Melbury Abbas Parish Council recently raised over £7,000 towards a legal review of Dorset Council’s decision to advise lorries to pass through the village on the way to Poole. Plans for this judicial review were dropped because of concerns over escalating legal costs. But the villagers’ actions have already resulted in some small changes.
The campaign’s leader says he feels encouraged by the online response to this ‘David versus Goliath’ battle between Parish and County Councils. “There’s an innately British support for the underdog. We are clearly the underdog here,” William Kenealy laughed. “We are a small rural parish of 1,200 people. I think people also connected with the idea of trying to protect their own homes and their village.”
William is the Chairman of Melbury Abbas Parish Council. Villagers are, understandably, passionate about their community and how they feel it has been treated. You might expect their campaign leader to be angry and animated when discussing the issue. But William’s conversation is calm. Before he retired to the North Dorset village, this native New Yorker worked on special projects for the Mayor of London. That experience might explain his considered approach to this emotive issue.
William said that residents remain concerned that lorries are being routed through their village, along a road with no pavements. “The physical nature of the village and the road is that it is clearly not suitable for large vehicles. It is very narrow and has three or four blind bends. Spread Eagle Hill is too steep. It is one-in-six. There seems to be a denial of the physical reality of the road and the village,” he said.
When Dorset Council installed electronic signs advising southbound HGVs to pass through Melbury Abbas, locals took action. “We had protests on the road. We had a petition, which is still going. It has over 6,000 signatures. We have written to the MP. We have done everything we could do. We gained a lot of national and local media attention. We were recording how long the jams lasted,” said William.
Locals have given up thousands of hours of their free time on this campaign. “It was a lot of work. We’ve done pamphleteering and had old-fashioned banners and placards. We’ve raised a little bit of money with local residents. We’ve also had a handful of savvy residents monitoring local and national press. You have to have enthusiasm and most importantly you have to believe that what you are doing is the right thing to do.”
As you might expect, the fifteen volunteers driving this campaign have become a close-knit team. “Another twenty or thirty people helped in smaller ways,” William said.
The villagers’ efforts in courting the media have quickly paid off. Images of juggernauts jammed up against thatched cottage walls went viral online and featured in TV and tabloid coverage. And after this exposure the offers of assistance came in from all over the country. “We had help from the Campaign for Better Transport and I’ve had lots of different people contact us from other villages with similar problems. A few have had issues just as bad. This is a problem that is going on across rural England. It points to a lack of strategic planning by local and national governments,” William observed.
William says that the group’s hard work has brought some tangible changes. Some hauliers have altered their transport routes to avoid the village, after they viewed the villagers’ videos. “One Dutch lorry was stuck in front of a house, next to a smaller lorry. That small lorry had one wheel on the bank and one wheel in the air. It was jammed. The driver was taking down the garden wall and putting the stones under the wheel of the stuck lorry. That video was very effective when we sent it off to the Dutch company,” William laughed.
“There are also insurance issues. We’ve had lorries knocking down road signs, lorries clipping off wing mirrors. Making companies aware of the physical limitations of the road has been very effective.”
In April, the Parish Council took their campaign to a new level when they launched an online appeal to fund a judicial review. “It was the natural thing to do and it also gave the people that supported us on social media a chance to feel like they were involved and they were helping out, even though they didn’t live in the village. We had support from people all over the country,” said William.
The Parish Council wanted a judge to determine whether Dorset Council reached the decision to implement this traffic management in a fair way. “We just felt that the consultation was not done properly. It started out with a simple question asking residents ‘do you like the proposed one-way system, yes or no?’ By the time it got to the Council’s vote, it had morphed into six options. We decided that we needed to take this to court and have the decision looked at again.”
Over £7,200 was offered by supporters online, but William says the Parish Council ended their crowdsourcing campaign after large legal bills loomed. “The county council has deeper pockets and they ran up a legal bill that was over twice the amount that we had raised. We were seeking ‘cost protection’. At first that was rejected. If we had lost the case we would have been liable for their legal costs.”
That would have meant the Parish Council would have to pay. “We obviously don’t have those kind of reserves. We made a decision that it was best to walk away at this point and come back to fight another day. Since the issue was very specific and about the consultation there is no reason why we cannot take legal action in the future on another issue that is related to this. We didn’t close any doors,” said William.
