MPs still back NDR Western Link despite fresh calls to scrap it
- Credit: Norfolk County Council
MPs have said their support for the proposed £153m Western Link for the Norwich Northern Distributor Road remains undimmed - despite renewed calls for it to be scrapped.
Critics of Norfolk County Council's mooted road said latest bat surveys, the financial pressures County Hall is facing and the way coronavirus has changed people's working patterns give added impetus to their calls to ditch the scheme.
However, MPs and council leaders said the road, which would connect the A1067 Fakenham Road to the A47 near Easton, crossing the River Wensum on a viaduct, remains as vital as ever to cut congestion and boost businesses.
New surveys by independent bat experts, Wild Wings Ecology, have identified the presence of a breeding colony directly on the proposed new road, part of a wider ‘super-colony’ occupying surrounding woodlands in the local area.
Indications are that the barbastelle population is likely to be the largest in the UK, with surveys identifying at least 270 bats.
The county council said its own extensive bat surveys over the last two years had not recorded any barbastelle bat roosts within the scheme boundary - and it was waiting for the results of the independent survey to be shared with the council.
The council had said the scheme includes bat mitigation measures, such as green bridges and underpasses.
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But Steve Morphew, leader of the opposition Labour group at County Hall, which has opposed the road said the latest environmental information, coupled with other factors gave added weight to calls to ditch it.
He said: "The bats are one element and I think that should be looked at very closely.
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"But it seems pretty clear to me that what is emerging from this pandemic is a change in people's working practices.
"People and employers have realised it possible for many people to do their jobs from home. It may be that after all this, people who might not have fancied sitting on a bus five days a week, would be happy to use one to get to the office twice a week and work from home the other days.
"That calls into question the need for the road and whether money would be better invested in public transport - or maybe in refurbishing Holt Hall."
But Chloe Smith, Conservative MP for Norwich North, said she still backed the road, which she said is needed to complete the NDR and to support jobs.
She said: "The need for the completed road has not gone away. It's more important than ever now to think about how we will back local jobs in the years to come - and that means helping local traders to get about on decent transport links."
Jerome Mayhew, Conservative MP for Broadland, said: "I don't think that the fundamental arguments in favour of the link have changed at all.
"It will be of huge benefit to people travelling around Norwich, as well as to my constituents in Ringland and Weston Longville, who are currently plagued by rat running between the A47 and Fakenham Road."
He said the route was chosen to have as little negative impact on the environment as possible.
And Mid Norfolk Conservative MP George Freeman said: "For too long we have seen development in Norfolk without the necessary infrastructure.
"Long term infrastructure needs to be got right - planned and developed in a way which minimises damage to our Norfolk landscape and supports the 21st century priorities and patterns of work, healthy living and a more sustainable local economy."
Mr Freeman said the scheme needed to be planned and designed with sensitivity to the needs of the local landscape and local villages.
He said: "These aren't easy pay offs, but with good community consultation, transparency and leadership we should be able to get it right and leave our beloved county better than we found it."
And Martin Wilby, cabinet member for highways and infrastructure at Norfolk County Council, said: "As the government has set out, improving our transport infrastructure has a vital role to play in the country’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
"This is much-needed investment for Norfolk’s transport networks that will bring huge benefits to residents, businesses, emergency services and visitors.
"All of our work in developing the business case for the scheme, including the economic analysis, is taking account of the latest government guidance in relation to travel behaviour.”