Between March and July 2017, Highways England ran a public consultation on its proposals for the dualling of the Southfields to Taunton stretch of the A358, and as part of those works the construction of a new motorway junction south of junction 25. That consultation is a precursor to an application for a development consent order ('DCO') granting consent to Highways England to construct the scheme. The leaflet issued with that consultation can be read here.
As expected with a project of this scale, it has proved contentious particularly as regards the route from the existing A358 to the proposed new motorway junction. The route of the new road here would run from West Hatch to the M5 in the vicinity of Shoreditch, and is the key section that deviates from the current A358.
Consultation for such projects, in its early states, often involves putting before the public a limited number of options that are under consideration (whether or not the scheme promoter has in mind a particular 'preferred' route out of those options). Views are then sought on those options before a 'preferred option' is formally announced and pursued through the DCO process. This at least gives a veneer of the public having a say on the final form of the project, but at its best allows the scheme to develop in a manner which better takes into account local circumstances and views.
In the case of the A358 dualling, the first public consultation described above departed from this methodology. It put forward a single route option for comment, albeit did not give that single route the formal status of 'preferred option' at that point. According to the outline timetable included in the consultation materials, the announcement to the preferred route was to be made in the Winter of 2017 before Highways England would undertake a further consultation, in Spring 2018, on the details of the preferred route.
Consultation responses were quick to pick up on the lack of information available at public consultation events regarding the four possible routes that Highways England refer to in its more detailed papers. The consequence of this more limited consultation is well described in Taunton Deane Borough Council's response to Highways England, which can be read here. In particular:
"The Council is very concerned that by choosing to only consult on one option Highways England have left residents and community groups feeling that they do not have a 'real opportunity to influence the proposed development'. In this case there are no unsuitable options to exclude following the provision of feedback"
The Council's consultation response also raises a number of issues with the consultation generally, suggesting it expects much closer liaison from Highways England in the future.
Somerset County Council, in its capacity as highway authority, submitted a response (here) containing similar comments, in particular:
"The Council notes that only a single option has been put forward for consultation and would
have preferred Highways England to have consulted on all the feasible options at this stage in the process. The single option has posed unhelpful constraints on communities wishing to
express views about the scheme. We note that the TAR contains details of four alternative
options that have been appraised and request that further consideration is given to some of the design features of the alternative options which have gained strong community support during this consultation rather than discounting them at this stage".
As a result of the above, Highways England have confirmed on the webpage setting out progress to date on the project, which can be read here, that a supplemental consultation will take place in the autumn, albeit only on the stretch of road between West Hatch and the M5:
"Following the public consultation on our proposal held from 28 March to 16 July 2017, we have reviewed feedback, listened to comments made and have taken the decision to seek further public opinion for our proposal for the section of the A358 between the M5 at Taunton and West Hatch Lane. We will hold a supplementary public consultation on our proposals this autumn, and dates for the public exhibition events will be announced shortly."
Highways England are not proposing any further consultation (pre preferred route announcement) on the route between West Hatch Lane and Southfields roundabout as their view is that they have sufficient and clear feedback to date. An announcement for the preferred route for that section is expected later this year.