As protestors are resisting one of the first road projects resurrected under the Tory-led government, Adrian Hopkins from campaign group The Combe Haven Defenders tells Corporate Watch about the background to the road, outlines the many reasons why this road should not be built and updates us on the current situation regarding the widespread resistance.
The Combe Haven Defenders are a group of local people determined to prevent the environmentally disastrous white-elephant that is the Bexhill-Hastings Link Road from devastating one of Hastings’ and Bexhill’s most amazing natural treasures. They demand an affordable, sustainable transport system for the area, that improves the quality of all our lives without costing the earth. It is likely that this is just the beginning of many more road schemes to follow.
The Bexhill-Hastings Link Road (BHLR) is a 5.6km stretch of single carriageway that is due to be constructed through the Combe Haven Valley, an area of exceptional tranquility and diverse wetland that lies between the South coast towns of Bexhill and Hastings. It is to be one of the first of a new series of roads to be ‘resurrected’ under the Tory-led government. The last major road building programme, Thatcher’s much maligned ‘Roads for Prosperity,’ was thwarted by direct action protest in the 1990’s. Corporate Watch’s first ever report from 1996, Destroy! Burn! Fell! Obliterate!, outlined background information about the companies behind Thatcher’s road programme and proved useful to people taking action against road building. We have just made it available online (it was published before most people had access to the internet) to give people some background context for the current Tory road scheme.
The government is promoting road building as a priority with the false idea that roads rejuvenate a stagnant economy and is making moves to slacken planning regulations and by-pass judicial reviews of planning decisions. In a recent report, the Campaign for Better Transport (CBT) have identified 191 road projects in the pipeline with a combined cost to the UK of £30billion. The projects include the building of 76 bypasses, 56 widened roads, 48 link roads, 12 ring roads and 9 bridges and tunnels. More than 40 roads are revivals of plans in the 1989 ‘Roads for Prosperity’ command paper, which made plans for 600 projects that would have doubled the size of the trunk road network during the 1990s at a cost of £12 billion.
The Combe Haven Valley contains a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a local nature reserve (Filsham reedbed), ancient woodland, working farmland, as well as being a significant recreational resource for those living in the surrounding areas. It is home to an abundance of wildlife including protected species such as dormice, great crested newts, bats and badgers. It has been described by East Sussex County Council (ESCC) as “probably the finest medium-sized valley in East Sussex, outside of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.”
ESCC can be considered the principal force in the promotion of the BHLR, supported by Rother District Council (representing Bexhill) and Hastings Borough Council. They are seeking to provide an alternative route between Bexhill and Hastings, linking the A259 in Bexhill and the B2092 Queensway in Hastings. It is claimed that this will alleviate traffic on a busy stretch of the existing coast road (A259) and unlock the development potential of adjacent land, encouraging new business and housing opportunities.
The arguments advanced in favour of the road have been roundly criticised by both campaign groups and the government’s own Department for Transport who have consistently challenged the data that ESCC have used to promote the scheme and back-up the planning application. The Campaign for Better Transport have plotted predicted CO2 emission increases from the scheme against the DfT’s own cost-benefit ratio (which basically measures economic value to the public purse) and have shown the BHLR to be the worst of the 45 proposed UK road schemes within the current ‘development pool’. According to the DfT themselves the road is ‘low to medium’ value for money in terms of its potential economic benefit. Furthermore, by ESCC’s own assessment journey times between Bexhill and Hastings will only be saved less than 4 and a half minutes with the scheme. However, this does not take in to account the likely bottlenecks in both Hastings and Bexhill that will be generated as cars both join and exit the link road. Whichever way you look at it, the evidence base used to promote the road is about as solid as the wetlands upon which it is to be built.
Despite these objections the project was granted planning permission in July 2009 and secured provisional government funding of £56m in March 2012 to meet the estimated £85m that the scheme will cost. As of January 2013 cost increases have already been incurred and have been dealt with in council meetings from which the public were excluded. However, as of February 2013, the DfT still haven’t granted full funding approval for the scheme, indicating there are problems with the scheme’s business case. In early February the Hastings Alliance launched an emergency petition calling for the Government to stop funding the Bexhill-Hastings Link Road through the Combe Haven Valley.
