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The A40 Passing Through Monmouth - A Bureaucratic Blunder

Picture taken from the pavement at Wyebridge junction on a quiet day. It is unusual to oblige people to walk so close to a road with motorway volume traffic – and unusual to have traffic lights on such a road.

The A40 is a trunk road carrying as much traffic as many motorways as it passes through the town of Monmouth. Its presence causes unhealthy levels of air and noise pollution, cuts the town in half and blocks ready access to the River Wye and its attractive walks. Rather than address these problems, Monmouthshire County Council and the Welsh Government seem determined to make this situation worse…

Read on, or hyperlink to parts of particular interest.

History of the A40 in Monmouth Complaint to the Welsh Government
A40’s outdated design – not fit for purpose Complaining to the Ombudsman
Perilous river walks The complaint made to the Ombudsman
Welsh Government and the A40 Current monitoring of pollution
Improving A40 flow and capacity MCC inconsistent and incompetent
MCC’s Third Lane West plan Wye Quayside devastation and MCC irresponsibility
Criticism of the Third Lane plan Monmouth Town Council
Acceleration and high pollution Monmouth gets the leftovers
Traffic pollution Monmouth’s substandard underpass to cross the A40
A real bypass? Air Quality Standards Wales
M4 Relief Road Unsafe fence between the A40 and Chippenham park
Why is the A40 carrying so much traffic? Answering the Monmouth Chamber of Commerce
Pollution too high for health? How to solve this problem
Monitoring detailed pollution levels in Monmouth The A40 Group

History of the A40 in Monmouth

Photo of a bookjacket showing Monnow Bridge with a WW1 tank driving through it.

The A40 is a dual-carriageway trunk road that passes through Monmouth, running alongside the River Wye and cutting the town in half. When it was built in the 1960s, it was called a “bypass”. It bypassed the medieval Monnow Bridge (which still allowed WW1 tanks and two-way traffic to pass through at that time) but more than 40 houses, riverfront buildings and a large hotel were bulldozed and the town common, Chippenham park, was cut in two as the road was put in place.

 

Historic aerial view of Monmouth showing the approximate route of the A40 cutting through the town.

The red lines show the approximate route of the A40, dividing the town from the river and its (now extensive) suburbs of Mayhill and Wyesham across the Wye river.

Back in 1970 the new A40 was a quiet road with pedestrian crossings and access to the riverside walks. Since then, it has become a major route from the M5 via the M50 into Wales and the M4. It is now used by many more cars and heavy trucks than it was designed to carry, travelling at speeds that were unusual back in 1970. There are still two public footpaths across the road but many people do not know this because it would be suicide to use them at busy times of day. The junctions are designed for low speed, some of them with no feed-in slip-road at all, and vehicles join the high speed traffic at its peril. For examples of the A40’s outdated and unsafe design, click here.

Map derived from government source: www.magic.gov.uk showing footpaths that should allow a river walk circuit to be taken by families and those with disabilities.

Perilous River Walks

Photograph showing car transporters passing at high speed directly beside the pedestrian walkwayThe two footpaths over the A40 are marked in green. The red marks are pedestrian underpasses. The blue marks are walking circuits for the brave. The purple marks Monmouth’s “Promenade” beside the River Wye. Once tree lined, this is still a public footpath leading to the other half of Chippenham (now called Two-River Meadow) and the River Monnow, so making a river-walk circuit linking the Wye and the Monnow that few dare to do.

Walking directly alongside this kind of traffic is dangerous.

This is a pity because the river is a Special Area of Conservation (SAC), a Special site of Scientific Interest (SSSI) and borders an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).

Welsh Government and the A40

The A40 is a Trunk Road so it is the responsibility of the Welsh Government (WG). However, it was not WG that put it there because a Welsh Assembly did not exist until 1998 and a Welsh Government was not formed until 2006. Also, Monmouth was still in England when the road was built (Monmouth formally became part of Wales in 1974). Yes, that’s complicated and if it leaves people confused about their nationality, that’s no surprise. There are many locals who were born in Monmouth England and who now live in Monmouth Wales. When the Welsh Government was founded it inherited a road that had increasing tailbacks and many accidents at busy times at the Monmouth bottleneck. Their predecessors had already changed the Wye bridge traffic lights so that traffic driving East could no longer turn onto Wye bridge to access the Mayhill and Wyesham suburbs. They had also expanded Dixton Roundabout to “ease flow”. But this was “tinkering” and the congestion problems kept on getting worse. Locals know that it is not unusual to see vehicles tailing back from the Wye bridge Traffic lights all the way up the hill into England.

