Pressure is mounting on council leaders to explore a potential 'plan B' for if the £274m Norwich Western Link plan is blocked because of bats.

Conservative leaders at Norfolk County Council fear the 3.9-mile road is in danger of not securing an environmental licence because of guidance from government advisors.

And critics of the road, which would connect the Norwich Northern Distributor Road to the A47 west of Norwich, said the authority needs to start planning for the possibility it might have to go back to square one.

Eastern Daily Press: A visualisation of how the Norwich Western Link would lookA visualisation of how the Norwich Western Link would look (Image: Norfolk County Council)

Council leaders say guidance from Natural England, on whether barbastelle bats - known to roost in the woodland where the road would be built - threaten the scheme, which includes a viaduct over the River Wensum.

The guidance is Natural England's view on whether barbastelle bats have "favourable conservation status" - the minimum threshold at which the species is thriving in England and is expected to continue to thrive.

Eastern Daily Press: Barbastelle bats roost on the route of the Norwich Western LinkBarbastelle bats roost on the route of the Norwich Western Link (Image: C. Packman)

Barbastelle bats are protected by law and a special licence is needed from Natural England to do anything which might disturb or harm them.

Natural England says there are not enough bats nationally to grant favourable conservation status and states there is "no known mitigation or compensation" for loss of barbastelle roosting habitat in the short to medium term.

County Hall officers, who previously altered the route of the road because of the presence of bats, believe the new guidance means they will not be granted an environmental licence.

Eastern Daily Press: An artist's visualisation of the Norwich Western LinkAn artist's visualisation of the Norwich Western Link (Image: Norfolk County Council)

James Marshall, Natural England area manager, said: "As the government’s advisers on the natural environment, our role is to ensure our environment is conserved, enhanced and managed for the benefit of people and wildlife.

"We recognise the strategic importance of this road project to the council and local area, which is why we’ve been working closely with Norfolk County Council.

"The advice we have provided is preliminary only on the council’s draft licence application and there has been no change in the process by which Natural England assesses information concerning a licence. 

“The area is well known as being of high sensitivity for bats, with two barbastelle maternity colonies that will be directly affected by the scheme.

Eastern Daily Press: The road would connect the Norwich Northern Distributor Road to the A47 west of NorwichThe road would connect the Norwich Northern Distributor Road to the A47 west of Norwich (Image: Denise Bradley)

"As the developer of the proposed Norwich Western Link, the council will need to demonstrate there is no satisfactory alternative to the scheme and that the conservation status of the bats would not be negatively affected by the road."

Eastern Daily Press: Steve Morphew, leader of the Labour group at Norfolk County CouncilSteve Morphew, leader of the Labour group at Norfolk County Council (Image: Denise Bradley)

Some £47m has already been spent on the scheme, but Steve Morphew, leader of the Labour group at Norfolk County Council, said it is clear the council needs to come up with a Plan B for if it does not go ahead.

He said: "Conservatives at County Hall repeatedly dismissed Labour calls for a plan B to tackle rat running and contingency fund against the cost of failure.

"If county Tories expect the government to stump up public money, our hard-earned cash, to cover £47m already spent, they and we want something for it.

"That is plan B - a package of measures such as weight limits, access restrictions, improved public transport and other traffic management to reduce and divert excess traffic blighting communities west of Norwich.

"Those were listed in the original options appraisal but not assessed or implemented. To get a solution and value for at least some of our money, the options appraisal process must be reopened, the business case reviewed and resubmitted without the Western Link, its costs and environmental damage."

At Tuesday's full council meeting, where council leader Kay Mason Billig railed against Natural England's guidance as "subverting the will of the people", Graham Plant, the council's cabinet member for highways, infrastructure and transport, said there was no plan B.

Eastern Daily Press: Andrew JamiesonAndrew Jamieson (Image: Norfolk County Council)

Andrew Jamieson, the council's deputy leader, said he hopes pressure on the government, including from MPs, will increase the likelihood that the road will secure an environmental licence.

On the prospects of a plan B, he said: "We would obviously have to look at alternatives if we reached that sorry state of not getting a licence.

"But doing so would take years, with the prospect of more delays and cost increases."