The Berkhamsted Bypass Demonstration Project

Hertfordshire County Council gives us the hump

The Berkhamsted bypass, first proposed in the 1930's but rejected then as "Too expensive", was finally completed in 1993. It diverted most of the heavy lorries and through traffic away from Berkhamsted High Street, but at the expense of turning a formerly tranquil Chilterns agricultural valley into a noisy and polluting dual carriageway. More road capacity also means more traffic. Within a year of the A41 bypass opening, the combined total of traffic using it and the High Street, redesignated A4251, had increased by 11%, and the bypass had suffered its first fatality. At the time of writing, February 2004, the number of fatal accidents on the bypass has reached twelve. The High Street is now filling up again as traffic continues to increase.

In 1994, we were told that Berkhamsted was one of six towns nationally chosen by the Department of Transport to be included in the Bypass Demonstration Project. This involved the D o T giving a sum of money to Hertfordshire County Council to build a series of experimental traffic calming measures. Local people were given no say in the matter. Nevertheless, as a science graduate I looked forward to reading the Statement of Aims, setting out what the project was intended to demonstrate, and the Method Statement, stating how the success of the experimental features was to be measured. They never appeared.

Instead, there was a series of exhibitions at various venues around the town. These showed that a hotch-potch of pinch points, gateway features, mini roundabouts, humps and speed tables was to be imposed on local roads which may well have been selected at random. The exhibitions were called "Public consultations", and members of the public attending were invited to submit written comments, but we might as well have put our responses into the litter bin as into the box provided.

So it came to pass that pinch points were built on several local streets. Some were built beside large pot holes, which the contractors ignored. As you may know, pinch points involve building out from the kerb to the centre of the road, blocking one half of the carriageway so that vehicles travelling in opposite directions are unable to pass each other at that point. One has to wait for the other. This has the effect of slowing the traffic down, but also increases the chance of a head-on collision. The priority at a pinch point (i.e. vehicles travelling in which direction go first) is signed but not always heeded. A pinch-point in Cross Oak Road had to be altered following a near-collision and complaints that it contributed to noise by requiring vehicles to brake and then accelerate.

Residents of Finch Road threatened to hire a JCB and remove the pinch points themselves if the County Council did not take them out. They were eventually replaced by round-topped humps.

Bollards topped by reflectors on the pinch points in Bridgewater Road, installed in an attempt to make the pinch points more visible to drivers at night, were repeatedly demolished by motorists who failed to see them. One even had the effrontery to demand that the County Council pay for the damage to his car. I do not know whether he was ever charged with dangerous driving. A motorist who fails to notice bollards is his way is unlikely to see a cyclist.

The pinch-points were taken out following a sustained campaign against them by Bridgewater Road residents. They were replaced by speed cushions - short humps in the middle of either lane - which have been partially flattened by the passing traffic and are now largely useless. During the 1995 local council election campaign, a lady complained to me that local opinion had been "Steam-rollered". It is fitting that part of the traffic calming has now been reduced by a similar method.

"Gateway Features" are supposed to remind motorists that they are about to enter a built-up area, and to slow down. A poll taken at Berkhamsted Civic Centre in 1994 showed that 85% of respondents did not want these, but they were still imposed on us. Flint and brick walls were built on either side of the A4251 at the eastern and western ends of the town. A brick wall was also built in the middle of the road at the eastern gateway. A local builder wrote to the town council and complained that this was dangerous. Sure enough, a car crashed into it a few months later and completely demolished it.

Motorists entering Berkhamsted from the north, down New Road, were offered white wooden gates on either side of the road. A correspondent to a local newspaper suggested that these denoted the site of a level crossing on the forthcoming Flamstead to Potten End high speed railway line. The leader of Dacorum Borough Council at the time was Councillor Julian Taunton, a resident of Flamstead village, while his chief minion in Berkhamsted, Councillor Peter Ginger, lives in the village of Potten End.

One of the gates was subsequently sawn up and the timber stacked neatly by the roadside. Examination of the cut ends suggested that a powered saw was used. I plead not guilty. I only own hand saws.

Hertfordshire County Council spent 85,000 on four unattractive wrought iron gates which were supposed to be located either side of the High Street at either end of Berkhamsted Town Centre. Dacorum Borough Council refused to grant planning permission for them to be placed on their intended sites. Since 1995, the gates have adorned the roundabout located where the A416 Kingshill Way meets Chesham Road and the slip road onto the bypass. They are a hindrance to mowing, so the grass on the roundabout remains uncut. Sadly, it does not grow quite tall enough to hide them.

Not far away, two harp-shaped structures were built either side of Kingshill Way opposite the town cemetery. Their shape and location prompted one correspondent to ask why they were painted ruby red and not pearly white. A local man replied that it was because we were destined for eternal damnation.

Slides of Berkhamsted's gateways were shown to a public meeting in Wadebridge in Cornwall, which was to suffer similar. The meeting dissolved into spontaneous laughter. Meanwhile residents of Market Harborough in Leicestershire, another of the six towns selected by the Department of Transport, raised a petition demanding the removal of all the traffic calming features and the restoration of the town to the way it was before.

As a cyclist, roundabouts are my pet hate, including the mini variety. At a normal junction the priority is obvious. However, at a roundabout it is the most aggressive driver who goes first. Pity the poor cyclist who happens to be in his way.

The emergency services objected to the installation of speed tables (large, flat-topped humps) in the High Street, but their views were not heeded. Patients with certain injuries cannot be driven over the speed tables; ambulances going to Hemel Hempstead Hospital have to make a longer journey via Potten End in order to avoid the traffic calming. Shortly after the speed tables had been installed, some equipment fell off the back of a fire engine as it was driven over one in the town centre.