Diagram showing the proposed third lane (only 27 cars long) and the proposed widening of Wyebridge with a new concrete roadbed.In 2014, our Government has tasked MCC with “improving flow and capacity” on the A40 through Monmouth. The MCC response has been to call in expensive consultants who have devised a plan to widen the ancient Wye bridge and install a short third lane between the Rowing Club underpass and Wye bridge for traffic turning onto the bridge. Having conducted some cursory traffic monitoring over a few hours, the consultants have calculated that this would result in a 16 second saving for waiting traffic at peak traffic times. Their calculation is facile, based on incomplete evidence and conjecture, but even if it were true it would not be worth losing the last of our river frontage to save passing motorists a mere 16 seconds at a cost of well over a million pounds (probably more than two million). For detailed criticism of the MCC’s Third Lane plan, click here. Regardless of having been presented with cogent arguments that they have not begun to answer after six months, we are assured by MCC that this “improvement” will happen because it is the Welsh Government’s will.

It is self-evident to residents that the only way to increase flow and capacity on the current road would be to remove all local traffic and allow unrestricted flow through the town. Traffic flows on the road have not been counted since the MCC’s traffic-counter near to Dixton Roundabout broke in 2012. But it was never counted in a way that recorded the way that local traffic uses the road, anyway. This is important because without detailed long-term monitoring of the way that local traffic uses the road, any plan to make adjustments to local use that increase flow and capacity must be speculative. Also, to move local traffic off the A40 would require expensive new roads and bridges and more destruction of a town that has been lived in since the Stone Age: evidence of Stone Age, Bronze Age and Roman occupation has been well documented by our resident Silver Trowel archaeologist, Steve Clark, and others. Click here for a report on some of Steve’s recent work.

Even if they took away all local traffic with new bridges and underpasses, roundabouts and roads – they could not widen the A40 through Gibraltar tunnels or knock down the Haberdashers School to make both carriageways three lanes wide. Also, belatedly, it has now been acknowledged that acceleration and high pollution go together [see paragraph 2, page 2 in this Imperial College link], so this “solution” would only make matters worse for residents in every way possible.

Traffic pollution

The desire to protect our town is just one reason for those who live in Monmouth to resist any increase in A40 Traffic flow and capacity. A more compelling reason for many is the pollution caused by having a de-facto motorway cut the town in half. It is a fact that the A40 was not designed for its current use and it is obvious that it is not fit for purpose and should be replaced.

The simple answer to both traffic flow and pollution issues is a real “bypass”, a new road that diverts through traffic outside the town limits – preferably a road from the M50 to the M4, via the Heads of the Valleys road.

A map showing a direct route from the end of the M50 at Ross to the start of the A465 at Abergavenny  – open source www.magic.gov.uk, overdrawn

This 30km (19 mile) route would not pass through sensitive areas (AONBs, SSSI or SACs) but would sacrifice some farm land. Crucially, it need not pass through any towns. This would provide an M4 relief road for all traffic to and from the North and also help facilitate the regeneration of industry in the Valleys area.

Whatever its route, a bypass would allow the present A40 to become a minor road with a weight restriction and 30 mph speed limits where it passes towns and villages – so making it unattractive as a through route. In Monmouth, we could close one lane in each direction, so providing long-bay parking and regaining our river frontage with a reinstated promenade. It would also allow the town centre to rejoin its Wyesham suburb properly with safe road crossings and the river walks that were once a tourist attraction back in place. Better still, it would protect residents and the thousands of schoolchildren currently affected by pollution (three schools border the road as well as residential housing). As a spinoff, it would allow Monmouth to meet the Welsh Government’s desire to build more and more housing estates as Monmouth becomes a “dormitory town” (meeting central government targets – regardless of the wishes of local residents, of course).

Why is the A40 carrying so much traffic?

As far as is currently known (MCC’s 2012 figures) around 13% more vehicles travel into Wales along the A40 than leave. The disparity is believed to be the result of vehicles avoiding paying M4 tolls to enter Wales over the Severn bridges.

Map showing the way that vehicles avoid the Severn bridge tolls by cutting across country through Monmouth. Open source www.magic.gov.uk, overdrawn.

The map shows the M5/M4 route in green, with red route representing a “short-cut” along the M50, A40 and A449. It probably takes longer to drive, but avoids the Severn Bridge tolls.

Many of the vehicles that take the red route are trucks – but the MCC traffic counter did not discriminate between trucks and cars so it is not clear how many. As a randomly selected example, on a morning in January 2014, 48 vehicles passed the town every minute: 18 were trucks. This shows that the road is carrying a motorway traffic volume (certainly more than the M50) and explains why traffic pollution in terms of exhaust pollution and noise is a major issue.

Photograph showing typical A40 traffic at the Wyebridge junction. Large and small trucks with cars and motorcycles as well.

