The C13 road through Melbury Abbas will be closed between Spread Eagle Hill and the B3081 at Cann Common for twelve weeks from Monday. Dorset County Council is installing technology to tackle the controversial traffic tailbacks caused when large vehicles get stuck in the narrow village.
Andrew Brown is a project engineer with Dorset County Council’s Highway Improvement Team and he says the road closure forms part of a package of measures to improve this road and the A350 between Shaftesbury and Blandford. “It’s essentially to try and reduce the conflict of HGVs in Melbury Abbas. We are introducing a new pull-in for HGVs in the centre of the village. It will have a new vehicle-activated sign adjacent to it. The pull-in is for northbound HGVs. It will advise them of when HGVs are heading through, coming southbound,” said Andrew.
Melbury Abbas and Cann Parish Council isn’t impressed, though. Last year they launched High Court action against Dorset Council’s traffic management decisions. The judicial review was later dropped. Dorset advises large vehicles to use the A350 to travel north and suggests that southbound lorries pass through Melbury Abbas.
Melbury Abbas and Cann Parish Council wants all HGVs banned from the C13 road through their village. Their Chairman, William Kenealy, isn’t convinced that this lay-by will help prevent the bottlenecks. “It’s an existing pull in. There’s a post box and a phone box. Any large vehicle or a lorry that stops there will be sitting on the road essentially,” William said.
Andrew says that the electronic signage will give waiting HGV drivers information about how long it will take for large, oncoming vehicles to pass. “As the HGV that is going southbound goes through the traffic signals at Dinah’s Hollow, and then continues through the village, the driver of the HGV will get a countdown to say whether they will wait 30 seconds, 20 seconds or 10 seconds,” explained Andrew. “This vehicle activated sign will be linked up to the signals at Dinah’s Hollow and a sign that is already on Spread Eagle Hill. Everything is joined together to make sure that the driver gets a clear message when they can travel through the village.”
The signs will be triggered primarily by the weight of a vehicle. “But there is a scanner as well, which looks at size. Size is important to us because there are sizeable vans. We will pick those up as well,” said Andrew.
But William believes there will still be problems when larger vehicles attempt to pass each other in Melbury Abbas’s pinch points. “It doesn’t take two lorries to get stuck. You can have two large vans, you can have a van and a small lorry. There are three or four places between the top of the hollow and the bottom of Spread Eagle Hill where vehicles can get trapped,” William said.
Andrew is convinced that this scheme will reduce the risk of larger vehicles getting jammed. ”We do understand concerns and we hope this will go some way towards making the village a better environment for its residents,” Andrew said. And he adds this project won’t tackle Melbury Abbas’ traffic issues in isolation. The technology will also be employed further up the A350 in Shaftesbury.
“You may have noticed in Christy’s Lane there is a new concrete pad, which has recently been put in place. It’s very close to the ‘puffin crossing’. Over the next six weeks you’ll notice a vehicle-activated sign going in place there. We’re also putting one up on the Blandford bypass,” said Andrew. “We will pick up the HGVs on Christy’s Lane and advise them that the southbound route is via the C13, through Melbury Abbas. And the same at the other end. On the Blandford bypass we want to pick up HGVs before they get to the turning to Melbury Abbas. They will be told to continue northbound on the A350. Better detection and better signage will reduce the potential for conflict in Melbury Abbas even more.”
Andrew accepts that HGV drivers won’t have to pull in when the sign asks them to wait. “It is advisory but we are working with the Freight Haulage Association and other local hauliers to get the message out there,” Andrew said.
But if a driver cannot read English, they may not understand what to do. “The existing black-and-white signs are an international symbol with a red line through it,” Andrew added. “They give clear messages about the direction you can go or can’t go. There will always be the occasional one. There may be local HGVs such as milk tankers, deliveries to a farm or the village that will obviously be in the village so they will be travelling northbound on the odd occasion but we’re trying to reduce that conflict as early as possible.”
Lights have controlled traffic through Dinah’s Hollow, to the north of Melbury Abbas, since July 2015, when the steep sloping roadsides were found to pose a risk of slippage. During this road closure, the temporary Dinah’s Hollows traffic lights will be replaced by permanent fixtures.
“At the moment you will have noticed that the equipment is lying on the verge and the banks. Were putting all of that underground so the cabling and ducting is all going under the road, all the way through from one end of the village to the other. The signals at Dinah’s Hollow will be made permanent. At the moment the poles are just concrete and an old barrel,” explained Andrew.
