The leader of Norfolk County Council is facing calls to resign after critics claimed a Natural England (NE) report contradicted her account of the reasons for the impasse over the Western Link.

Kay Mason Billig had accused the organisation of "moving the goalposts", claiming it had changed the way it assessed whether the road project should go ahead.

In an extraordinary attack on the "unelected quango" she accused it of trying to "subvert the will of the people" after it indicated the presence of bats living along the proposed route meant it was unlikely to grant a licence for the work to proceed.

However, campaigners trying to block the project have accused her of "misleading" the public after they obtained Natural England documents, using the Freedom of Information Act, which they say undermines her claims.

Eastern Daily Press: An artist's impression of the Norwich Western LinkAn artist's impression of the Norwich Western Link (Image: Newsquest)

They argue the report shows that the council's own failings are to blame for the current uncertainty over the scheme, rather than changes from Natural England.

Eastern Daily Press: Green county councillor Jamie OsbornGreen county councillor Jamie Osborn (Image: Submitted)

Jamie Osborn, a Green county councillor and opponent of the road, said: "The council's leaders have knowingly misled the public, apparently because they couldn't bear to lose face over their failure and recklessness. Norfolk deserves an apology and the council's leaders should do the right thing and resign."

But Mrs Mason Billig insisted that NE had changed its guidelines and launched a new attack on the organisation.

READ MORE: Natural England hits back over Western Link criticism


The campaigners have obtained copies of Natural England's pre-planning application advice to the council over its chances of obtaining an environmental licence - which the authority needs to be able to disturb bats and build the 3.9-mile road, to connect the Northern Distributor Road to the A47 west of Norwich.

The report - which caused consternation when it arrived at County Hall in March and prompted Mrs Mason Billig's outburst - showed the authority was failing to satisfy the organisation's requirements in every category.

It has left the entire project hanging in the balance, with uncertainty over whether it can proceed.

The document highlights "errors" with the council's tree surveys on the proposed route and reveals roosts of soprano pipistrelles, common pipistrelles, brown long-eared bats, Natterer's bats, Daubenton bats and barbastelle bats would be destroyed or disturbed.

Eastern Daily Press: Barbastelle bats are on the road's routeBarbastelle bats are on the road's route (Image: C. Packman)

Natural England states the council has an "incomplete understanding of the use of the landscape by bats" and "issues with surveys" meant advisors had "reduced confidence" in what impact the road would have on bats.

They said: "Due to the vulnerable and sensitive nature of the barbastelle bat, Natural England has significant concerns over the ability to mitigate or compensate for the loss of barbastelle woodland roosting habitat over the short to medium term.

Eastern Daily Press: Norfolk County Council's County Hall headquartersNorfolk County Council's County Hall headquarters (Image: Mike Page)

"It is unclear how bats will behave in response to the presence of the proposed new road, and the risk of collision mortality is unquantified.

"Due to a lack of confidence in survey results and impact assessment, it is currently unclear whether a licence could be granted for the proposed scheme."

The document mentions Natural England's recently published definition of favourable conservation status, which stated barbastelle bats were not yet widespread enough in the UK to be granted such status. It would be easier for the council to gain a licence if that status was in place.

Eastern Daily Press: Woodland on the route of the Western LinkWoodland on the route of the Western Link (Image: Iain Robinson)


It was this detail that prompted Mrs Mason Billig's charge that the goalposts had been moved.

But campaigners said the documents showed Mrs Mason Billig had 'misled' the public.

Eastern Daily Press: David PettDavid Pett (Image: David Pett)

David Pett, from the Stop The Wensum Link campaign said: "The documents pull back the curtain on a distressing narrative starkly different from the one peddled by Mrs Mason Billig and her associates.

"These findings expose not just failures in essential environmental surveying efforts, particularly regarding the endangered barbastelle bats, but a profound incompetence threatening our invaluable wildlife and showcasing a disturbing prioritisation of development over the conservation of biodiversity.

"The attempt by Norfolk County Council to deflect blame onto Natural England, aiming to skew public perception, while sidestepping their own shortcomings, is unacceptable."


But Mrs Mason Billig remains bullish

Eastern Daily Press: Kay Mason BilligKay Mason Billig (Image: Norfolk County Council)

"Our application was made before the new guidelines from Natural England were issued and was done according to the previous guidance," she said.

"The new guidelines came out in March, before this response to us was issued. As I have stated, the new guidelines have moved the goalposts significantly, which is disappointing considering we were talking to them regularly about our application and have been for several years and were not aware this was about to happen.

"The response to our application is disappointing because it cites the new guidelines as a reason for not giving us a license. The new guidelines themselves rely heavily on modelling and state there is a lack of hard evidence relating to the bat population, yet their response criticises our own surveys for not having enough hard evidence.

"Natural England can’t produce the evidence relating to the bats yet they seemingly expect us to. It's really odd to criticise us for not doing something they haven’t been able to do themselves.

"We will continue to work with Natural England and hope to find mitigations which will enable them to issue the licence we need."

The council has lodged plans for the road with its own planning committee. Following a decision, Natural England would decide whether to grant a licence. Without one, the scheme could not go ahead in its current form.