Reflections on the Public Inquiry

Proposed Bexhill to Hastings Link Road:
Reflections on the Public Inquiry

December 2009.

None of us make a habit of going to Public Inquiries, but the structure was somehow familiar: first, the opening statement by Rhodri Price-Lewis QC, on behalf of the promoters. Then presentations from the witnesses in support of the BHLR scheme – from East Sussex County Council, their various consultants, and Seaspace – Hastings and Bexhill branch of the government’s South East England Regional Development Agency – SEEDA. Each of them was gently interrogated by the QC in order to elicit or amplify some point or another to bolster their case.

The ESCC witnesses covered all the expected specialisms: Transport and Economics; Agriculture; Landscape and Visual Effects; Ecology; Noise; Engineering; Cultural Heritage (inc. Archaeology); Air Quality and Carbon; Flood Risk and Water Quality; Regeneration: Economic Context; Regeneration: Policy and Implementation.

After each witness came the chance to ask questions, and in the first stage of the Inquiry, we took opportunities to do that. Some of the questions were anticipated beforehand and some surfaced during and after the witnesses’ presentations. Some of the questions took a while to emerge from the general preamble, and the Inspector frequently urged those seeking to ask questions to move to the question (get on with it!). The answers we got were often interesting and helpful. Some of them were restricted by the brief within which the consultants had been asked to work, and some of them developed into bi-lateral discussions of the sort that we hear from time to time on Radio 4, and perhaps surprisingly within this adversarial process, not always without consensus.

A formal opportunity for us to cross examine the promoters witnesses followed. We could recall any witness we chose.

Next, it was the turn of the objectors – the Hastings Alliance and its constituent groups, Crowhurst Society and Parish Council, and individuals such as farmers, Laura and Ray Boggis, and Sarah Blackford – to make their presentations.

After our presentations, it was the turn of our presenters to be interrogated by the QC, though some got away with no questions at all. For a couple of us it was pretty uncomfortable, though occasionally ridiculous:

QC:What is the name of your organisation’s treasurer?

Our witness: I could give it to you on a piece of paper, but I’m not going to announce it in front of everyone. Anyway I’d have to ask her if she minded.

Inspector: Mr Price-Lewis, I don’t think this is getting us anywhere.

QC: I’ll move on

Expert evidence from the Hastings Alliance
Click the links below to read the evidence from the Hastings Alliance’s expert witnesses 

Evidence from Prof. Alan Wenban-Smith

Evidence from Keith Buchan, MSc, Transport consultant

Supplementary evidence from Keith Buchan

Further supplementary evidence from Keith Buchan

The written evidence of the promoters was generally well written and clearly set out, but there was a mass of often technical material to read in a relatively short period of time and we know of no objector who managed to read it all.

None of it sidestepped the question of environmental impact on landscape and biodiversity, which was demonstrably worse than had been earlier claimed. This really had the effect of emphasising that in the eyes and minds of ESCC there were no environmental obstacles that could possibly stand in the way of their scheme, planned mitigation may not work but is extensive, and that they could build the BHLR so they would.

In making their case that damage from the BHLR would be mitigated as far as possible, and otherwise was worth it because of the benefits, ESCC were at pains to emphasise that they had followed all the guidelines – but clearly to the letter rather than the spirit.

On the matter of CO2 emissions though, the promoters failed to make a convincing case that they could compensate for the increased emissions through other undefined measures that would be taken under the ESCC climate change strategy.

In any case, the confidence of the promoters in the ability of BHLR to deliver regeneration and alleviate deprivation was so often and so strongly stated that the implication was clear: environmental costs were worth paying and risks worth taking.

However, a main plank of ESCC’s argument was that the BHLR was approved in all the various local plans and had been approved by democratic processes, which is certainly true, but neatly obscures the point that the need for the BHLR has always been assumed rather than demonstrated – otherwise we wouldn’t have had a Public Inquiry!

A separate but related issue was around the principle that all the components of the Five Point Plan were interdependent and that if one failed, the others would too. The promoters ? along with Hastings Borough and Rother District councils ? have no choice but to go on sticking to that position to get the money, so unsurprisingly, it was restated several times. On the ground though, things are obviously and visibly happening in a positive way that simply could not be undone. Some bits of the Five Point Plan are evidently working quite well without the BHLR, and this was admitted.

The Public Inquiry had a remit to examine the BHLR proposals in terms of its value for money, the degree to which alternatives had been examined, its environmental impact, and the question of need for the scheme. And a key objective was (I think) to shed light on these areas to enable the Inspector to consider the evidence, produce a report, and make recommendations to the two Secretaries of State on whether the BHLR should be given the go-ahead or not.