Anticipated reductions in traffic pollution have not occurred with the new generation of engines. Modern diesel car engines give great mileage and are relatively clean when cruising but they produce more harmful pollutants on acceleration and at high revs than old petrol engines. Because traffic is required to stop for the Wye bridge traffic-lights and Dixton Roundabout, it must accelerate again. And because the current speed limit is not effectively enforced, it often accelerates fiercely. 40 ton trucks race to get through the lights on green, or labour back up to speed. Motorcyclists race from the lights to Dixton Roundabout in a bid to top a ton. And many motorists pass the town at 60 mph or more. Understandably, they would rather Monmouth was not there.

Fine dust, Sulphur Dioxide, Nitrogen Dioxide, Benzine and Traffic Noise levels are all too high for health in Monmouth. On the town’s main street itself, pollution levels are higher than necessary because drivers avoid using short lengths of the A40 to get around the town. Traffic is meant to use the A40 to circle between the Monnow, Wyebridge and Dixton roundabout, but entering fast moving traffic flows can be hazardous – as is evidenced by the serious accident when a car with four occupants was nudged off the road into the trees beside Chippenham park in February this year. Many minor accidents on the A40 are on record and a few severe ones, including several involving pedestrians. It is no surprise that many locals prefer to drive up and down Monnow Street with its infamous pinch-point and narrow pavements.

A picture showing the place where a car with four occupants spun into the trees after being nudged off the slip road onto the A40 in February 2014. Severe injuries resulted, but thankfully no fatalities.

For independent information about the health hazards of traffic pollution, click here to see an October 2013 press article about the World Health Organisation’s conclusion that ‘Air Pollution causes cancer’ (para 3, p3):

Click here to see an article on the NHS Website about the harmful effects of presumed ‘safe’ levels of air pollution (para 3, p3):

Monitoring of detailed pollution levels in Monmouth was last conducted ten years ago but was not conducted close to the A40 carriageways. The results were worrying – but were interpreted favourably and the monitoring was reduced to the placement of four, very cheap and highly inaccurate Nitrogen Dioxide diffusion tubes. You may have seen these. They look like short test tubes strapped to posts and drainpipes. They were not positioned to monitor the A40, but rather traffic pollution in the town (and the level of Nitrogen Dioxide recorded has often exceeded limits).

In September 2013, the A40 Group complained to the Welsh Government that they were not monitoring pollution as required under the terms of their own 2010 legislation. The Government sent the complaint to MCC to deal with. While never admitting any error, MCC’s Environmental Health officers have been remarkably responsive. They quickly corrected some errors and positioned more Nitrogen Dioxide diffusion tubes in more suitable places. But they argue that they do not have to meet the requirements of the Welsh Government’s legislation because they have never been told to do so. They have been told to work to outdated UK guidelines. That was hard to argue against, so we returned to the Welsh Government who (after prompting) finally responded with obfuscation and evasion in a formal answer that was no “answer” at all on February 13th 2014. This left the A40 Group with no choice other than to complain to the Ombudsman  – which was done on 27th February 2014. We also sent the same complaint to the European Commission, which is currently prosecuting the UK Government for its failure to monitor pollution issues as required in agreed EU Directives.

On 7th March 2014, Heather Coutanche for the Public Service Ombudsman for Wales responded saying that they had referred the complaint back to the Welsh Government for a response…. More delays and obfuscation – or perhaps an opportunity for the Welsh Government to live up to its own legislation?  To see the A40 Group’s complaint to the Ombudsman, click here. It’s Annexes include the original complaint and responses.

Current monitoring of pollution

Meanwhile Monmouthshire County Council’s Environmental Health Officers are increasing the monitoring of Nitrogen Dioxide near to the A40 and Natural Resources Wales (the Welsh Environment Agency) may lend them a means to monitor dust and Sulphur Dioxide as well. With its debts, MCC is not able to pay for that kind of monitoring itself (incidentally, how did MCC run up debts with annual interest payments between 3 and 4 million pounds?) but Natural Resources Wales may decide to foot the bill… We are awaiting a decision over that and the NRW email addresses do not work reliably, so communication is fraught.

Sadly, MCC have been inconsistent and incompetent. If MCC’s Environmental Health Officers have tried to be receptive, MCC’s Planners and other employees have not. The MCC’s Deputy Chief Officer Regeneration and Culture, for example, suspended plans for a car park adjacent to the A40 off Wye bridge Street because of air quality concerns. Obviously adding pollution to what is a know pollution hotspot was irresponsible, but perhaps there was another reason because the same person decided to decimate the riverbank on the other side of the A40 by having the trees cut and opening it up for parking in the same pollution hotspot – apparently without the need to seek permissions to do so from anyone. Thanks to him, the last bit of Wye River frontage (known as the Quayside) has been a car park for several months – with vehicles parking inside a Special Area of Conservation and a Site of Special Scientific Interest. For more about this, Click here.