There is significant local opposition to the scheme headed by campaign groups such as The Hastings Alliance who have fought the road plans in its various incarnations for many years. Residents associations and individuals affected and concerned by the impact of the proposals have also roundly criticised the proposals. Groups such as The Combe Haven Defenders and BLINKRR (Bexhill Link Road Resistance) have recently been formed to fight the scheme on various fronts and with diverse tactics. Other national groups such as the Campaign for Better Transport, Sussex Wildlife Trust, and Friends of the Earth have all been vocal in their opposition. From a less likely corner former Tory transport minister Stephen Norris has also spoken out against the government’s woder road-building plans:
“Experience tells us clearly that a massive programme of road building won’t solve [the problems of economic inertia, congested roads and housing shortages] … Investing in effective, affordable and easy to use public transport is part of the solution. So is planning new developments so that they do not rely on cars. Most of all, now is the time for brave and creative decision-making, not a return to the past.”
ESCC’s publicly declared motivation for promoting the BHLR has been the unerring belief that it will lead to the economic regeneration of Bexhill and Hastings, both areas of high unemployment. According to their rationale the BHLR will bring more jobs as a result of all the supposed new businesses that will relocate to the area and those that will take advantage of industrial estates that will subsequently be built. More housing will also be created by opening up greenfield land to housing development.
ESCC council leader Peter Jones, claims that the road ‘will make it possible to build 1,200-2,000 new homes and business park space of 50,000 square metres; it’ll create more than 3,000 new jobs and bring economic benefits valued at £1bn’.
In an area of high unemployment like Hastings such claims sell well to the electorate. However, the figure of 3,000 new jobs that will be created by the building of the road has been seriously questioned by the Department for Transport’s own analysis. In their review of the evidence the DfT suggest that this figure should instead be halved at the least. They also highlight ‘other downside risks’ given that businesses that could locate to the area opened up by the road have not yet been identified. Indeed, other DfT analyses drop the figure further to 1,000.
The DfT also state that the wider economic benefits have been overestimated for a whole host of reasons, noting the absence of any sort of study into jobs that might be created anyway, without the building of the road.
Antecedents: The Hastings Bypass
The previous attempt to build a trunk road around Hastings, The Hastings Eastern and Western bypasses, was promoted on virtually identical grounds (and using similar figures for jobs and homes) but was rejected by the Labour government in 2001 as a poor driver of economic renegeration and job creation. Commenting on his decision following the publication of the Access To Hastings multi-modal study, which looked at the regeneration case for the bypasses, the then Secretary of State for Transport, John Spellar, concluded that:
The study did not build a convincing regeneration case for the by-passes?it concluded that although the by-passes could possibly help to generate employment in the area this would not necessarily help those in most need. There would be reduced congestion in some areas of the town but the position would get worse in other areas. Against these rather weak arguments we had to place the evidently severe implications for the environment?two Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and an internationally recognised wetland surround Hastings. I believe, therefore, we must look for alternative means to prevent the further decline of the area and to optimise its economic potential.
Other studies on the bypasses commissioned by Friends of the Earth and the Campaign for Better Transport reached similar conclusions and went further in suggesting that:
a sustainable regeneration strategy and action plan for Hastings – not reliant upon the environmentally damaging bypasses proposal – could create between 1,067 and 2,557 jobs for substantially less than the cost of the proposed bypasses
Additionally, these studies highlighted already existing regeneration schemes in Bexhill and Hastings not dependent on the link road that are proving successful and how congestion issues could be largely addressed at a fraction of the cost with a combination of the expansion of public transport links and the implementation of workplace and school travel plans.
Despite such evidence and the government’s own 2001 recommendation, these new alternatives have not been explored in any depth. According to campaign group the Hastings Alliance this already contravenes Transport Analysis Guidance (TAG) Unit 1.4 which states that “Any major scheme for which the appraisal of alternative options is considered inadequate will not be accepted for funding” (para 2.9.1).
