Huge sums spent to arrive at the only logical conclusion over congestion hell road

9 minute read

‘The total cost of the A56 consultation held in late 2021 is £57,768.63.’ That terse, if very precise, message was from Trafford Metropolitan Borough Council following a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request which we received earlier this year. This whole story has been a morality tale about expenditure and effort over trying to achieve a very small thing. 

Why were we even told we needed a Freedom of Information Act request in the first place?

We asked for the FOIA as we were concerned about the use of the temporary traffic cones scattered down Bridgewater Way, Chester Road and Edge Lane causing congestion, frustration and irritation amongst motorists trapped in single lanes of traffic while across another whole lane, the odd cyclist pedalled past every ten or fifteen minutes or so. This has been a problem during busy periods, match days, and other, often unpredictable, crush times. Remember Bridgewater Way and Chester Road are the key roads into Manchester city centre from the south west. 

As a cyclist it has been, still is, embarrassing to be that lonely figure pedalling past a long traffic jam of vehicles, halted, with engines running, making a nonsense of environmental concerns and the ‘health benefits’ of the bureaucratic buzz-phase ‘active travel’ which the coned-off lane was supposed to encourage. 

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And the road goes ever on... Image: Confidentials

The cones were put in as a temporary measure in May 2020 with government money and have, in many places, remained despite the vast increase of traffic since late 2020. There was to be consultation on the lanes in early 2021, then August 2021 but didn’t arrive until November that year.

That first consultation led to proposals which led to another consultation at the end of 2022 which will result in, at last, ‘phase 1 to be delivered in spring 2023 and phase 2 slightly later in the year once it has been cleared with Transport for Greater Manchester.’

Two consultations, the first costing almost £58K, the second, no doubt, pushing the total well-over £120,000, with much money going to Amey Consulting. 

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The cones seems to have come off worse in this early morning scene, let's hope there wasn't anybody cycling past Image: Confidentials

The upshot of all the delay and dither is that in phase one the traffic cones on Bridgewater Way will be removed and a proper cycle lane on the old Chester Road (A5014) to link with the cycle lane already on Talbot Road - completed by spring 2023. 

It's dumbfounding it’s taken almost three years to arrive at a decision that was always going to be made, one the council always seemed to favour. Talbot Road doesn’t naturally link with Bridgewater Way but it does with the A5014 so it would have been ridiculous to put a cycling lane down Bridgewater Way.

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The Old Chester Road proposals after more than two years and thousands of pounds of consultation costs. Yes we thought that might happen Image: Trafford Council

As Claire Stocks wrote in one of our previous articles: 'Unlike schemes in other parts of the country where the cones were quickly replaced by more robust measures such as small fixings known as armadillos, or tall posts known as wands, Trafford just left in the cones. The net result is a scheme that satisfied no one.'

She continued: 'During the initial period (in summer 2020) when (the coned part) ran from Sale all the way to Bridgewater Way, it was relatively well used, especially around places like Gorse Hill. But it ended up as a lane that led nowhere safely, nor linked to other safe routes, and was chipped away to end up as two or three separate disconnected bits, with junctions not protected (junctions being the most dangerous part of any route for all road users especially cyclists), and no measures to make the temporary protection secure. Is it any wonder that it hasn’t taken off? Would we build a road or train line in this way ? No. And if we did, would we wonder why not many used it? No.'

Exactly, everyone knew this was the case yet the bureaucrats let cars, vans, lorries and buses stew and queue for more than two years at busy times as largely predetermined consultations chugged along. There was a lovely no shit Sherlock moment in the report following the first consultation. It read: ‘Analysis of the A56 consultation data has found there is a significant divide in feeling between car users and bike users.”

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Graphic shows old Chester Road how it should look soon: not sure about that ghostly cyclist though Image: Trafford Council

This is the consultation. It is a confused and confusing document attempting to be crystal clear but ending up opaque. What can be gleaned is that people think cycling lanes are fine but in the right place. Indeed, there was more agreement between cyclists and motorists about the dubious use of a cycling lane on Bridgewater Way than hinted at in the quote above. 

Phase one this spring will mean the cycling lanes are put in the right place and not on a main dual carriageway into the city centre. This was always going to happen. All that money spent and time wasted to arrive at a decision that everybody knew was correct.

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Some people have had a bit of fun with the cones. But hey, at least, there's a bike in this picture. Image: Confidentials

So what do Trafford Council say?  

A spokesperson for Trafford Council said: “The temporary cycle lanes were introduced at the beginning of the Covid pandemic as part of emergency active travel initiatives introduced by the Government to help encourage people to take more exercise and to improve connections to the city centre. The resulting post consultations, which we were required to carry out as a condition of the funding, were wide-ranging. 

“The first part of the consultation was designed to gauge what people thought generally about active travel and the cycle lanes. The second part of the consultation contained details of Phase 1 (Bridgewater Way and Old Chester Road) and a more general plan for Phase 2 (Stretford) to gauge opinion on those plans and take feedback that could (and is being) incorporated into the design of more permanent segregated schemes. 

“The second part was a hugely extensive piece of work which involved a great deal of preparation and management. It ran for six weeks on an advanced customised online platform and attracted more than 20,000 views and 4,000 verified opinions each of which had to be recorded and responded to. Engagement was encouraged through the addition of drone and other video footage and paid promotion including adverts and electronic displays.”

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Talbot Road which links perfectly with old Chester Road but awkwardly with Bridgewater Way and look, the cycling path is already in place Image: Confidentials

That's all well and good, but doesn't really answer the main question of what has it all been really for?

We asked a man experienced in local and national politics and not directly associated with Trafford Metropolitan Council, Graham Stringer, MP for Blackley and Broughton. He said, “All councils have to do these consultations. Even if you think they are pointless and time-consuming, the latter being the most frustrating part, they have to be done. Even if you as a citizen think they are a crazy waste of time, public bodies have to be seen to do things properly and there's a reason for that. Despite the sums spent it might end up cost-effective.

“The pros and cons are mostly known to begin with, you can easily write them down, with these consultations. Yet it is a duty to let everybody have the opportunity to have their say, especially with highways - if people can be bothered, which is part of the problem. What would be more time-consuming and costly would be if councils didn’t do the consultation and that left them open to a judicial review from an interested party or well-financed lobby group. In that case, costs might soar.”

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Another view of where the cycling path will be imposed on Old Chester Road with another ghostly cyclist Image: Trafford Council

So, there you have it.

Expensive consultations have to be organised about certain outcomes because it’s cheaper than what may happen if you don’t have the consultation, even though councils know what will probably be delivered. 

Another head-scratching point is that this situation on Bridgewater Way/Chester Road is not similar to a consultation over, say, the proposed masterplan for a town or a proposal for a tall building that will overshadow hundreds and create controversy over a lack of social housing. It’s not even about a proposal for a new road through greenbelt, it’s about moving some cones that have impeded and inconvenienced traffic for two years and about creating a cycling lane where there was always going to be one.

A further bizarre element is why were we told we needed a FOIA request in the first place? What was there to hide over the cost to a council of a consultation? We've had to jump through hoops for what should have been straightforward public information (although the press office at Trafford have been superb, patient and efficient) at the finger tips of the council.

It’s a Kafkaesque process two questions remain. Why has it been such a long and complicated process to come to the obvious conclusion about the A56? Above all, why has it been so expensive? 

Read next: City curiosities: an alternative tour of Manchester Part One

Read again: OPINION Standing up through the cuts, Greater Manchester councils fighting back

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