It is interesting and encouraging to reflect on the information that came to light in the Inquiry process and we can only hope that it made it into the Inspector’s notebook. Here is an attempt to summarise that information before memories fade:

  • There is no equivalent traffic free valley of the quality of Combe Haven within reasonable walking distance of the urban populations of Bexhill and Hastings.
  • The valley and the wildlife in it would be better off without the BHLR than with it.
  • Under pressure from the Department for Transport, ESCC in late 2009, changed its description of the visual impact of BHLR on the valley from ‘moderate adverse’ to ‘significant adverse’.
  • With the inextricably linked Greenway in place, the BHLR will be right up against the Combe Haven SSSI boundary for 1.2km: there is no planned buffer zone at Adams Farm.
  • If it had chosen to do so, ESCC could have taken a first step in securing a new railway station at Glyne Gap by itself applying for planning consent to Rother District Council.
  • Suggestions of possible sources of ‘third party’ funding towards costs of Glyne Gap station were made by Network Rail in summer 2008.
  • In its examination of alternatives to the BHLR, for political reasons, ESCC did not examine the whole range of measures available to it. This omission is repeated in the work carried out just prior to this Public Inquiry by the consultant engaged by ESCC.
  • Despite commitment in 2000, reiterated in 2002, to the principle of ‘workplace travel plans’ for organisations and businesses to help reduce congestion, by November 2009, no such plans have been implemented in Bexhill and Hastings.
  • For those without cars in Bexhill, St Leonards and Hastings, costs of accessing any employment opportunities will be a major issue.
  • It is clearly not inevitable that BHLR will be built. Despite this, there is worryingly no ‘plan B’.
  • There once was a ‘plan B’. In the ESCC 2000 Local Transport Plan – 1, a ‘non-bypass’ scenario was envisaged and a plan designed to fit. It included provision for 500 houses at north Bexhill, and two quality bus corridors: one between Little Common west of Bexhill and Ore east of Hastings on the A259; and another on The Ridge. (This LTP also considered in some detail plans for two railway stations ? one at Glyne Gap and the other at West Marina). A case of ‘policy memory loss’?
  • The equilibrium between demand for travel by car and other modes of transport seen as essential in the 2002 South Coast Multi Modal Study, which considered all forms of alternatives along with demand management, is not possible when measures other than the BHLR are compromised or ignored.
  • It was accepted that there are many effective ways of moving families out of deprivation without building roads, for instance by offering free public transport to students.
  • Despite claims that all elements (including BHLR) of the ‘Five Point Plan’ for regeneration are equally important, and that if one fails they all fail, the University Centre was acknowledged to be ‘a huge success’. The new FE college next to the new station is now (December 2009) part of the skyline and about to open, while the Ore branch of the FE, next to Ore station, is also about to open .
  • In response to the question: ‘What if costs rise?’ the promoters say: ‘There can be no further cost increase for the BHLR’.
  • There are no detailed plans of how to compensate for the CO2 emissions at the construction phase or the operational phase of the BHLR. A biomass boiler in a school was mentioned by the ESCC scheme promoter as a way forward. But transport is a ‘non-traded’ sector and not within the EU carbon trading scheme. It must provide its own pathway to carbon reductions. It seems that little thought has been given as to how this might be done. Doubt was expressed as to whether the county’s position was consistent with national policy on carbon reduction.
  • From the evidence, it appears that the BHLR will lead to key government targets for carbon reduction being exceeded by more than 18%. If replicated UK wide, approval of local authority road schemes such as BHLR would lead to unacceptable increases in CO2 emissions and propel the UK in the opposite direction to that required.
  • Economic benefits of the scheme are explained largely through time savings (80%). But the time savings are overwhelmingly very small and could not be either of any practical use, or even discernible by road users.

Attached are the documents produced for the Hastings Alliance by Professor Alan Wenban-Smith and Keith Buchan, our expert witnesses.

What next?

The Inspector will complete his report in early 2010 (late Feb/early March). The report will then go to two Secretaries of State: for Communities and Local Government, and Transport.

Beyond that, there is huge uncertainty: the General election could be as early as March 25th so could the decision be postponed? Would the BHLR be subject to re-evaluation in the light of the need for cuts in public spending? Will resolutions flowing from the Copenhagen conference on climate change encourage a re-think?

What will we be doing?

East Sussex County Council will continue with their promotional material, including the periodical newsletter, so we will carry on promoting alternatives ? especially since in a time of recession, small, cheap, numerous and effective measures to beat congestion should be attractive to local and central government in their efforts to conserve public funds (our money!). We will aim for regular press releases, and keep up to speed with developments in the field of ‘sustainable transport’. This is timely and topical as ESCC are preparing their ‘Local Transport Plan 3′ for the county, covering the period until 2026.

We are intending an Alliance meeting for the 11th January in Hastings (1.00pm ’til 3.00pm at the Friends Meeting House, South Terrace) to discuss in more detail how we proceed. This will be confirmed a week before the date, if not sooner.

Thanks to its individual members and organisations, the Hastings Alliance has produced a mass of new data, revealed new perspectives, and challenged erroneous, uninspiring and tired orthodox strategies. The effort, sustained over years, is hugely appreciated.

Hoping members have a) a restful and peaceful, or, b) a riotous and exciting Christmas break (or possibly a mixture of the two!)

See you next year.

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