WILTSHIRE Council has been left with a £3 million bill after it was forced to walk away from a £75 million government-funded road scheme that would have reduced traffic in Chippenham.

In 2019 it was awarded the grant by Homes England, the government’s housebuilding arm, from its Housing Infrastructure Fund for a southern and eastern distributor road around the town to support new homes being built.

Then leader Cllr Phillip Whitehead said at the time: “This essential investment will help provide a sustainable network fit for the 21st century and enable growth both in employment and housing in Chippenham.”

But last year the council, now under the leadership of Cllr Richard Clewer, dropped plans to build to the east and abandoned the eastern link road, despite one section already being built and another due to start when homes go up at Rawlings Green. A new traffic study completed in October showed the southern road would make congestion worse.

Last week Homes England told the council it would not support a scheme that only included a southern road and the council was forced to withdraw from the agreement. It has already spent £12 million on consultation and planning, £9 million of which Homes England agreed to cover.

Now the council will have to find the remaining £3 million, which it says will be covered by the sale of farmland it owns to the south of Pewsham for housebuilding. But first it will borrow another £500,000 to work up its development plans for development for the land in the south.

Cllr Clewer said at a Cabinet meeting that in the face of the rejection it was better to walk away from the scheme rather than return to the original plan. He said the new roads would have cost more than the £75 million because of rising prices and that continuing would have exposed it financially. “It would place us under a strain that I am not comfortable placing the council in,” he said.

He was asked to apologise for wasting public money by Liberal Democrat leader Ian Thorn. “Here we have a local authority stepping into the world of development with little or no expertise, without the resources to do so, without the equipment to do the job,” he said.

“I do hope if you are not willing to apologise, will you accept that this isn’t an area, with the expertise and finance required, that the local authority should get into?”

Cllr Clewer said: “The work that has happened isn't wasted, it's work that is there that can be used as part of the southern section and we’re working with landowners there to bring that forward as a local plan allocation site.”

Responding to public questions from landowner Owen Inskip, Cllr Clewer denied the decision to drop plans to the east of the town was a political one to appease Conservative voters there. “Certainly this is not something that is being dealt with inside the realm of Conservative party politics,” he said.

Lowden and Rowden councillor Ross Henning said the council had “bit off more than it could chew” in taking on the scheme. “As somebody who has grown up and knows Chippenham, I know the only way to make it a better place is to puts its heart back and the way to do that is to take the traffic out of the town centre.”

He said he had always been in favour of an eastern road around the town for that reason and asked the Cllr Clewer: “When do you imagine that there will be some sort of relief road to the east of Chippenham?”

Cllr Clewer said would depend upon next year’s Local Plan Review.

After the meeting, Mr Inskip, a director of Chippenham Riverside which owns development land at New Leaze adjacent to Rawlings Green, said his lawyers had written to the council in October warning that if it removed the eastern road from its plans it risked losing the HIF funding and would end up wasting public money.

He added: “This is Conservative NIMBYism at its worst. In the face of powerful evidence to the contrary, not least the recent traffic modelling, I have repeatedly asked Cllr Clewer to explain why he believes developing to the south of Chippenham, supported by a Southern Link Road, is best for the town centre and the people of Chippenham.

“So far, he has refused to give a meaningful answer or even to consider the other reasonable alternative sites, despite the fact that one in particular, the east with an eastern link road, has many proven benefits in terms of connectivity with the town centre, sustainability and the alleviation of traffic congestion.”

The council’s vision of homes being built to the south of the town rather than the east will be tested at a Local Plan Review next year where it will have to convince an independent planning inspector its scheme makes better sense.