And he says that locals have said that they like the traffic lights. “The clear message we’re getting from the Parish Council is at the traffic signals have been working very well. The consultations in 2018 and earlier seem to support the traffic signals. We also have to consider that we have quite a narrow hollow there and we have to ensure that the traffic can move appropriately. If we took the traffic signals away there would be issues with the bank and the two-way flow, which could make conflict even greater. The signals do stop the traffic, so with those extra few minutes people may think that they don’t want to go through Melbury Abbas because they’re getting held up all the time,” Andrew said.
But the Parish Council Chairman says they he doesn’t like them. “Before the signals were installed there was give-and-take with the traffic and it didn’t seem to be a problem for a few decades,” said William. “I don’t approve of putting urban signage and lights in an ancient holloway in the countryside. That goes against Dorset’s own rural policy so, for me, it’s just creep. Every time they come back they will try to widen the road or add signage. It’s trying to make a country road into something that it isn’t.”
While the closure is in place, drivers will be sent along the A350, which also runs through the Melbury Abbas and Cann Parish. William says that he has not heard complaints from residents living along the ‘A’ road about additional traffic. “Not yet. I probably will once they realise more traffic going by,” he said.
Villagers will still be allowed to access their homes and businesses during the C13 road closure. “The assurances are that they will be a minimal effect. We’ll see. I think it’ll be something that’s dealt with on a day-by-day basis, frankly,” said William.
So how will Dorset Council know whether the work has been successful in reducing blockages? Andrew says they haven’t set a date for assessing feedback. “We’re going to monitor on a regular basis. We have traffic counters in a number of locations. We can also put up cameras if we wish to monitor what is going on,” said Andrew, adding, “We also want local feedback by continually asking for that from the people who live there. They can give us messages over what is working and what is not working. We’re hoping that not only the conflict between HGVs in Melbury Abbas is reduced but also in locations like Fontmell Magna on the A350, where we get reports of HGVs having problems on the narrow sections in the centre of the village.”
In a press statement about the closure Dorset Council cabinet member Councillor Daryl Turner said that these works formed part of a ‘medium term solution’. Andrew Brown is an officer rather than a policy-making councillor but he says discussions about a long-term solution are underway. “Dorset County Council’s transport planning team is working with Wiltshire County Council and Bath and North East Somerset Council on the long-term strategy from Poole to the M4. We are taking reports forward to the Department for Transport to look at the future potential for a scheme.”
So what could that scheme look like? “At the moment it is early days but they are certainly looking more towards road improvements like bypasses and are working with councils along the routes to take those further forward. It’s too early to say which route or where,” said Andrew.
And he says the upcoming work will be a relatively cheap. “The work for the next twelve weeks will be in the region of £200,000, but this is part of a full package of measures. You will have noted all the extra signage, the village gateways, the changed speed and junction improvements. Essentially it is ‘signing and lining’.”
And while the C13 closure is underway, Dorset Council will be undertaking some maintenance. “It will include fixing potholes and we will resurface right through the village,” Andrew said. The scheme will also include work at the southern end of the village at Gore Clump. “It’s the junction at the top of the hill that leads to Compton Abbas airfield. It has had a history of collisions so we’re proposing to improve the junction to one which is safer and has better visibility for drivers coming in and out on the road leading to the airfield.”
Parish Council Chairman William isn’t convinced by any of the works proposed. He believes that a weight restriction is the only way to go. “We have been asking since 2012 for a weight restriction. The police and emergency services agreed with us, that there should be a weight restriction last summer. We think it would have been sufficient.”
Cllr Kenealy doesn’t think that the use of technology will effectively address the traffic problems that have blighted Melbury Abbas and which have earned it the title, ‘the village of the jammed’. “The road is too narrow. This is more a case of doing something to do something. You won’t change the physical reality of the village with signage,” William said.
And he’s not alone in his dissatisfaction with Dorset County Council. He says fifteen residents attended a meeting to discuss the works last Sunday. Many of those villagers voiced concern about a lack of consultation over these soon-to-start roadworks. “I think the general feeling is that things are being done to the village without our consent. Some people are quite upset about it to be honest,” said William.
We’ll know whether the £200,000 worth of work has provided an effective traffic solution in around three months time. If not, it’s likely that the queues and disagreement between the Parish and County Councils will continue for the foreseeable future.