By Sophie Ciurlik-Rittenbaum
The Norwich Western Link, also known as the Wensum Link, is a proposed road that cuts through the Wensum River Valley. It would cut through a Site of Special Scientific Interest destroying critical habitat, most notably inhabited by one of the only colonies of endangered Barbastelle bats. The project is already over budget, and according to Stop The Wensum Link, may cost up to £300 million. The Conservative-controlled Norfolk County Council is responsible for the Link and is pushing for its construction, whereas the Labour-controlled Norwich City Council has announced its opposition to the link.
From the development’s inception, Norfolk County Council has repeatedly disregarded the affected communities. While it conducted a community input survey on the proposed road in 2018, it only offered people the choice between different routes for the road, without offering a “no” option. Green Party Councillor Jamie Osborn stated that this is in line with Councillors using community input surveys to legitimise “what they were going to do anyway.”
Moreover, the proposed road has run over budget time and time again. The money allocated for the road could instead be spent on, for example, public transportation. As Derek Williams of The Norwich Cycling Project asserted, roads are known to induce traffic, meaning that not only will the road destroy ancient woodlands critical for Barbastelles and disrupt a rare chalk stream, as well as require emitting greenhouse gases to construct it, but it will lead to more people driving.
The Norwich Cycling Project opposes the Link on principle, but believes the County Council will build the road anyway, and as such, the group is pushing for adequate, safe bike lanes to be built along the road. Williams said the County Council responded to the Norwich Cycling Project’s demand for adequate, safe bike lanes by claiming there was no demand for biking along the route. However, Williams stated this claim was founded on current numbers of cyclists using the route, which presently has no bike lanes, suggesting it does not reflect potential demand. Moreover, he added that this fits the County Council’s modus operandi, as it refuses to ensure adequate, safe bike lanes in roundabouts in Norwich.
Yet further to this, the Council also responded that expanding the road to include adequate, safe bike lanes would cause too much environmental damage. Williams described the alleged environmental concerns as a “tenuous” reason not to build the bike lanes, given how little regard the County Council has given the environment by building the road in the first place. He also said this fits the County Council’s modus operandi, as it refuses to ensure adequate, safe bike lanes in roundabouts in Norwich. Others, most notably the Stop the Wensum Link campaign, are more optimistic than the Norwich Cycling Project that they can stop the construction of the road. The Norfolk County Council can still reverse its decision to build the road, and increasing numbers of stakeholder groups are coming out against the road, a recent significant addition being the Norwich City Council.
When asked for comment, Stop the Wensum Link directed me to their website. However, Iain Robinson, a lecturer in the Literature, Drama and Creative Writing department at University of East Anglia (UEA) and someone actively involved in the campaign said that his involvement convinced him of the need for more radical environmental politics. Robinson owns property in the Wensum Valley woods that will be disturbed if the road goes forward. He said, though, that after buying the property, he realised that it didn’t really belong to him, but to the animals and plants that already lived there.
UEA maintains a neutral stance on the road, despite declaring a Climate & Biodiversity Emergency in 2019 and seeing its own researchers demonstrate the disastrous impacts the road would have on Barbastelle bats.
Meg Watts, a local environmental activist and a UEA student, has collected over 200 signatures on an open letter to the County Council asking them not to build the road. Due to UEA’s stance of neutrality on the road, she hoped vice-chancellor, David Richardson, would sign it. He did not.
Iain Barr, is a UEA professor who has conducted research on the bats, reported that in a staff meeting, Chief Resource Officer and University Secretary UEA, Ian Callaghan, referred to the university having “warmed up” councillors to a policy relating to building new buildings on UEA campus, which he believes implies persuading council members to vote for or against a policy on factors other than its merits.
Barr distances himself from Stop the Wensum link, believing he can best serve the environment and the public by conducting sound research on the road and the impacts it would have. He believes joining Stop the Wensum link would cost him his reputation as a credible natural scientist and therefore do more harm than good. He said that if he received new, credible evidence that the road would not impact the bats and the climate as the current most credible data shows it would, he would change his mind. However, the data shows that the road will cause significant damage to the Barbastelle bats and the climate.
Barr suggested that one reason the County Council is pushing the road forward is that it would benefit the Norwich Food Enterprise Park, a food processing centre in Norwich owned by Ian Alston of Horpingham Farms. Steffan Aquarone, a Liberal Democrat Norfolk County Councillor, denied this and stated he felt that such rumours would seem less plausible if the County Council did not have a history of building roads for powerful economic interests despite community concerns. This refers to the County Council approving the construction of a road against the evidence provided by the Transportation Department, which a judge ruled against them when the case came to trial.
Aquarone stated that while he was pleased the Conservative Party had at least accepted in its messaging the need to care for the environment, there are Conservatives in Norfolk County Council who harbour doubts about anthropogenic climate change.
The County Council’s insistence on building this road wastes taxpayer money that could instead go to sustainable transportation options, and flies in the face of the evidence that it will accelerate climate change and diminish biodiversity. Moreover, UEA’s neutral stance on the road is cowardly and betrays its declaration of a Climate and Biodiversity Emergency. Ultimately, both institutions should take responsibility for protecting the unique surrounding environment and prioritise a healthy climate and ecosystem.
Ian Callaghan and The Norwich Food Enterprise Park did not respond for comment. Norfolk County Council did not agree to a live interview.
Featured image courtesy of Stop the Wensum Link.
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