Residents of Shaftesbury have created a Facebook group to collect photographic evidence that they hope will convince Dorset Council to ban heavy vehicles from driving up St John’s Hill.
The steep and narrow section of B3091 is frequently being blocked by heavy goods vehicles and locals say lives could be at risk. “I came out of my house, which is at the bottom of the steepest and narrowest part of the hill and found a very big HGV stuck on the road,” said Julia Holman.
Last Monday’s road blockage was the last straw for her and fellow campaigner Peter Shouler. “The driver had given up any attempt to get up and was trying to reverse back down again, through the very narrow, steep, twisty part,” said Peter. “He kept getting into a position in his reversing where he couldn’t go any further. He had to go forward to correct his line. Every time his wheels just spun. It was quite frightening. He really didn’t have control at those moments. I did feel that there was a risk that he would come backwards. He was fine. He was careful. Over a substantial period of time, I would say half an hour, he was able to reverse down and out.”
Peter says this happens frequently and he is worried that the lorries, which can be as heavy as 44 tonnes, often back-up, towards the primary school. “They have to reverse down to the Abbey School at the bottom of the hill to turn around there. You get cars parked up the hill. They wouldn’t be able to reverse down there at a school collection or drop off time. It would be absolute chaos and very dangerous. Concerns have been raised by some of the parents at the school,” Peter said.
Last Monday the road was jammed for over half an hour and Julia says that blocking off access creates a safety issue in itself. “At the top of the hill, there’s the Ambulance Station. Further on in the town, there’s the Fire Station and then in the other direction, down this road, there’s the prison.”
Soon after Monday’s blockage was cleared, an emergency vehicle needed to use the hill. “If the need for that ambulance had arisen half an hour earlier, that ambulance would not have been able to get down the hill. There’s a real safety issue, quite apart from the huge inconvenience to the people who are piled up in both directions,” said Julia.
Obviously, the safety of people is paramount, but Julia says that protecting private property is also a consideration. “There are three grade II listed buildings down the section of road that he had to reverse down. Two of them, which include mine, have been damaged relatively recently by reversing vehicles.”
Julia says that the road is simply unsuitable for lorries of a certain size and weight. “There are two right-angle bends, which are really too tight to get an HGV round. And in the lead up to the hill, it’s terribly narrow. There are cars parked on the hill, making it narrower still. It’s too steep for an HGV to have traction,” she said.
Peter has been trying to get different councils to take action for years. He flicked through a folder of correspondence and press clippings. ITV News and the Daily Mail have featured the HGV issues in the past. “It started in about 2004. We had increasing numbers of HGVs trying to use the B3091 up St John’s Hill into Shaftesbury. I started campaigning to try and get something done, a weight limit sign or some other signage to divert them in a different direction,” said Peter.
There is already a weight limit restricting heavy goods traffic coming in from the east. And a sign does advise drivers approaching the steep hill that the route up to Shaftesbury town is unsuitable for HGVs. But Julia says this sign is not a solution. “They drive past it. It’s not a prohibition. It is quite evident that you can’t get an HGV up this road, so it is nuts that they’re able to legally.”
Peter says that the residents want at least a legal restriction on heavy vehicles on the hill. “In the very least I think we want a 7.5-tonne weight limit on the road put down. We also want to have the road downgraded from a ‘B’ road. We want the alternative route that is signed for HGVs upgraded to a ‘B’ road. That’s the Coles Lane and Cherry Orchard route, which they’re supposed to go down.”
In Peter’s view, changing the road classification would stop heavy vehicle drivers using St John’s Hill as they head into Shaftesbury, bound for the A30. “I think it would eventually filter through onto the satellite navigation systems. If it wasn’t a ‘B’ road, they are unlikely to send traffic down there, especially if there’s a 7.5-tonne weight limit.”
Peter has written to the Council, as you might expect. He contacted staff in their Dorchester HQ in 2004 when Dorset County Council existed. “They said they were implementing a new route for HGVs down Coles Lane and Cherry Orchard and they would give consideration to putting 7.5-tonne weight limit signs up St John’s Hill,” he said. But that limit was never imposed.
Peter recently asked Shaftesbury’s MP, Simon Hoare, to intervene in communication with the new Dorset Council. “He was an intermediate between me and Dorset Council. They didn’t reply to me when I wrote the second time to the new Director, Mike Harries. Simon Hoare wrote for me. I did get a cursory reply. HGVs are a widespread problem in Dorset, and they’re going to look at it.”
When the road is jammed, Julia often has a chat with the drivers who have caused the disruption. “I always say you could not be here without having driven past the sign saying ‘This road is not suitable for HGVS’. Not always, but often, the drivers speak limited English. They always say they’ve been following sat-navs. We all know that sat-navs make you kind of blind. If you’re a professional driver, you’ve got to look out and use your intelligence as well. I am quite irritable with the drivers because they are causing a lot of inconvenience. They must carry some of the responsibility for it in my view,” said Julia.
Some residents have told us that the problem started when the abattoir at Sturminster Newton expanded. Drivers had been given maps warning them to avoid St John’s Hill, but it’s understood that practice has now ended. We emailed ABP Food Group’s press office on Friday morning to offer them the chance to comment. They have not replied.
At the same time, we emailed Dorset Council and asked for their comments. They told us that their Community Highways Officer had been unavailable all day. We emailed again at breakfast time on Monday but had not received a reply by 5.30pm.
Now Peter and Julia are hoping that people will post video and photographic evidence of blockages and unsuitable traffic to their new ‘Shaftesbury B3091 Action Group’ Facebook group, so they can show how dangerous these heavy vehicles could be. They hope the footage will convince the Council to take action.
“It’s an ongoing problem. It’s at least every couple of months. I mean, we’ve had two in the last week, as it happens. Sometimes you’ll go a few weeks without anything, but when it does happen, it’s a huge inconvenience. And, in my view, a danger,” said Julia.