A flawed public consultation and planning application
The 2004 public consultation regarding the BHLR lasted only 6 weeks (considerably less than the 12 weeks that the government’s code of conduct on consultations recommended at the time). The proposals for the BHLR consisted of six alternative routes for the road, four of which would have broken conservation laws and so could have been considered ‘non-starters’. Crucially, the option of a ‘no-road’ scenario was not on the table. It was widely criticised at the time for not heeding transport analysis guidelines that demand in large infrastructure projects such as this the consideration of alternatives that could meet the same strategic objectives.
Similarly, at the planning stage in 2007 no attempt was made to engage the public through public meetings, exhibitions or non-technical summaries. Yet despite this 3,200 objections were submitted against the scheme.
The submission of a Best and Final Bid (BAFB) for the road by ESCC similarly failed to seriously engage public feeling on the issue. At this stage ESCC held only two invitation-only focus group events. The vast majority of attendees were business representatives with the ‘public’ represented by only two pre-selected residents associations and ESCC’s similarly cherry-picked ‘resident’s panel’. No one from the Hastings Alliance, a long-standing organisation with strong views on transport in the area, nor the Campaign for Better Transport were invited.
Redaction of DfT recommendations
The BHLR has always depended upon securing central government money to cover the cost. Whilst ESCC has not faltered in its support for the scheme, its desire to push it through Whitehall has met with reluctance from transport officials over the years and has proved a stumbling block to realisation of the project
However, with the election of a Conservative-led coalition government in 2010 and amidst a desperate ‘economy first’ political context a more favourable terrain was set for ESCC to successfully finance the road. The Prime Minister, the Chancellor and now Secretary of State for Transport have all publicly declared road-building a priority for the government.
However, DfT officials who have been assigned to assess the funding bid and assess various economic, environmental and social impacts, have remained far from supportive. As has already been mentioned they have questioned in their reports many of the claims made on behalf of the road. It is worth quoting at length a letter dated March 19th 2012 from an unspecified DfT official to the Under Secretary of State, Norman Baker MP, shortly before the £56m of government funds were released:
Our view is that this work [studies by ESCC on the economic impact] significantly overstates the benefits of the scheme as it makes optimistic assumptions including the number of jobs dependent on the scheme, the extent to which economic activity will relocate from elsewhere and local wage rates. This estimate also potentially double counts productivity improvements already included in the transport assessment… We think the number of additional jobs may be in the order of a third of the levels claimed by the promoter (i.e. Around 1,000).
The DfT civil servants gave a VfM (Value for Money) assessment of low to medium, whilst reflecting that it is possible to construct various assessments, depending upon the weight given to each factor. They acknowledged that a low VfM assessment was possible if you ‘assume the worst case on landscape impacts (in which case this is a significant risk)’.
This is a crucial document since one might assume that Norman Baker and then Secretary of State for Transport Justine Greening MP take seriously the recommendations of their own officials who have taken the time to scrutinize the evidence before them. Despite this, the Freedom of Information request that was used to obtain this letter redacted the critical sections in which the recommendation by the DfT official is given. It remains unclear as to what guidance was given and further FOI requests attempting to reveal this recommendation have been refused on the grounds that ‘Releasing the information would be against the public’s interest as it would seriously impact on the decision and policy making process in relation to the funding of transport schemes.' This may well suggest that the DfT recommended against the road, but the treasury released the money anyway. Will this be a pattern for the funding of future road schemes?
One of the driving forces behind the Link Road has been Tory ESCC council leader Peter Jones. He has been vocal in his support of the link road for many years and it is widely thought that this is his ‘pet project’. He has made personal appeals to government ministers to release funds for the BHLR and has been vocal in his criticism of those opposing the scheme. He was also an ardent supporter of the strongly opposed Newhaven incinerator, and lamented at the opening ceremony that “it is a great shame that due to the misleading information, the liberal population of Newhaven just won’t engage with this incinerator as they might.”. Needless to say he lives nowhere near the plant.
