A NEW £22 million road aimed at cutting Taunton’s traffic congestion is now open.

There was no official ceremony for the Northern Inner Distributor Road, which was 27 months late and several million pounds over budget.

At 1pm on Tuesday, workmen at either end of the mile-long carriageway simply picked up road closed signs, piled them on to the back of their vans and drove off.

There was a trickle of vehicles over the ensuing hours as people realised the link from Staplegrove Road’s junction with Chip Lane to Priory Avenue was finally operational.

The road will help unlock development land on the former Firepool cattle market, where there are plans for shops, offices, flats and leisure facilities.

Ahead of the opening, the council conducted checks on the NIDR once it was handed over by contractor Carillion, which is now in dispute with the authority over the final bill.

Cllr John Woodman, County Hall cabinet member for highways, said: “This is a key project for Taunton that will unlock the Firepool site for development and help ease congestion across the town.

“The economic and travel time benefits are important for all of us and I hope the town’s motorists will find a real improvement.

“The delays have been frustrating but I’m pleased to share the long-awaited news that the road is now open.”

Mr Woodman said there will be minor defects to be resolved by the contractor over the next month.

The new junctions will be monitored and traffic light timings optimised to ensure maximum efficiency.

He added: “Our priority was to open the road as soon as we possibly could, so there are still some minor finishing works to complete.

“All new roads and junctions take a bit of getting used to, so approach with extra care for the first few weeks while traffic flows settle down.”

Somerset County Council is in dispute with Carillion - the firm missed several dates it agreed on for completing the scheme and the local authority wants compensating.

There has been widespread anger that the county refuses to reveal the reasons for the delays - an inner circle of councillors in the know had to sign a gagging order.

Mr Woodman said: “We know people still have a lot of questions, but while we remain in dispute we have to do what’s best for the taxpayer.

"That means not commenting on contractual or commercial matters at this time. 

“I share the public’s frustrations. We’ve done everything we can to get the road open and we’ll continue to pursue the contractor for damages.”

Somerset County Gazette:

The NIDR, which will ease congestion on Greenway Road, Priorswood Road and in the town centre, includes:

  • construction of the Firepool Bridge over the River Tone and Bridgwater to Taunton Canal;
  • replacement of Kingston Loop Bridge over Station Road and 40 Steps footbridge at Chip Lane;
  • construction of a 1.6km road and the realignment of 150 metres of carriageway;
  • a new junction at Chip Lane/Staplegrove Road;
  • improvements to the Priory Bridge Road/Priory Avenue/Priory Park junction;
  • pedestrian and cycle facilities.

The first motorist on the NIDR at the Staplegrove Road end, county councillor John Hunt, said: “It was a bit of an anti-climax, with workers removing bollards and then people just driving on to the road.

“I’m relieved it’s open, but the whole thing’s absurd.

“It was more than two years late and several million pounds over budget. Hopefully, the council can claw the money back.

“I hope the road does make a difference, but some people are worried it could create congestion at both ends.”

At the other end, the queue of road users was led by cyclist Jonathan Scadden and Cycle Somerset colleagues.

He said: “We’re excited to be the first people to use the road.

“But we want to know why they spent so much and didn’t insist on encouraging more environmentally friendly forms of transport.

“We’re also going to investigate concerns about the station entrance where the provision for cyclists isn’t ideal.”

Cllr Mike Rigby, opposition transport spokesman, said: “I’m pleased the road is open, but people don’t understand why it’s so late.

“The council seems to have had little control and is taking the line that the contractor is incompetent - we need to see the details of that claim.

"It’s all part of a continuous display of the council’s inability to manage large contracts.”

What does this mean for Firepool?

THIS week’s opening of the NIDR is a welcome boost for Taunton Deane Borough Council after months of frustration at delays in completing the project.

The local authority is hoping the new road will kickstart work to develop the derelict former cattle market at Firepool, off Priory Bridge Road, in Taunton.

A second planning application has been submitted by the authority’s development partner St Modwen for shops, offices, homes and leisure facilities beside the River Tone.

A previous application was rejected by highly critical councillors and St Modwen has now come back with revised proposals which are due to be discussed by planners this summer.

Somerset County Gazette:

The NIDR is seen as vitally important to opening up the prime site and to attract major occupiers to the multi-million pound development once it gets planning permission and is built.

Cllr John Williams, council leader at the Deane House, said: “The NIDR is a major new thoroughfare for the town and a crucial piece of infrastructure for Firepool that unlocks its potential as a leading strategic development enhanced by existing strong links from the motorway and the railway station.

“As well as the obvious benefit to motorists, the NIDR will also improve the town centre environment in harmony with our plans to put the River Tone back at the heart of the town, linking development at Firepool to the Coal Orchard and our proposed public realm enhancement of the town centre, reflecting our garden town status by striking a balance between retaining our character and our growth aspirations.”

Problems for Carillion

THE opening of the NIDR was of little cheer to Carillion as it faced up to a disastrous week, with millions of pounds wiped off the value of its shares on Monday.

Chief executive Richard Howson stepped down and the company suspended its dividend payments as the share price plummeted almost 40 per cent to its lowest level in more than 14 years.

The bad news follows weaker profits, higher debts, the need for restructuring, limited proceeds from disposals and working capital unwind in construction.

The company will no doubt now be bracing itself for a legal battle with Somerset County Council over the final NIDR bill.

COMMENT: NIDR is good news for us all

RELIEF road is probably the right way to describe a new mile-long stretch of Tarmac unveiled to the public this week.

It is meant to offer relief to Taunton’s long-suffering commuters, who are frequently stuck in traffic snarl-ups. Of course it remains to be seen how successful it is in that aim.

But the NIDR certainly brought relief to transport and highways boffins at County Hall.

The ongoing saga of ‘will it ever open?’ has finally ended.

Somerset County Council may well claim it is not to blame for the project being delivered 27 months late.

But it’s all been one big embarrassment for the authority, which must surely come clean sooner rather than later about the reasons for the delays.

Which brings us to the contractor, Carillion, whose bosses must have sighed with relief when the first vehicles spluttered along the road at lunchtime on Tuesday.

They must feel some sort of weight off their shoulders, although they’ve got a sizeable financial burden to deal with after a shocking Stock Market performance.

They must be delighted to be able to pack up and leave Taunton after all the flak directed at them from just about every quarter of the county town.

Presumably, the firm will dispute County Hall’s compensation demands and send the message, ‘see you in court’.

Relief will also be felt at Taunton Deane Borough Council, where the ruling Conservatives are keen to kick on with their plans to redevelop Taunton.

The NIDR will offer a route into Firepool, where there are ambitious plans for shops, offices, flats and leisure facilities such as a cinema, cafes and restaurants.

And there will be relief at companies eyeing up the chance of setting up in business at a potentially beautiful riverside site.

And last and least, there will be relief for me as a reporter.

I must have written more column inches on the NIDR than any other issue during more years than I care to recall working on the County Gazette.

It is certainly one of the more negative stories I have covered and I look forward to charting tales of contented motorists, fewer traffic jams and a booming local economy - or is that being over-optimistic?