February 26, 2024

As cars and trucks slog endlessly along the A30 Cornwall – the province’s infamous trunk road – the words of the angry driver in John Betjeman’s poem, Meditation On The A30, seem appropriate: “I can’t keep crawling like this!”

Such frustrations are particularly acute in summer when tourists compete with hauliers, tractors and locals for space on the tarmac, many of them heading to the coastal hotspots of Perranporth and St Ives. But those days may soon be over.

A £330m roadworks scheme is nearing completion, with National Highways creating an 8.7-mile stretch of dual carriageway between Carland Cross and Chiverton, parallel to the existing A30, bringing the promise of prosperity for the local economy, as well as fears for the environment in a time of global warming.

Traffic on a new section of the A30 dual carriageway
Traffic on a new section of the A30 dual carriageway, which has been partially opened. Photo: Jonny Weeks/The Observer

“For decades this section of road has been a bottleneck as it is the last stretch of single track between Birmingham and Camborne,” said Nick Simmonds-Screech, project director at National Highways. “We hope to dramatically reduce travel times and create safer end-to-end journeys, while removing the province’s worst accident black spot [the Chiverton roundabout].”

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He describes the upgrade scheme, which received £20m from the European Regional Development Fund but is otherwise funded by central government, as a “legacy project”. Estimates suggest it could boost the local economy by up to £750 million over 60 years, with the tourism industry a major beneficiary.

Josh Taylor, general manager of Surf Bay Holidays, which owns holiday parks near Perranporth and Penzance, says the scheme will open up Cornwall.

“The past few years [during construction] was pretty awful, but it’s going to be fantastic when it’s done,” he says. “It will be less of a hassle to get down here and visitors will find it quicker to get to attractions such as the Eden Project, Land’s End and the Minack Theatre. I hope there will be a trickle down effect in the years to come as people tell their friends how easy and fun it is to holiday in Cornwall.”

Malcolm Bell, executive chairman of Visit Cornwall, agrees. “The Cornish tourism economy is worth £2 billion annually so if it helps even by 1%, that’s great,” he says. “The one thing we always know in tourism is that it’s not the length of the trip that matters most to people, it’s the reliability. We should celebrate improved connectivity.”

Holidaymakers enjoy warm weather at Perranporth Beach in summer 2020.
Holidaymakers enjoy warm weather at Perranporth Beach in summer 2020. Photo: Jonny Weeks/The Observer

However, not everyone is celebrating. Organic farmer Peter Mewton is one of many local residents enduring compulsory land purchase; he lost four hectares (10 acres), a tenth of his farm, and says it caused deep unrest.

“I see it as a destruction project, not a construction project,” he says. “They needlessly felled hundreds of mature trees, and the destruction of the soil science and the mycorrhiza is just phenomenal. It may sound precious, but it affects me mentally and spiritually. I created this farm and what they did is an insult to me.

“I have long expected a new dual carriageway and I reluctantly accept the need for improvement, but why couldn’t they just widen the existing A30?”

Peter Mewton looking out over what used to be his farmland.
Peter Mewton looking out over what used to be his farmland. Photo: Jonny Weeks/The Observer

After discovering that many of the fields surrounding Mewton’s farm have historical names, such as Jose’s Meadow and Shop Meadow, Mewton’s friend Lucy Trinder created a protest group called These Fields Have Names.

“There are stories and memories with every field that go back generations, you can’t just eradicate them,” she says. “We are faced with climate collapse and societal collapse. We need to stop road building and invest in public transport instead. If you build more roads, you only encourage more traffic.”

Local resident Dave Roberts has an opposing view, saying: “I think it’s bloody brilliant. During the summer holidays you would normally see heavy traffic for 10 hours a day and smog descending – it was an environmental catastrophe. In the future, the traffic will flow so that the cars will emit less pollution, and most of them will be electric in 10 years anyway.”

Mark Overend, a resident of Marazanvose whose property has increased in value despite being close to the new road.
Mark Overend, a resident of Marazanvose whose property has increased in value despite being close to the new road. Photo: Jonny Weeks/The Observer

Marazanvose resident Mark Overend is also pleased despite the development being close to his home. “We bought our house in 1991 knowing there were plans to redevelop the A30, but we didn’t know where it would end up,” he says.

“They are building the new road about 50 meters in front of our house, but they have dug it up so that it is out of sight. We were told that our property had actually increased in value by £50,000 [following the roadworks]. Our only concern is whether the council agrees to reduce speeds on the ‘old’ A30 to slow down local traffic.”

Traditional 'Cornish hedge' roadside construction, using a method dating back to the Neolithic period.  The fences should boost biodiversity.
Traditional ‘Cornish hedge’ roadside construction, using a method dating back to the Neolithic period. The fences should boost biodiversity. Photo: Jonny Weeks/The Observer

The landscape looks deeply scarred by the construction. National Highways estimates that 6.72 hectares (16.6 acres) of trees have been cut, while 11.18 hectares (27.6 acres) are being planted. Simmonds-Screech proudly talks about implementing a number of measures to protect the environment. These include a so-called “green bridge”, which will allow wildlife to cross safely from one side of the road to the other – only the third such bridge in the UK – as well as a number of animal-sized tunnels for species such as e.g. such as deer and beavers. Elsewhere, local clay mine waste was used as aggregate during construction.

Mewton dismisses this as mere “greenwashing”, but Simmonds-Screech says: “Our biodiversity net gain is currently around 20% and this could rise as we build miles of traditional Cornish hedgerows which are ideal for wildlife.”

Nick Simmonds-Screech, A30 Project Director at National Highways.
Nick Simmonds-Screech, A30 Project Director at National Highways. Photo: Jonny Weeks/The Observer

Originally scheduled for completion this winter, the dual carriageway will not be in full flow until March 2024 at the earliest. Meanwhile, drivers have to keep crawling.

“There was a rather important world event [the pandemic] happened when we started, and in the last few months we’ve had severe storms and an earthquake,” says Simmonds-Screech. “We’re delivering a very complex infrastructure program, so I think people understand that there has to be some short-term pain for really significant long-term gain.”

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