Hastings MP, Amber Rudd, has also been an ardent supporter of the Link Road. In September 2012 she became Personal Private Secretary to the Chancellor George Osborne, under whose leadership the Treasury department has released government funding for the road. She has lobbied hard for the road and urged her constituents to do the same with her ‘Tell Norman Now’ campaign to petition Norman Baker, Under-Secretary for Transport, and MP for nearby Lewes, to give the road the go-ahead.
Amber’s brother, Roland Rudd, is a well-connected, extremely wealthy and powerful lobbyist whose PR company, RLM Finsbury, has had many high profile clients, including Shell, Sainsburys, Vodafone and Rio Tinto. He has been named in the Guardian’s top 100 most powerful people in the media and has had personal connections to high profile politicians of all parties including Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson, Nick Clegg, David Cameron and Boris Johnson.
Norman Baker is the Lib-Dem MP for nearby Lewes whose responsibilities as Parliamentary Under Secretary for Transport include ‘Reducing greenhouse gases and other emissions from transport’. It is to Baker that DfT recommendations concerning the BHLR were made. The BHLR is one of the worst of the ‘new roads’ currently being developed in terms of CO2 emissions, and especially so when set against the DfT’s own Benefit-Cost Ratio. Either Baker has not understood clearly his responsibilities or he has been trumped by a Tory-led treasury whose commitment to meeting targets on CO2 emissions is little more than the politically expedient greenwash we all know it to be.
Similarly, the remit of Greg Barker, conservative MP for Bexhill and Battle, who currently holds a minsterial position as Minister of State for Energy and Climate Change, clearly has not made a difference to his vocal support for road-building in his constituency. Rather, he appears to be about 20 years out of sync with everyone else: his solution to climate change is the electric car. He has also claimed, curiously, that far from opening up green-field land for house-building the Link Road will be in fact ‘safeguarding the environment of rural Rother from unsuitable housing development. Quite what he means by ‘unsuitable’ is anyone’s guess, though no doubt the 2,000 plus homes planned around the road will be of the uber-sustainable low-impact, affordable and architecturally pioneering sort…
To add to this cast of relative minnows in the political world the figure of George Osborne has clearly been instrumental in signing-off the BHLR. His 2012 Budget made specific reference to the £56 million handed over to ESCC to help fund the road. His autumn statement in December 2012 also announced that £1.5billion is to be spent on road-building around the country. Many believe that Osborne’s support has been key in getting treasury funds for the road, with his influence able to bypass the cautious civil servants at the DfT whose actual recommendations remain a departmental secret.
One of the major beneficiaries of the BHLR scheme is Trinity College, Cambridge. The college owns a number of properties around Worsham Farm and 109 acres of unspecified land in North East Bexhill. According to Bidwells, the property company working on behalf of ‘Trinity B’ in its dealings with ESCC and RDC (Trinity B is a subsidiary company owned by Trinity College): ‘Trinity College owns a large part of the land already allocated at North East Bexhill, which is anticipated to deliver a large proportion of Bexhill’s growth over the period 2011-2028 and can confirm that it is committed to releasing the land for employment, residential and other associated uses at the appropriate time. Trinity College looks forward to working with the Council and its partners to deliver growth at North East Bexhill’.
As the richest Oxbridge college their landholding alone amounts to £800million and includes a consderable portfolio of properties, including the Cambridge Science Park, the O2 Arena, and a 50% stake in 11 Tesco stores, worth £440 million.
Trinity College has a host of registered property companies alongside the imaginatively named ‘Trinity B’. They all fall under the directorship of Rory Landman, senior bursar at the college, and a former hedge-fund manager. He runs the college endowment fund which basically involves investing college funds and developing its property portfolio for the profit of the college. The other director is Roderick Pullen, a fellow of the college, who has had a long career as a diplomat. Each company has the same address, Bidwell House in Cambridge – from which Bidwells presumably draws its name.
Bidwells put in a huge number of comments/objections to the Rother Council consultation on development strategies for Bexhill in 2008. They could be summarised as: build more houses, faster, and not bother about any environmental considerations. Here are some of them:
It is clear Trinity College will stand to gain considerably from the new areas that will be opened up for development if the road is built. They are currently in the process of looking for promoters and partners to draw up a planning application which they aim to get submitted by the summer of 2013.
