Backlash as single vote secures consent for A7 realignment

the radical realignment of the main A7 road near Heriot to accommodate the Borders railway was approved by four votes to three on Monday by Scottish Borders Council’s planning committee, provoking sharp recriminations.

Opponents of the Transport Scotland scheme at Falahill, which involves the erection of two roundabouts linked east to west over the old track bed, rounded on those who supported for the proposal.

One of the fiercest critics was Councillor Sandy Aitchison (Borders Party) who lives in Stow but is not a member of the committee.

“The result of this cost-driven decision is to lumber our council with two large roundabouts, perhaps each 60 metres in diameter, complete with lights and signs and requiring landscaping and verge clearance,” said Mr Aitchison, who had watched the hour-long debate at Newtown from the public benches.

He had seen Kelso councillor Tom Weatherston and Coldstream’s Donald Moffat propose and second respectively a motion urging approval of the application, in line with the recommendation of local planning officers, but despite 37 objections.

Mr Weatherston admitted he had been swayed by the comments of SBC’s assistant road user manager Derek Ingles who supported the scheme on balance, subject to two new conditions. “We employ roads experts to advise us… we should take that advice,” said Mr Weatherston.

But after the vote, Mr Aitchison blasted: “The motion to accept this flawed, cost-cutting plans was proposed by a Kelso councillor and seconded by one from Berwickshire – not exactly regular users of the A7.”

Earlier, senior planning officer John Hayward said the wider benefits of the scheme – one of nine that Transport Scotland had apparently considered – would have to be weighed against the local impact.

While accepting the roundabouts would “introduce an urban element into a rural setting”, Mr Hayward felt the landscape implications were neutral.

And Mr Ingles stated: “I cannot say the two roundabouts will be less safe, so I am able to offer my approval.”

Councillor Jim Hume, who moved for refusal, bemoaned the lack of consultation with either Heriot Community or, particularly, the A7 Action Group.

“This is one of the main arterial routes in and out of the Borders, with 5,000 vehicle movements a day, and my main concern is road safety caused by roundabouts which will slow traffic,” he said. “I also cannot imagine how heavy lorries in snow will be able to pull away from the eastern roundabout up the hill towards the highest point on the A7. It is just not on to have two illuminated roundabouts so far from an urban setting and I do not accept that refusing this scheme will delay the delivery of the railway.”

In the end, chairman John Houston (Hawick) and Carolyn Riddell-Carre (Selkirkshire) supported the motion to approve, on the explicit condition that the sizes of the roundabouts are increased to improve traffic flow and sightlines and that overtaking lanes are extended to 250 metres.

Graham Allison, who represented Heriot Community Council on the public benches, told us: “Until now, I did not believe political futures took precedence over public safety. I can only assume that the first serious accident at Falahill will trigger mass resignations at all political levels and within government agencies.

“It cannot be right for an act of the Scottish Parliament to be changed by a local planning decision, but that is what has happened here and that is what gives everyone who knows this is not the best option some hope that it will never come to pass.”

Mr Aitchison’s grim demeanour was in stark contrast to the two residents of Falahill Cottages whose smiles indicated they welcomed the decision.

“The safety and convenience of many has been forfeited for the cheapest option and the desperate need for Transport Scotland to reduce the cost of this unloved project,” said Mr Aitchison.

A Transport Scotland spokesperson said on Tuesday: “Transport Scotland welcomes the planning committee’s decision regarding Falahill and will review its full decision in detail when we receive it.

“The proposed road and rail layout at Falahill will deliver benefits for the local residents and A7 road users as well as providing value for money for the public purse.”