“When you get into the court system, it is a poker game. You don’t know which judge is going to get your case. You don’t know the play of the other side until everything is filed. The deeper the pockets you have, the more risks you can take.”
Despite dropping this course of legal action, William remains philosophical about the experience. “I was disappointed, obviously. It does take a lot of time and enthusiasm and determination. I think that we have shown we can do it. We can play above our level. There’s no question about it,” he said, adding that he was pleased that villagers reacted.
“Apathy is a big problem. People just say there’s nothing they can do. I think it’s much better to take a stand, even knowing that you might lose, than not to take a stand.”
So how could the authorities address Melbury Abbas’ traffic problem? Some locals want a weight restriction through the village. William wants the signs routing southbound lorries through Melbury Abbas removed. “The signs give the appearance that this is a standard lorry route. The same applies to the A350,” he said. The A road, running almost parallel to the C13 through Melbury Abbas, is the suggested route for northbound HGVs.
“Those signs should be taken down. We are not anti-lorry drivers, especially professional lorry drivers. They are our best allies,” William explained. “They make the best decision for themselves about how they travel across the area.”
Locals will continue looking at technology-based solutions to tackle the traffic issues, including contacting satnav service providers to ask them not to recommend a route through the village. “Some people tell me that’s the latest satnavs do show this as a restricted route, with restricted width and height and has a steep incline. It is another thing we want to explore. Some foreign and local drivers are using car satnavs because they are cheaper. I can’t tell you how many times there has been a driver stuck there. The residents go up and the driver says, ‘I’m sorry I didn’t mean to do this. I had no idea about your situation.’ I’ve lost count of the number of times that has happened,” said William.
You might expect William to demand that a new road is built, avoiding the village, but he says that he’s realistic about the likelihood of that happening. After all, a Melbury Abbas by-pass was first suggested back in 1933 and the major engineering work required by a route suggested two decades ago seems unlikely.
“The bypass that was agreed goes through National Trust land. It comes across Boundary Road, ends at the bottom of Zigzag Hill and goes up to the A30. Only an Act of Parliament can grab National Trust land. The soil through there is clay, so you’d have to have a massive pillar infrastructure to support the road, similar to those elevated freeways you see in Sicily. It is possible. The French do it. The Italians do it. That’s the kind of engineering that would be required. But is that really what we want? Do we want to build an Autostrada in the middle of rural Dorset? I don’t think we do,” said William.
A route for a new road across less hilly terrain has also been suggested. “There are some people in our parish who have said that a route to the west of the A350 is the most sensible place for any new road. It would cost into the billions, I would assume. I don’t think we will be alive to see it, even if it gets the go-ahead.”
William is hoping that there’ll be a chance for new dialogue and fresh thinking when the new Dorset Unitary Council replaces the current county and district authorities next year. “It’s easy to get adversarial. If the new unitary goes through, perhaps we can start on a new footing with them. There needs to be new thinking that is strategic and which doesn’t just stop at the edge of the Dorset or Wiltshire border. It might have a more strategic look at the whole area than the separate councils that we have now.”
But if that doesn’t work, William says that he is conscious that his Parish Council might need to spend some more cash on their campaign. “One thing we’ve learned is that you need to have a sufficient war chest so you can take the risk of moving ahead and not be bullied by somebody that can outspend you. That’s what we think we need to do.”
Dorset County Council has agreed to absorb its legal costs connected to Melbury Abbas’ proposed judicial review. The authority has said they will work with neighbouring councils to enable a long-term solution for the route between Poole and the M4. In the meantime, they are installing signs that will tell HGV drivers to pull into a lay-by and wait when there is another lorry in the narrower stretch of the road.
Residents have spent thousands of pounds and invested endless hours on their cause. They haven’t achieved their end goal yet, but William is convinced the villagers’ actions have made a difference. “We have raised awareness of the problem, I think. It didn’t exist before,” William said.
And with continued TV coverage, William remains hopeful that villagers will continue to receive ideas and suggestions from all over the country. Footage of the traffic disruption will be shown during Episode 5 of ‘Caught On Camera’ on Channel 5’s 5Spike on 16th August 2018 at 9pm.