By Andrew Guy - 15th October 2020
For over a year, citizens have been concerned about plans to build a flyover, that will cause environmental issues and cause more problems than it will solve for road safety, have meticulously dissected council documents and questioned councilors to only be met with smokescreens and silence.
But finally, South Tyneside Council for the first time has released their intended plans to the public. Two options are on the table, full level crossing barriers that will replace the current 'half' barriers, or construct a £15 million bridge over the Network Rail owned line between Newcastle and Sunderland at Tilesheds and Boldon Lane level crossings.
South Tyneside Council has stated that the current setup poses road safety concerns and therefore Network Rail will be installing full level crossing barriers by 2024 after abuse of the current level crossings by drivers, leading to several major accidents over the years. Who is going to pay? Unfortunately, not the partially privatised Network Rail.
The money is coming from the Transforming Cities Fund, with citizens of South Tyneside expected to foot the cost on any shortfall. The scheme is expected to cost around £15 million and will be completed by 2024.
South Tyneside Council has released videos of expected traffic flows once these full barriers have been installed. The predictions are concerning, showing traffic queued for over a mile. Hardly anyone's idea of a pleasant commute. But questions have been raised surrounding the validity of these models. Network Rail's plans should not increase traffic or waiting times, in fact, due to the more intelligent nature of Full Barrier Crossings, it should improve the current congestion.
So why are local environment campaigners concerned? The location of this bridge and supporting infrastructure runs through a wildlife corridor, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and is home to great crested newts. For a council that committed to a Climate Emergency last year, this is rather insulting.
Secondly, the current traffic levels are reasonable compared to other roads in South Tyneside, full barriers simply stop people meandering around the barriers when the crossing is closed so would not impact traffic levels at all, but environment campaigners are concerned that this bridge will facilitate the building of an additional 1441 homes on green belt land.
Another point campaigners raise is around the planning process. Once all the impact studies have been done, it's the planning committee that will decide if the scheme goes ahead. The people behind this scheme are the North East Combined Authority (NECA). South Tyneside Councils' Leader is Iain Malcolm, who just so happens to be the chair of NECA, and 16 members make up the planning committee and 14 of them are in the same political party as our Leader. A valid point is raised if these are the right people to give the go-ahead.
South Tyneside Council has acknowledged the flyover will be built on an SSSI and the loss of trees and headgerows is "inevitable", but this will be "mitigated". Traffic is expected to increase for Whiteleas & Boldon residents when the psychological barriers of the level crossings are removed. Is £15 million of your taxpayers' money better spent elsewhere in the Borough or are these projected traffic flows concerning enough? Residents seem to think that this vast amount of money is better spent elsewhere.
A petition launched by a group of concerned locals has attracted over 2000 signatures. Residents are concerned about the true intended purposes of this project, the destruction of large swathes of our green belt, increased road traffic, and the costs. NECA has still not fully opened the pedestrian tunnel. Closed in 2011 for refurbishment and it's still not open 24hrs a day and is 3 times over budget. Cyclists are not even able to use the tunnel or the night shuttle service during the nighttime and are told to simply make "other arrangements".
South Tyneside Council is asking for feedback on the proposed scheme before the detailed design phase is started.