The Combe Haven valley comprises the largest reedbed in the county, Filsham reedbed, much of which is designated a SSSI (site of special scientific interest). It borders on to an AONB (area of outstanding beauty) and the area maintains some stands of ancient woodland. The valley is home to many protected species: dormice, great crested newts, badgers and bats and is a rich and fertile habitat for many species of birds. Combe Haven floods each year and thus also provides a unique habitat for many species of wetland birds.
The BHLR would bisect the Combe Haven valley forming a huge barrier, isolating those animals who depend on a wide range of foraging areas for food and shelter. Its designation as a site of ‘exceptional tranquility’ would also be irrevocably lost. It is a treasured community resource for people who live in the area with many holding a strong personal connection to the valley, particularly those from the nearby village of Crowhurst who will be amongst the worst affected by increased noise and air pollution.
Combe Haven – A World Heritage Site?
One very interesting facet of the campaign against the link road has been the many theories and increasing body of evidence that suggest the true site of the battle of Hastings is located on land through which the new road will pass. Local historian Nick Austin has spent nearly 20 years researching and investigating the site and has written extensively on the matter. The research suggests that William’s army, contrary to what we have been taught, did not in fact land at Pevensey and march to meet Harold at what is now the current historic battlefield at Battle Abbey, but landed at Combe Haven, near what is now Upper Wilting farm. The true battle then took place on land near Crowhurst.
Campaign group BLINKRR (Bexhill Hastings Link Road Resistance) have been calling on the minister for culture Ed Vaizey to intercede and allow for vital archaelogical work to take place to determine whether the Combe Haven Valley should be reclassified as a world heritage site – before it is lost beneath the concrete. Their efforts have so far been blocked by ESCC county archaeologist Casper Johnson, though there is growing support in academic circles that there is a solid case to be made which needs professional investigation before the desecration of a potential site of historic importance takes place. They have most recently attempted to seek an injunction against the council to halt work on the road in order for this archaelogical work to take place. If they succeed this could be, in their own words, ‘a show-stopper’ with far-reaching consequences for the future of the valley.
As of mid-January 2013 work has begun on ‘site-clearance’ – tree-felling – ahead of the scheduled earthworks and major construction in the spring. Chainsaw gangs were mobilised just hours after the CPO’s handed over the land to ESCC in mid-December but were met with a snap call-out and mobilisation of locals who fought off gangs of contractors and massed ranks of Shergroup security and bailiffs with tree sits and physical obstruction of the work. Shergroup security provided ‘enforcement officers’ who undertook many of the Occupy evictions, and who boasted at the time of ‘a cracking result’ for the company. In Combe Haven they have been similarly aggresive in their tactics which have been far from ‘reasonable’ force and led to the assault of one lady in her 60’s.
The intention of the tree-felling has been to not only clear a path for the road but also prevent future possibilities for Newbury-style protest camps. However, much to the chagrin of ESCC and the road-builders three camps along the route of the road were established and pitched battles between tree defenders and security and contractors have been taking place since the new year in order to defend the camps. The first camp was evicted on 14th January, followed by the main ‘base camp’ at Adam’s farm a couple of days later. The latter took two days for the bailiffs to clear, much to the disappointment of Cllr Peter Jones who appeared on site on day one ready to declare a swift victory. Camp Decoy pond was finally evicted two weeks later, with the final person taken down on 30th January. The eviction lasted three days, with initially more than 15 people in the treetops.
The ‘Second Battle of Hastings’ – as it is being dubbed – has to this point raged for 48 days with 26 arrests. But this is only the beginning of the resistance. New and creative tactics to oppose the road builders are already being explored and plans are afoot. Keep up to date via the Combe Haven Defenders website and sign the online pledge to resist the road and receive information about how you can help save the Combe Haven Valley and show Osborne and co that, just as in 90’s, we aren’t going to allow a new road-building programme wreck the countryside or the planet.