Controversial motorway bypass plans revived in congestion-busting bid

Plans for a controversial motorway that will skirt the Black Country and carve through sections of Staffordshire are back on the table.

Could congestion be eased by the revival of plans for the Western Orbital scheme?
Could congestion be eased by the revival of plans for the Western Orbital scheme?

The Western Orbital scheme – also known as the Wolverhampton bypass – was twice rejected in the 1990s and 2000s due to concerns over its environmental impact.

But a new report to the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) reveals that transport body Midlands Connect is to use part of a £4 million funding pot to scope plans to revitalise the scheme.

Now dubbed the Western Strategic Route, the motorway would cut a 40-mile swathe through countryside from the M5 junction 4a at Bromsgrove, to junction 2 of the M54 near the i54 business park.

The M5 at junction 4a for the M42

It would pass Codsall, Codsall Wood, Perton, Pattingham, Wombourne, Dudley, Stourbridge and Kidderminster.

South Staffordshire MP Gavin Williamson has accused Midlands Connect of attempting to push through the plans ‘by stealth’.

He said: “It is of grave concern that Midlands Connect appear to be bringing these failed and rejected plans back to life after being killed off many times before.

“This proposed new motorway or bypass would rip through the heart of the South Staffordshire green belt and cause irreversible environmental damage to unblemished and cherished countryside.

“My constituents will be shocked to see that plans which have been repeatedly opposed and dropped are suddenly back on the table by stealth.

Could the new Western Orbital route link up with the M54 close to junction 2?

“I will be writing to Midlands Connect seeking urgent clarity because the residents of South Staffordshire and I are clear that these proposals have horrific consequences for so many communities stretching for more than 40 miles.

“These plans have repeatedly been turned down because they are unworkable, incredibly damaging and would only provide a sticking plaster to congestion on the West Midlands’ roads.”

Midlands Connect says the new route could form part of a new regional ‘motorway hub’ that would support the regional and national economy. They are due to reveal more details on the scheme early next month when a full report is published.

Maria Machancoses, Midlands Connect director, said the route was ‘one of a wide range of proposals that requires further analysis’, adding that they were ‘seeking to better understand the economic and social benefits that could be realised’.

Walsall councillor Richard Worrall, chair of the WMCA’s transport delivery committee, said: “From my own point of view, I think that if you want to ease the burden of traffic you really need people to use other means of transport.

“I’m not sure building more motorways is the answer. There needs to be a balance.”

A consultation is currently underway over proposals for a link road between the M54 and M6 North/M6 Toll.

The long-running history of the motorway plans

It is a proposed new stretch of motorway that some hope will ease congestion on the clogged roads of the West Midlands.

The Western Strategic Route is currently under consideration by transport bosses, who are looking at ways to improve sluggish travel times on the region’s roads that they say are having a detrimental impact on the local economy.

The planned route has been revealed in a report to the West Midlands Combined Authority’s transport delivery committee by Midlands Connect, the body tasked with developing the transport strategy for the wider region.

While bosses say that no route has yet been finalised, the map shows that the new motorway would be likely to run along a similar route to the Western Orbital scheme, also known as the Wolverhampton bypass, which was first proposed three decades ago but never got built due to environmental concerns.

How the route would link with the M5 and M54

It starts in the south of the region at junction 4a of the M5 at Bromsgrove. It heads towards Kidderminster before travelling through South Staffordshire, passing Stourbridge, Dudley and Wolverhampton to its east.

The route then joins up with junction 2 of the M54 near the i54 business park, to the north of Wolverhampton.

The route would effectively create an orbital motorway network, connecting the M54, M6 Toll, M42 and M5, with the M6 running through the centre.

Plans for the Western Orbital scheme were first revealed by the Express & Star in May 1988.

At the time it was expected to cost £190 million and was initially put forward by the Department for Transport as a solution to congestion on the M6.

The proposals met with a storm of protests from the outset, with councillors in Staffordshire warning that the motorway would have a devastating effect on countryside in the county.

Lord Patrick Cormack, the then Conservative MP for South Staffordshire, said at the time: “Naturally I am anxious to do everything I can to minimise the destructive impact of the road.”

The plans were ditched in 1996 by John Major’s Government due to a lack of interest from the private sector and environmental concerns, before returning in reduced form in 2001 as the Wolverhampton Bypass.

Lord Patrick Cormack, previously Conservative MP for South Staffordshire

By that time the expected cost of the scheme was £500m, but two years later it was killed off again.

Back then Wolverhampton councillor Milkinder Jaspal backed the scheme, and he says he has not changed his mind.

“Congestion has got far worse since then and unless we do something about it, it will get worse still,” he said.

“If we want to create jobs and boost the economy, we need better roads and better rail services. We have to look at all options because we cannot afford to fall behind any further.

“When you consider the amount of money that is lost each day due to congestion, a new motorway is a no brainer.”

Wolverhampton councillor Roger Lawrence, the WMCA’s transport guru, said the region’s main priority must be starting work on the link road between the M54 near junction 2 and M6 North/M6 Toll.

The road has passed through various stages but remains out for consultation, with an exact route yet to be finalised.

“This is a crucial piece of road that must be our priority,” he said.

Roger Lawrence

“When you look at Jaguar Land Rover at the i54, they have got to transport engines up north. The link road is absolutely vital for getting freight moving.”

Last year West Midlands Mayor Andy Street launched an action plan aimed at tackling congestion across the region.

He has focused the so-called ‘key route network’, a number of important non-motorway roads across the region for which the Mayor has responsibility.

Mr Street’s long-term congestion-busting plan centres on ‘a revolution in investment in rail, buses, trams and cycling’.

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