Making your voice heard

AFTER months of following two stories of local communities fighting damaging proposals by major national bodies, and against apparently insuperable odds, it was, predictably, sods law that decisions on both came in while we were away.

But the trifling disappointment of not being here when the news came through is thoroughly outweighed by the surprise delight in seeing well-run, well-thought-out and reasoned campaigns win the day.

The two proposals were for part of the reorganisation of health services in Dorset and the controversial Stonehenge tunnel and dualling of the A303 between Amesbury and Berwick Down in Wiltshire.

The Dorset Clinical Commissioning Group had proposed closing the beds at Shaftesbury’s Westminster Memorial Hospital – in other words, closing the hospital, which historically is owned by the people of Shaftesbury, and has a wonderful location on Park Walk with views across the Blackmore Vale.

Highways England is consulting on plans for a tunnel to take the A303 away from Stonehenge, and to reduce the truly terrible congestion on the road from Amesbury’s Countess roundabout to the dual carriageway west of Winterbourne Stoke.

The issue of the tunnel is, of course, hugely contentious, but for local people the route of the Winterbourne Stoke bypass was also a very significant concern. The village is usually completely jammed with traffic for hours on end from around Easter through to the autumn, on Fridays, weekends and in high summer on any or every day. It has been estimated that at these times a journey that should take around 10 minutes regularly takes more than an hour. All those of us who use the A303 know and dread this stretch of the road.

Frustrated motorists find alternatives and Shrewton, Larkhill and Durrington, all north of the A303, have become rat-runs during the busy months. The southern alternative involves a degree of forward planning – via Salisbury on to the A30, the old Roman road, to Stockbridge, rejoining the A303 near Andover. (There are some, particularly businessess in Salisbury, who favour a southern re-routing for the whole road, but the cost and increased distance and driving time make this a most unlikely proposition).

Villagers at Berwick St James and many in Winterbourne Stoke itself favoured a northern route for the bypass, in order to preserve the Southern Till valley, which is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

The campaign focused on the wildlife and landscape value of the Southern Till valley, and balanced the archaeological issues with the needs of the community, not only of Berwick St James but of the wider area. “There has to be a balance between the dead and the living,” says the campaign spokesperson Carolyn MacDougall.

The “Save our Beds” campaign at Shaftesbury was not just a simple sentimental matter of fighting to keep a much-loved local hospital, although that was part of it. It was a much broader campaign about proper communication and consultation – people in south Wiltshire communities including Mere also use the Shaftesbury hospital – and the overarching problems of the loss of rural services in general and the inadequacy of local public transport.

The proposed alternative of hospital beds at Sherborne or Blandford would have meant serious difficulties for non-drivers. It is estimated that it takes four hours to get from Shaftesbury to Sherborne by public transport! Impossible in those circumstances for a non-driver to visit a spouse/partner/relative or friend in hospital. Of course, there are volunteer driver schemes and kind friends and neighbours but that is not actually a satisfactory answer.

Shaftesbury provides important and valued respite and post-operative care for patients in the busy Salisbury general hospital, freeing up beds from what is so rudely known as “bed-blocking.”

After a really well-executed programme of serious objections to the plans, there was justifiable delight and relief in the Shaftesbury-Gillingham-Mere area when the CCG announced that it would not now be making Shaftesbury a “hub without beds”.

Instead, both sides – CCG and campaigners – will be working together to find a sustainable solution to healthcare provision in North Dorset and South Wiltshire. The first step will be to set up a working group, which will identify all the stakeholders (in both counties) who should be involved in the process.

In the A303 villages, there is relief that Highways England has taken account of the feedback from its public consultations earlier this year and has identified the northern alignment as the preferred route for the Winterborne Stoke bypass. Not everyone is happy, of course, but generally the decision has been welcomed. Carolyn MacDougall says: “No route was ever going to be without damage but we feel it is the one with least damage.”

The Stonehenge Alliance, with high profile members including Tony Robinson. Tom Holland and Dan Snow, argue that any route crossing the World Heritage Site is damaging but their views are not shared by English and English Heritage, who manage Stonehenge and the surrounding ritual landscape, nor by other historians and archaeologists. And there are some who can’t see why anything is needed (beyond possibly dualling the existing road). Carolyn MacDougall comments wryly that “those who argue that nothing should be done, do not, I dare say, have to navigate the A303 on a regular basis.”

It is all too easy, born out of bitter experience, to believe that no battle is winnable against a huge public organisation, but the successful campaigns to Save our Beds at Shaftesbury and to preserve the Southern Till valley have shown that if you have a really strong case, backed up with convincing, demonstrably practical facts rather than opinions, you may win the argument.

It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it is a shot in the arm for those who still believe in people power.

Fanny Charles