scheme to get involved long before any public enquiry, in an attempt to diffuse any problems.

The original designs for the Hindhead project date back to the early 80s.

Since then, more than 40 different routes have been suggested, with the early momentum focusing on an above-ground scheme that would drive to the west of the Punchbowl. But even this still blighted other protected land and would be unacceptable given current environmental codes of practice.

By the mid 90s it had become clear that there was no way to thread the new road through the various heritage and environmentally sensitive sites on the surface, and the roads planners started to look below the ground at a tunnel scheme.While this would unavoidably raise the cost of the project, it was the only sensible way to avoid carving up some of the most beautiful countryside in the south-east.

But even with a tunnel it was still possible that the scheme would raise controversy because the works that surrounded the tunnel would still affect the surrounding protected countryside.

'The way we looked at the scheme shows how we have changed our approach to projects in recent years, ' says Highways Agency team leader Paul Arnold.'As soon as the scheme entered the Targeted Programme of Improvements, we set off into consultation with locals and the statutory bodies - the local authorities, English Nature, the Countryside Agency, the National Trust, the Environment Agency, English Heritage, the Council for the Protection of Rural England, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Surrey Wildlife Trust.'

The team met up with this project advisory group on a regular basis to discuss concerns and try to alleviate them before they became issues that could effect the scheme.

On a twin track approach, a second, wider, reference group was established that gave regular presentations to local councillors, residents and action groups with the same intention - to pre-empt any aspects of the scheme that could potentially derail it.

These consultations have led to some significant changes in the scheme since the original designs were publicised. For example, the team managed to remove an unpopular junction at the north end of the scheme following concerns about the impact it would have had on its surroundings.

'We initially moved it down into the valley, but there were still concerns over how concealed it was, ' says Mr Arnold.'By then we had decided to build the Thursley junction so we could look again at the junction strategy, as a result of which we have been able to get rid of the northern junction entirely.'

So has the consultation been a success?

'Well, it has been successful in parts but not in others.The project advisory group has been a big success and none of its members have any objections to the scheme.We've even had some letters of support, and English Nature will be appearing as one of our witnesses at the public inquiry.'

But locally there has been more difficulty.Although the environment has been a key consideration for the project team, for locals the main issue of importance has been the effect that the scheme will have on people's day-to-day life.

'The major objector has been an organisation called Save The Old A3, or 'Stoat', ' says Mr Arnold.'They are saying they want to keep the section of the A3 that is due to be returned to green countryside when the scheme is complete.'

The problem with this concept is that the closure of this part of the A3 is vital to keep the support of the various heritage and environmental groups.The situation could potentially put the project advisory group and the wider reference group at loggerheads.

'From the environmental bodies' point of view it is crucial that the existing A3 is shut because they see that the gains in the Devil's Punchbowl and Hindhead Common mitigate and compensate for the damage we do at the portals.That is what has enabled them to stand with us and support us, ' says Mr Arnold.

But isn't there a danger that too much information may have been put out, muddying the waters?

'I think you can put out too much information, ' says Bob Marlow of Atkins, the Highways Agency's project representative.'I think there was a perception that if we consulted with the public we would get fewer objections. But it hasn't worked that way.There have been more objections.

But they are objections about small detail.'

To show all the groups that everyone has been given an even hand, the team is now putting together the full details of three possible schemes: the Highways Agency's preferred route, a second scheme that keeps the A3 open, and a third scheme, described by Mr Arnold as 'the scheme that won't go away' This third option would take the road miles away from its current route, but would completely avoid the Devil's Punchbowl and Hindhead Common.

So wouldn't this be the best solution, if it completely avoids damage in this area?

Not necessarily, because as Mr Arnold explains: 'The proposed route goes through similarly protected countryside at Ludshott Common - another Site of Special Scientific Interest. Realistically there is no way we would get permission to go across this area in open cutting so it is likely we would need a tunnel, which would add further to the cost.'

All three proposals have now gone before a public enquiry, which started this week.That's expected to last for about two months, and the project team is hoping that when the inspector's report is passed up to the Secretary of State for approval early next year, it is their scheme that is favoured. If this happens and the project gets government approval next spring, then work could start on site as soon as autumn 2005.With a five-year construction period the whole project could be complete in 2010.

Light at the end of the tunnel

THE TUNNEL at Hindhead, along with a similar scheme at Stonehenge, will become the first major road tunnel that's been built in the UK since the Ramsgate Harbour tunnel in 2000. Jose Idiculla, Balfour Beatty's engineering and risk manager, explains how it will be built.

'The tunnel is a twin bore with two lanes per bore and cross passages every 100 metres. It will be built using quite conventional heading and bench methods.

'The first stage of this is the heading or crown, which involves using a 35 tonne excavator loading on to a wheel loader.

The wheel loader then takes the excavated material to a conveyor belt, where it is transported to the north end of the tunnel and will be used in embankment formation and landscaping.

'This is followed up about 15 metres back by the excavation of the bench in the bottom of the tunnel.Once the team reaches the south end this opens, they then work back, concreting in the invert.The tunnel is initially sprayed with a 150 mm fibre reinforced concrete lining.A secondary 225 mm in situ cast lining is then placed over this to complete the tunnel.'

Once the first bore is completed this can be used to transfer material from the south end to the north, and this avoids the need for trucks to use the already stretched A3.

'The geometry of the tunnel has been determined by Balfour Beatty to take advantage of the most competent Hythe Beds sandstone, sitting just above the water table in the area.

'The team also decided to extend the tunnel from the original 1.7 km design up to 1.9 km in order to further reduce its effects on the National Trust land at Tyndall's Woods.The tunnel portals are now sloped to reduce the aesthetic impact of the tunnel.

'We were in talks with the Trust and a guy came in with two bits of penne pasta stuck to a piece of card.We liked the idea as we can now flow earthworks around the tunnel and plant vegetation closer to the portal.'

Project details

Client: Highways Agency

Client's representative: Atkins

Main contractor: Balfour Beatty

Designer: Mott MacDonald

Value: £132 million