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My speech about the Western Link Road

by Steff on 7 June, 2021

This afternoon, barely hours after the Tory cabinet met formally to approve its outline business case for building a road through the double-registered SSSI and Conservation Areas, Norfolk County Council met to ratify the decision. Here is my speech:

I do not accept the arguments made by the Tories today, top of them being the economic argument, which I believe is now sinking by the day as the costs continue to rise. 

The same unsubstantiated claims are made that more roads will bring more business when the only long term result of building more roads is… more traffic!

And I do not accept that the environmental mitigation measures are either significant nor sufficient.  In fact I believe there is increasing evidence that expert assessments are being suppressed, redacted or totally disregarded.

No, what I wish to speak on today is the risk this council takes going forwards with these recommendations in their current state. 

We have a responsibility to make the best use of every pound that is spent by this authority.

At this point in time, a number of the inputs into the business case – even on its own terms – are in flux.  My colleague Brian Watkins spoke of the impact of the pandemic on work patterns.  These are simply unknown and unknowable at this stage.

Several parts of the outline case have in fact been carried forward from documents that are up to three years out of date.  We sit here just hours after the cabinet meeting, without the opportunity for scrutiny, being asked to approve something that is based on hollow numbers, incomplete assessments and insufficient evidence that we can still count on the majority of the funding from the Department for Transport. 

No, councillors, the reason I am optimistic today is because I am increasingly confident that this road will not go ahead.

For a start, the numbers just don’t add up. £200m (and rising) cost, huge environmental desecration, and the “productivity gains” only even claimed to be £107m.

With £22m having been added to the Western Link bill last week surely, SURELY, some Tories are having second thoughts? Not to be would be proof of blind commitment whatever the cost.

The County Council’s obsession with building the Western Link – rushing the latest step of the decision through at all costs – seems to be designed to make it cost too much to cancel. This is hollow ideology and it is highly vulnerable to legal challenge.  And we know that the administration has prior form on this – having lost two judicial reviews that they persuaded themselves were watertight in the past year alone.

Despite all the passion on both sides of the road debate, it is impossible to escape the fact that one of the most striking things about this matter is the fact that this road might never get built.  

A lot of funding depends on the Department for Transport, who are reviewing their road funding programme as we speak.  So surely there is a plan B somewhere?

Even if it is funded, this application will inevitably lead to a detemination by the secretary of state – if not the appeals courts.

S175(c) of National Planning Policy Framework says “development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats (such as ancient woodland and ancient or veteran trees) should be refused, unless there are wholly exceptional reasons”?

WHOLLY EXCEPTIONAL

We do not know what the legal advice has been on this – but I can’t imagine it’s going to be put at the top of the press release.

It also says development on land within or outside a site of special scientific interest which is likely to have an adverse effect on it should not normally be permitted.

Mercifully, the national government has declared a climate emergency, the DFT is actively reviewing its roadbuilding programmne, and the East of England has already had more of its fair share of nationally strategic road projects.

For once, I really can sympathise with the leader for why he wants to rush this through. 

But it won’t make any difference. 

Sorry guys – you’ve missed the bus.  This road is just a concrete pipe dream.

We’re going to spend millions of pounds designing a scheme that – granted – a great many people in this room want to happen.  But that’s like paying an architect to draw up grand designs on a plot that you’ve had your eye on, but which stands almost no chance of gaining planning permission.

At least, take the time to get your arguments right – to see whether you think it will stand up to the requirements of the DFT – and avoid this council suffering yet another embarrassing defeat at great cost.  I urge you to reject this motion.

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