MCC have also approved increased traffic access through the Old Nag’s Head Pinch Point with the bizarre Dixton Road Clinic access (the subject of another appeal to the Ombudsman), done nothing about the illegal parking on the site they suspended off Wyebridge Street, and have generally taken months to respond to queries. Even when they have responded, they have rarely answered any of the points made and, of course, those of us pointing out their errors have been labelled troublemakers who can be ignored.

Monmouth Town Council have expressed support for the A40 Group’s campaign to improve Air Quality monitoring, as has our MP David Davies. Others have pointed out that Monmouth is last on the list for Welsh Government spending because we are “not really Welsh” and the town is “full of rich English people” anyway – so why do we bother? No one will listen. Would that we were rich! And we cannot help but bother. The town is actually full of schoolchildren (some admittedly from rich families). Three schools border the A40, one of which is the area’s Comprehensive. And, incidentally, they all teach the Welsh Language, which makes us all very aware of being in Wales. However, there may be some truth in the belief that Monmouth gets the left over budgets from both MCC and Welsh Government. Look at the state of the A40 where it passes the town (click here for the A40 Not Fit for Purpose) and at the barriers above the main A40 pedestrian crossing, a substandard underpass, or at the fence that is supposed to stop children running onto the road from Chippenham park…(click here). It has been broken down by MCC contractors dumping leaves over it on more than one occasion. One of the questions that no one has answered is, “Who is responsible for maintenance of the A40 road’s surrounds – the Welsh Government or MCC – and why does no one maintain it?”

So how do we solve this problem?

The A40 has always run in the wrong place – cutting through a town. It must be rerouted or replaced. Because any new road will run through both England and Wales, and the coalition Central Government does not see any need to help out the Labour dominated administration in Wales, the usual problems with getting bureaucrats to take the big view and make long-term plans are complicated.

Getting the A40 rerouted or a new road built will certainly take time. What we want “now” is less air pollution and noise. The simple way to achieve this is to impose a 30 mph speed limit from 200 metres before Golf Links Lane to the East and beyond Gibraltar tunnels to the West. The limit must be enforced with 24 hour speed cameras. This could pay for itself very easily as motorists “learn” that the limit must be obeyed, so it is “affordable” even in a time of budget constraints.

Noise would be cut by an estimated 10-20% and peak noise (such as is caused by racing motorcyclists) would be eliminated – so the actual difference would be far greater than 10% implies. For people living nearby and those affected by high levels of reflected noise (such as those high on the Kymin and Hereford Road) this would be a real relief. The way that noise travels is weird. Monmouth is deep in a valley with climatic “inversion” conditions that mean noise can often reflect off the atmosphere. The traffic noise at a distance of a linear mile from the A40 can be as loud as it is for those only 100 metres from the carriageways.

Monmouth’s position also means that air pollution does not disperse as readily as it does in other places. Air pollution is worst on acceleration under load. Vehicles accelerate rapidly from the Dixton Roundabout and the Wye bridge traffic lights. The current speed limit of 50 mph is not enforced, so many vehicles accelerate to higher than 50 mph. Other drivers race to “beat” the lights, or race between the traffic lights and roundabout. Many leaving the traffic lights travelling West reach 70 mph before entering Gibraltar tunnels. Many travelling East emerge from Dixton tunnels at 70 mph is the hope of finding the traffic lights in their favour. This means that the proposed lower limit would need to be enforced – and there are 30 mph dual carriageways in Newport with camera monitoring, so this is not an unusual request. It would also pay for itself in months, so need not break the budget (click here, to see an October 2013 press article about a Newport speed camera taking fines of a million pounds in short order:

Current studies suggest that an enforced 30 mph limit would reduce air pollution by up to 30%, so bringing it below current statutory requirement levels.

With a 30 mph limit, the two existing pedestrian crossings could be augmented with a pelican crossing near Wye bridge, and the Wye Bridge traffic lights could again allow vehicles to turn across the Westbound Traffic over Wye bridge into Mayhill and Wyesham. These would help to recombine our bifurcated town, allowing easy access to its riverbank and increasing the potential for tourism.

Let us know if you agree.

The only person to disagree so far is the Chairman of Monmouth’s Chamber of Commerce who asked for his comments about air quality to be circulated to all members of Monmouth’s Partnership Forum. Because he criticised one of the A40 Group by name, the original Chamber of Commerce Comment and his answer are given here.

The A40 Group is comprised of disparate people sharing a common concern about the impact of the A40 on Monmouth.

To join, comment, argue or ask questions about anything above – write to the Chairman, Brian Ramsey, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

(This page was prepared by Didactylos for the A40 Group, Monmouth.)

 

 

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