Too late to turn back now. The new Link Road is carving its way across the Combe Haven Valley. What are we getting for our £113 million? Is it worth the damage to the countryside? I’ve been searching for the truth.
Countless enquiries, reports, meetings, a Public Enquiry in 2009, a Department of Transport (DfT) study, a request for a judicial review, and a grass-roots protest on the site in 2012 have failed to produce any clarity or consensus.
What are we talking about?
A single lane road taking a 3 mile looping route across open country from a new junction with the A259 in Bexhill to join up with the Queensway north of St Leonard’s.
The East Sussex County Council (ESCC) website tells us: ‘The road represents excellent value for money. It will bring much needed regeneration to our economically deprived area, including 2000 new homes and a 50,000 square metre business park in North East Bexhill, 3000 jobs, and economic benefits valued at £1bn. It will improve traffic congestion, particularly on the A259 at Glyne Gap’.
Opposition campaigners deplore the damage to the Combe Haven Valley and its wildlife. They challenge
Historically, congestion reduction was top of the agenda, with plans for an ambitious dual-carriageway bypass from Pevensey to Icklesham finally rejected in 2001, largely on environmental grounds. The Link Road, a partial bypass, is that scheme’s legacy.
Well-respected planning consultant Professor Alan Wenban Smith wrote in 2011: ‘while the main objective of the BHLR is stated to be regeneration of the Hastings Bexhill area, the ‘side-effect’ of relief of congestion on the A259 has in fact dominated the consideration of options’.
Worse, arguments about minute reductions in journey times have taken attention away from reasoned consideration of the economic benefits.
The only formal public consultation about the scheme was back in 2004.
‘80% of respondents in favour of the road’ still appears in ESCC publicity. But only 2558 out of 65,000 survey questionnaires were ever completed, and the questions were mostly about traffic management.
People still think the main issue is traffic. If asked about the Link Road, Hastings residents are sure to mention its impact on congestion on the A259 and the seafront.
The truth about traffic
According to Wenban-Smith and the DfT, traffic reduction on the A259 will be minimal. Most journeys along that road are local, and the Link Road presents too long a detour.
Original plans for another new piece of road, the Baldslow link, to funnel traffic off the Queensway onto the A21, were dropped for cost reasons. Now, Link Road traffic will either rejoin the A259 or access the A21 via already congested minor roads. In 2011, the DfT estimated that traffic congestion on one such road, the Ridge, could increase by 24%, and this was without the current spate of new housing developments in that area.
Opponents of the road say that alternatives to the Link Road were not properly considered, and public transport was not prioritised.
However, as the report of the 2009 Public Enquiry makes clear, there are no realistic road alternatives, and ultimately, successful regeneration of this area requires a massive upgrade of the A21.
Improvements in public transport would make a contribution to local congestion reduction, but no resources have been set aside to improve it.
So, the Link Road will provide access to the new North East Bexhill development areas and a limited improvement in journey times between Hastings and Bexhill, but lead to increased congestion elsewhere.
Unsurprisingly, ESCC have recently watered down their traffic management aims, and give a higher emphasis to regeneration.
The economic benefits
According to economists, building new homes adds no wealth to an area – it depends who lives in them. Will new residents be skilled, productive workers, or will they be people priced out of more expensive areas of the country and forced to move here? Who can say?
owever, the Will the new Business Park take off? Given the many vacant commercial and industrial sites, both in the towns and, for example, along the Queensway, there is no certainty that the new site will be attractive. The DfT concluded: ‘We have reviewed the material the promoter (ESCC) provided which indicated that the scheme would unlock £1 billion in additional GVA (Gross Value added). Our view is that this 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. We think the number of additional jobs may be in the order of a third of the levels claimed (i.e. only around 1000).’
Overall, the DfT graded the Link Road medium/low value for money.
This does not look good….
Are ESCC guilty of reckless optimism, as opponents claim? But is doing nothing really an option? Should ESCC not do all it can to facilitate the much needed regeneration of this area, even if attempts are limited in scope and uncertain of outcome?
All agree that the North Bexhill area is our only possible large-scale development site. It needs opening up, and it needs access from both Hastings and Bexhill.
The same applies to congestion reduction. While, undoubtedly, more resources should be allocated to public transport, it is probably better to do something rather than nothing. At least the new road will provide another route between Hastings and Bexhill, and hospital patients will have a quicker journey between the Hastings Conquest and Eastbourne hospitals – important as services are increasingly shared across the two sites.
But is it worth damaging the beautiful Combe Haven Valley? Who knows……Only time will tell.