The troubled Airport Road A555 opened a year behind schedule last October 15th. Six miles of new dual carriageway and 2.5 miles of existing A555 road link the A6 at Hazel Grove to the M56 at the Airport.
It’s too early to know the full effects of the new road. It should in its first few years significantly reduce traffic on Finney Lane, Heald Green and the A6 from Hazel Grove northwards, and reduce journey times for commuters and travellers on the new road itself. However, it will put more traffic on to the illegally polluted A34 through Cheadle and the A6 through Disley – falling foul of recent court judgments requiring the full implementation of air quality standards.
The road’s construction was disrupted by unexpected rain (!), a glut of protected great crested newts, incompetent testing of ground conditions, predicted delays from third parties and the liquidation of the builder Carillion.
The new road’s problems should serve as a warning to anyone who imagines that extending it to Bredbury with the proposed A6-M60 Bypass could be free of problems and negative effects.
Steps to construction
The A6-Manchester Airport Relief Road (to give it its official name) is the first half of the “SEMMMS” plan hatched mainly by Stockport Council around 2001 to build a two-lanes-each-way dual carriageway from the Airport/M56 to the M60 at Bredbury via Hazel Grove. A section of this road, from Woodford to Heald Green, had already been completed in the early 1990s. The SEMMMS plan also includes a Poynton Bypass which will connect to the Airport Road when it is completed in the early 2020s.
In 2007, the Labour Government refused to fund the whole road but said it would consider construction in stages, starting with the A6-Airport section. The Coalition Government put up £290 million for the Airport Road in 2011, with the then Chancellor George Osborne apparently convinced of the need for a road to the planned business park at Manchester Airport.
The Airport Road gained planning approval and Government funding as a stand-alone project. Stockport Council argued for the road to relieve congestion and pollution on the A6 from Hazel Grove north to the town centre. The road is intended primarily to divert traffic coming up the A6 from the south and wanting to reach the M56 or the M60 westbound.
The project was led by Stockport Council in partnership with East Cheshire and Manchester.
Objections and design problems
A well-informed and persistent action group, PAULA, presented three main objections to the Airport Road: 1. It would destroy green belt including ancient woodland at Carr Wood and Mill Hill Hollow (see top picture). 2. It would worsen serious air pollution on the A6 in Disley and in other locations. 3. The case for the road relied on exaggerated estimates of traffic growth. Traffic on the A6 fron Haxel Hrove northwards has been declining, according to official figures.
Attention focused on how the Airport Road would exacerbate the already illegal air pollution in Disley. The village comes under East Cheshire which suppressed appalling pollution readings while the road was being approved. Mitigation measures were later installed (in the form of traffic lights at Redhouse Lane and parking bays on the A6) to reduce the expected increase in traffic through the village from 30% to 15%.
The Airport Road has not been designed to cope with the extra traffic generated by new housing in Woodford or Handforth, or the additional vehicles from the Poynton Bypass when it is completed.
The Airport Road would not be able to cope with the increased load that would be generated if it was extended to Bredbury by the proposed A6-M60 Bypass. Some of its junctions would become overloaded.
Flaws in the Airport Road’s design have been indicated by the recent draft “SEMMMS Refresh” transport strategy document from Stockport Council. The document proposes the future widening of the road from two lanes to three lanes each way in its central section – the 1990s-built A555. A further widening of the junction with the A34 is also proposed.
The construction saga
Construction of the Airport Road began in March 2015 with the discovery of an abundance of protected great crested newts, apparently more than expected despite previous warnings by experts. Wet winters also caught the builders by surprise, as did the torrential rain of June 2016.
In April 2017 the completion target of autumn 2017 was put back to spring 2018. Reasons cited included delays caused by utility and rail companies, bad weather and unexpected ground conditions. It was revealed that large quantities of surplus soil had been produced, apparently because testing had failed to discover poor ground conditions before work started. Much of the surplus earth was subsequently recycled to build additional bunds (or earth ramparts) to shield local residents.
A further delay in completion was announced in February 2018 and a new date of late August 2018 was set. This seems to have slipped again.
Minutes of the road’s programme board were revealed early this year by Freedom of Information request. The minutes showed that as early as July 2017, the revised completion date of spring 2018 would not be met. Yet officials continued to give this date to the public, councillors and the Government’s Department for Transport, which was providing the money.
The minutes also showed that officers had been alerted to a structural failure in an elevated part of the 1990s-built A555. Remedial action was not taken for almost a year.
A third revelation from the programme board minutes concerned regularly issued tables of “top ten” risks. Surprisingly, weather and drainage were each only rated top ten risks once even after rain was starting to disrupt construction.
The kiss of Carillion
In January 2018 the most prominent construction partner Carillion was liquidated. The remaining construction partner Morgan Sindall was contractually obliged to complete the work.
Carillion had underbid on contracts, including for the Airport Road, causing its own bankruptcy and driving down civil engineering contract prices. The programme board minutes show a continuous battle between Carillion and Stockport Council’s officers over responsibility for the cost of extra work.
The cost implications of the delay in completion have not been made public, though the programme board minutes refer to “pain share” (between contractors and the councils). The Government had promised £270 million and Greater Manchester £20 million to cover the cost of the road, but before the start of construction, the estimated costing was slashed to around £230 million. Most of the rest of the £290 million seems to have remained available to cover risk of extra costs.
As the road approached its delayed completion, the issue of air quality resurfaced. An official Environmental Assessment published in 2013 had recorded 25 testing points in Stockport borough where pollution limits were already exceeded, not including Disley, East Cheshire. Some of these polluted locations, mainly on the A6 from Hazel Grove northwards, will receive less traffic and fumes when the Airport Road opens. However, at other locations pollution is likely to worsen.
The legal pollution limits were brushed aside in 2013, but this is no longer so easy for the Council to do following a national ruling by the Supreme Court. Stockport Council has still avoided saying the Airport Road will cause worse pollution but it has conceded that it is required to fix the air pollution on the A34 through Cheadle. It’s a mystery how this can be done when this stretch of busy road is about to receive an influx of vehicles from the Airport Road.
The opening of the Airport Road is not the end of this sorry story.