Norfolk caught in bitter battle over bats

26/03/2024
Chris Ames

A council leader has launched a bitter attack on Natural England after the environment watchdog effectively blocked a £274m road scheme due to its impact on bats.

At a meeting of Norfolk County Council on Tuesday, Conservative Kay Mason Billig accused the ‘unelected quango’ of ‘moving the goal posts to such an extent that they will make it almost impossible for us to be granted a licence’ for its Norwich Western Link.

She added: ‘Our officers have checked and double checked the guidance and we have taken legal advice on our position. The truth is that without that licence, we cannot build the road.’

Cllr Mason Billig said the council had been awaiting a statement from Natural England by the end of February but that it contacted the council to say that ‘due to a lack of resources’ it could not respond before 15 March.

However, on 8 March Natural England published guidance that barbastelle bats, which would be disturbed by the scheme, do not have favourable conservation status - meaning that they are not seen to be thriving and should not be disturbed.

Cllr Mason Billig said: ‘Call me cynical if you will, but the timing of this stinks,’ adding that the new advice ‘threatens to block any infrastructure scheme in the whole of central and southern England and Wales’.

She added: ‘The cabinet and I have met and we are agreed. We will not sit by and let this project be derailed without a fight. We will be submitting our planning application and we will be challenging this attempt to subvert the will of the people and their elected representatives by every means at our disposal.’

The 3.8-mile Norwich Western Link would form a new ring road around the city, connecting the Broadland Northway (previously the Norwich Northern Distributor Road), which went significantly over budget.

In October the council said it had received approval from the Department for Transport for its Outline Business Case and the department had committed to pay £213m (85%) towards the £251m cost of the project, ‘with the potential for the government contribution to be uplifted to cover even more of the costs’.

The following month the council said the cost had risen to £274m and the scheme would open three years late. At that point, construction was due to begin in the summer of 2026, with the road opening in 2029.

Steve Morphew, leader of the council’s Labour group, said: ‘This has been floundering and stumbling from crisis to crisis.

‘The arrogance with which the Conservatives have been pushing this through without taking proper notice of the environmental and financial implications meant they have repeatedly failed to anticipate problems despite our efforts.

‘It really is time to ditch the Western Link and look for less damaging, less costly and speedier solutions.’

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