The speed tables are made of stone setts, which are slippery in wet weather, topped with metal studs. Both the studs and the setts soon began to work loose. High Street residents complained about the noise generated when heavy lorries passed over the speed tables at night.

The High Street was narrowed by widening the pavements. This made it more dangerous for cycling. There used to be sufficient room along its whole length for vehicles to overtake cyclists, but there are now stretches where cyclists have to take their chance amidst the main stream of traffic. Most cyclists now ride illegally on the pavements, where they pose a danger to pedestrians. The installation of a cycle lane along the whole length of Berkhamsted High Street was requested when the By-Pass Demonstration Project was imposed, but the request was ignored.

A new pavement was laid along both sides of the High Street. Most of this replaced old, cracked concrete paving slabs. However a large amount of brick paving in the town centre, which had been laid only seven years previously and was still in good condition, was also removed.

It soon became apparent that something was wrong with the new pavement. The new slabs, ludicrously named "Himalayan blocks", began to wobble. Water collected underneath them in wet weather, and when pedestrians trod on them, it spurted out, soaking their trousers, shoes and socks. Having laid slabs myself, the cause of the problem was obvious to me.

As any comprehensive D.I.Y. manual will tell you, it is essential that the ground is properly compacted before paving is installed. Once the ground is sufficiently firmed and levelled, a layer of sand is laid on top of it and rolled before the slabs are laid. Hertfordshire County Council's contractors, Highground, had obviously failed to compact the ground properly before spreading the sand.

In 1996 I became Chairman of Berkhamsted Town Council's Transport and Highways Committee, so many of the complaints about the Bypass Demonstration Project were directed to me. There were plenty of complaints, and gripes about wobbly slabs were the most common. I wrote repeatedly to Hertfordshire County Council, then controlled by a Labour-Liberal Democrat alliance, but found it very reluctant to effect repairs. Eventually it paid the same contractors to return and do remedial work, which itself proved unsatisfactory. On one Sunday morning I saw them spreading old sand containing lumps of rubble before re-laying the slabs on top of it. In these days of compulsory competitive tendering, am sure it is only coincidence that Highground is Hertfordshire County Council's former direct labour force.

In 1997, after the Conservatives regained the majority of seats on Hertfordshire County Council, I wrote to the new leader of the Council, Councillor Robert Ellis. He denied that poor workmanship was to blame for the wobbly slabs in Berkhamsted High Street, and claimed that the problem was "Material failure". He said this had been established by "A series of laboratory tests". I wrote again and asked for full details of these tests, but never received a reply. I do not see how paving slabs or sand, laid competently, can "fail". I suspect that the "Laboratory tests" were a figment of a council officer's examination, and that Councillor Ellis has blindly followed the officer's advice, as so many councillors do.

Meanwhile, local Liberal Democrat Councillor Stanley Sharpe repeatedly requested that satisfactory paving in the High Street at the eastern end of the town be dug up and replaced by the same Himalayan Blocks, solely for cosmetic reasons. Dacorum Borough Council agreed in principle, but then found it did not have the money. We may be thankful for tight budgets.

In 2004, despite numerous expensive repairs, the High Street pavement in the centre of the town is still not in a satisfactory state. The ground continues to sink beneath the slabs, which, since they are not properly supported, have started to break up. In December 2002 I saw two children fall over dodgy paving in the High Street in separate incidents. I wonder how long it will be before Hertfordshire County Council is sued?

However, not everyone appears dissatisfied with the state of the pavement. Former Liberal Democrat County Councillor for Berkhamsted, Andrew Horton, who lost his seat in 1997, sought unsuccessfully to regain it in 2001. In his election manifesto he claimed that when he was the local county councillor, Berkhamsted had a "Safe and elegant High Street". It is not clear whether he is referring to the wobbly slabs or the broken slabs which they replaced.

I was a member of the Berkhamsted Bypass Demonstration Project Action Group from 1996 to 1999. "Action" was a misnomer. The group was set up by Hertfordshire County Council in an attempt to convince local people that it was listening to their views. In reality, none of its recommendations were ever implemented. Members were not even given accurate information about what was going on. For example, in June 1996, County Council officers realised that they had insufficient money left to complete the proposed programme of works. In their wisdom, they decided to continue spending on humps and pinch points while abandoning plans to repair a section of pavement in the High Street. The Berkhamsted Bypass Demonstration Project Action Group could have been informed of this before its July 1996 meeting, or even allowed to decide which parts of the project should be abandoned, but the information about the financial shortfall was deliberately withheld from us.

Dacorum Borough Council eventually bailed out Hertfordshire County Council with local taxpayers' money and enabled the paving to be finished. The County Council eventually overspent its budget for the project by 10%.

Two Hertfordshire County Council officers attended meetings of the Berkhamsted Bypass Demonstration Project Action Group: Peter Dodd and Rob Smith. Mr. Dodd was subsequently retired by the council. When I last heard of Mr. Smith, he was working on the proposed Central Hertfordshire Passenger Transport Scheme: a guided busway betwen Hatfield and Watford via St. Albans. Hertfordshire County Council spent 750,000 on consultants to this, even though it was obvious from the start that it was not wanted by the people it was intended to serve. The scheme was eventually abandoned. 750,000 would have filled a lot of pot holes, even at local authority prices.

The Berkhamsted Bypass Demonstration Project appears to have demonstrated only two things:
1) How not to organise a programme of public works.
2) What happens when bureaucrats with little local knowledge impose their own will without consulting the people.

No-one seems quite sure if the Berkhamsted Bypass Demonstration Project is finished. Further works were proposed, but we may hope that there is no money to carry them out. Tight budgets are the most effective defence against local authority depredation.

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Copyright © 2004 - Ian Johnston
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