The man who built his own toll roadComment on this story
Kelston, Somerset - Faced with months of roadworks and a 22km diversion around a busy commuter route, most of us would simply resign ourselves to an earlier start to the working day.
But English businessman Mike Watts had different ideas. After experiencing the upheaval caused by a road closure in Somerset, he rented a nearby field - and became the first private individual in Britain to build a toll road in more than a century.
Watts spent £150 000 (R2.7 million) building the unofficial road next to the A431, where a small section had been cordoned off after a landslide – leaving thousands with a 22km detour through country lanes.
The new route, which has not yet received planning permission, opened on Friday 1 August and bypasses the closed section of road. Now for a payment of £2 (R36) each way, motorists can avoid driving the hour-long detour and instead travel 400 metres along freshly laid tarmac.
Speaking next to his road in Kelston, Somerset, Watts said: “I’ve had a 100 percent positive response from the public on this. Too many people are displaced by the road closure.
“Their daily lives have been so disrupted. I think people are very grateful that we’ve taken the risk. It’s not easy to build your own toll road, but we got there in the end.’
The A431 between Bristol and Bath was closed in February after a landslide caused cracks to appear in the road.
Businesses in the area soon began to suffer - including the cafe and party supplies shop Watts runs with his wife Wendy in Bath.
“It used to just be a very quick drive for us to Bath, but we were having to do a 22km detour which was taking up to an hour down tiny lanes just not designed to take the traffic,” Watts explained.
JUST 10 DAYS
He asked landowner John Dinham for permission to rent the field until Christmas and hired three workmen to build the road in just 10 days.
The bill came to £150 000 (R2.7 million), but Watts says the road will cost him a further £150 000 in upkeep costs, including the salaries of two 24 hour-a-day toll booth operators.
However he’s confident he will recoup his investment before the council’s road opens in December.
“We’ve got to reach £300 000 (R5.4 million) - that works out at 30 000 cars between now and Christmas - just to break even,” he said, adding: “If we cover our costs we’ll be very happy indeed.”
Watts has now applied for retrospective permission for the seven metre-wide road.
He has also taken out public liability insurance and officers from Bath and North East Somerset Council and the Health and Safety Executive have inspected the site to make sure it is on stable ground.
Local mother of two Laura Fenton, 28, said she was delighted with the road, adding: “It was difficult getting kids around. If I wanted to take them to a doctor’s appointment in Bath it was a huge detour. I think what Mike and the farmer have done is brilliant. It has already helped a lot of people and I can see us using it a lot.”
But a council spokesman said: “While we appreciate the difficulties residents have experienced, it’s not just the planning, it’s the safety and legal aspect of drivers using the road.” He added: “Work has started to deliver a solution as quickly as possible.”