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Norwich Western Link Briefing - March 2024

Visualisation of the Norwich Western Link's proposed viaduct

Recent developments

  • In October 2023 Norfolk County Council (NCC) received approval for the Outline Business Case from the Department for Transport, which provides a commitment to fund £213 million towards the total cost of the project, with the potential for the Government's contribution to be uplifted to cover all the costs. 
  • Since then, NCC has been finalising its planning application and is due to submit that very soon.  
  • For more than a year, NCC has been in discussion with Natural England (NE) about a protected species licence, required to permit construction in an area where barbastelle bats are present.  
    • We submitted a draft bat licence in January 2023 with initial feedback provided by Natural England in March 2023.   
    • A further draft submission, addressing the initial comments from Natural England, was submitted in December 2023 and Natural England said they would provide feedback before the end of February 2024. 
    • We were confident that we could comply with all the requirements and that NCC would ultimately be granted the relevant license in order to commence construction. 
  • Without informing anyone in advance that there was going to be a change, Natural England published new guidance on 8 March 2024 relating to the barbastelle bat. A week later, we received significantly amended feedback to the draft licence which put in doubt the ability to achieve it. 
  • It is clear that without further clarification or change, this new guidance will affect our ability to obtain a protected species licence, and therefore our ability to build the Norwich Western Link. County Council Leader, Councillor Kay Mason Billig briefed the Council at its meeting on 26 March.

The key questions

Why does this new guidance affect the western link? 

Regardless of any other approvals (eg planning consent), we need a bat license before we can start construction, so any guidance that makes this more difficult to achieve would affect the whole scheme. 

Couldn't you have foreseen this? 

No. The new guidance was completely unexpected and there had been no indication that it was being published. We are not sure that Ministers are aware and doubt that, even if they were, that it would have such an impact on a road that they support. It is likely that the rules will also affect infrastructure and development projects across most areas of southern England where barbastelle bats are identified. 

What are you going to do? 

We are urging the Prime Minister, DEFRA Secretary and Transport Secretary, to see what can be done to overcome this issue.

The case for the Norwich Western Link

The Norwich Western Link, connecting the A1270 Broadland Northway and the A47 west of Norwich, would significantly improve travel between these two major roads.  There are no other A class roads that provide a connection and therefore traffic congestion, rat-running and delays to journeys are all significant issues on minor roads to the west of Norwich and there is strong support from the public, the business community, emergency services, local councils and MPs for this vital link. 

The traffic problems to the west on Norwich are projected to get worse with housing and job growth in and around the city.  The new road will boost the local economy and support our businesses by making journeys shorter, more efficient and reliable - vital for the transport of goods, tourism and making it easier for customers and staff to reach amenities and employment sites. 

For these reasons this project remains a good investment and priority infrastructure project for the county council and in July 2019, we confirmed a preferred route for the Norwich Western Link - a new 3.8 mile dual carriageway road.

Council leader Kay Mason Billig's western link update to full council on 26 March 2024

View the leader's western link update at full Council meeting on YouTube

I need to update you all on some significant news about the Norwich Western Link.

As you know, the Government has approved the outline business plan for this much needed project.

We know that many Norfolk residents want to see the western link delivered, as soon as possible - to ease congestion and rat-running, to improve safety, to speed up journeys and to boost our economy. And on that basis we are about to submit our planning application. We were confident that we could comply with all requirements and follow Natural England's advice concerning the measures we would have to take around barbastelle bats. Our officers have been in dialogue with Natural England for over a year seeking their input and were confident we would secure the relevant license, in order to commence construction. We were awaiting the latest comments from Natural England by 29 February but they contacted us to say that 'due to a lack of resources' they could not respond before the 15 March. Fair enough you may say, except that on 8 March Natural England issued new guidance notes, moving the goal posts to such an extent that they will make it almost impossible for us to be granted a licence.

Call me cynical if you will but the timing of this stinks.

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.

The cabinet was briefed yesterday and we have informed our MPs. I myself have spoken with Steve Barclay the Secretary of State for DEFRA's Chief of Staff, who incidentally knew nothing about this. I have asked them to urgently look into this.

Unfortunately, I fear this is yet another example of an unelected quango introducing new rules to suit their narrow remit without thought about how this affects everyone else. We saw this on nutrient neutrality, which was a disaster for the house building industry and now we see this new advice (and I use that term loosely), which threatens to block any infrastructure scheme in the whole of southern and central England and Wales. You think I am joking; take a look at the map they have produced in their report.

The very first line of the report says 'this definition (which is the definition that barbastelle bats do not have Favourable Conservation Status, i.e. they are not increasing in number and distribution) draws heavily on modelling and an unpublished report. Later on, the report says their conclusions are based solely on the information within their document and that this is not a formal assessment of status or a comprehensive monitoring of status. i.e. it is a guestimate.
So we have an unpublished report, an admission that they actually know very little about these bats or their size of population, or how numbers have changed over time, yet they have 'modelled' their results on this and made a virtual declaration that massive swathes of England and Wales are unsuitable for infrastructure projects due to the possible maybe presence of these bats and the maybe/maybe not issue that a new road might or might not have an adverse impact on the population numbers even though they do not know what they are or whether they are in increase or decline. Yet they make a determination that existing and potential roost sites should be protected from disturbance and development. This report is not worth the paper it is written on and yet, I am certain it will be used as an excuse to refuse us a licence to build NWL.

Barbastelle bats are predominantly from central and southern Europe, they are widely distributed from Morocco to Sweden. Natural England by their own admission do not have enough data to confirm or deny their suppositions on the populations in the UK, yet they have made their decision.

It beggars belief that vital infrastructure projects, which have the backing and funding from central government and the overwhelming support of the local population, can be blocked, on the hoof, without evidence and effectively in secret by such an unelected organisation.

The cabinet and I 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. We urge those of you who agree with us to support us.