Ancient trees facing chop on Western Link 'irreplaceable', say critics
- Credit: DENISE BRADLEY/Archant2021
Owners of woodland which would be chopped down to make way for the £198m Norwich Western Link say no amount of planting would compensate for the loss of ancient trees.
Norfolk County Council this week revealed the estimated cost of the 3.9-mile road, which would link the Northern Distributor Road to the A47 to the west of the city, has gone up by £45m.
The outline business case for the road, which council leaders hope will convince the government to pump £168m into the scheme, includes an extra £22m to mitigate for the environmental impact.
Council leaders say that shows they are taking that impact, including on barbastelle bats, seriously.
But owners of woodland close to Ringland, on the route of the road, say no amount of mitigation would make up for what would be lost.
Reports by the council's contractors acknowledge 12 trees which are categorised as ancient or veteran - hundreds of years old - could be among those felled to make way for the road.
Iain Robinson, a lecturer in creative writing and literature at the University of East Anglia, bought three acres of woodland near Ringland in 2015.
He says ancient oaks, including those on his land, can be home to thousands of species, including insects and barbastelle bats.
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He said: "Some of these trees were planted hundreds of years ago, by people who had never seen a car.
"It feels like the council has a very short-term aim with this, yet these trees are of huge benefit.
"More than 2,000 species can be supported in an ancient oak - such as insects, moss, lichen and, in loose bark, barbastelle bats.
"They host all this life and they also act as a carbon sink. Chopping them down and planting saplings is not going to be sufficient to replace them."
Independent bat experts, Wild Wings Ecology, say surveys have identified the presence of a barbastelle bat ‘super-colony’ in the area.
The council has said it will spend an extra £22m on environmental mitigation measures - including more green bridges and bat underpasses.
But Mr Robinson said nothing would make up for the loss of irreplaceable trees.
And he said the council's own submission shows the loss of ancient trees and woodland, as per Defra guidance, is not used in calculating biodiversity units.
Mr Robinson said that meant the council's claims the project will result in a net gain for biodiversity was misleading.
He said: "I see myself as a caretaker for this woodland - woodland which has been maintained for generations.
"This road, if it is built, might last for 60 to 100 years, but if you let those trees continue to grow, they could be here for hundreds more than that."
Should the government grant funding and permission for the road be secured, Norfolk County Council would borrow up to £30m to add to the £168m from Whitehall.
Martin Wilby, the county council's cabinet member for highways and infrastructure at Norfolk County Council, said: "The Norwich Western Link route avoids impacts on ancient woodland but it is the case that some trees will need to be removed.
"The exact number of trees hasn’t been determined yet as, along with our contractor, we will try to limit the impact on trees where possible.
"Ecologists working on the project are developing our environmental mitigation and improvement proposals which will take account of any trees that will be impacted and will incorporate improving and creating wildlife habitats, including woodland, across a wide area to the west of Norwich.”
And Andrew Proctor, leader of Norfolk County Council, said the potential level of government investment should not be taken lightly.
He said: "That would be a massive injection of money into Norfolk and a big vote of confidence in the county. £168m is no small amount.
"This is all about better connectivity. If people can get around more quickly, that helps everybody.
"When businesses look at where they will invest, they do look at how easy it is to get around, so this would be a big boost from that point of view."
Mr Proctor said the extra mitigation money showed the council had listened to the concerns raised by the likes of Norfolk Wildlife Trust, The Norfolk Rivers Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England.
But Norwich-based solicitor, David Pett, from the Stop The Wensum Link campaign group, said: "This road has no national significance. It’s a road to nowhere, a road with no point.
"It’s all about easing some minor rat running. Nothing depends upon it being built, no businesses, no jobs, no development, no move to a zero-carbon economy.
"Why spend between £200m and £350m on a road which has no strategic purpose?"
Norfolk County Council's Conservative-controlled cabinet meets on June 7 to agree to submit the outline business case for the road and to appoint a contractor.
That will be followed by a full council decision the same day.
Western Link Pros and Cons
According to Norfolk County Council, building the £198m Western Link would mean:
- An economic boost
- Reductions in journey times
- Reduced rat-running through villages
- A reduction in carbon emissions from vehicles
- Investment in other sustainable transport measures
But critics take issue with some of those claims and say it will mean:
- The loss of habitats for wildlife
- Increased carbon emissions due to destruction of woodland and during construction
- The council is placed at financial risk
- It will encourage more reliance on motor vehicles