BHLR – COSTS RISE £13.35m.
The costs increase, funded entirely by the county’s council tax payers, was approved by ESCC 0n the 10th July, bringing the current total of public funding required to £113.35m. This increase alone could have funded a step change in bus services for Bexhill and Hastings, a new station at Glyne Gap – and area wide walking and cycling facilities. The funds were voted through in a knockabout full council meeting almost devoid of evidence, with no councillors opposing the increase. An account of proceedings follows, accompanied by a summary of the preceding Planning Committee meeting where almost all concerns around the supposedly non-material amendments to the BHLR scheme – including removal of a bus lane – were swept aside. (see ‘A Day at County Hall’ below.)
BHLR – A DAY AT COUNTY HALL
ESCC PLANNING COMMITTEE
On July 10th, 2013, East Sussex County Council Planning Committee considered their authority’s ‘non-material amendments’ (NMAs) to the BHLR scheme. Three objectors to the NMAs had registered a wish to address the Planning Committee and did so on the proposed amendments concerning Drainage and Flooding contingencies, the bus lane removal, and ‘Greenway’ alterations. Pete Caunter spoke on the first of these, Derrick Coffee on the second, and Andrea Needham on the third. All three speakers held that the amendments were material amendments departing significantly from the original BHLR plans, and that therefore the planning process would need to be re-run.
Before this, Planning Officer Tony Cook argued that the amendments were relatively minor, and the effects were predicted to be either neutral or environmentally beneficial.
With ‘extreme weather events’ on the increase, increased surface runoff from roads and the newly built up environment, and rising sea level all adding to uncertainties around the capacity of drainage infrastructure to cope, Pete Caunter’s concerns were legitimate and were echoing neighbours’ worries about these matters: Pete and the neighbours live along the line of the Egerton Stream which at intervals in the past, has caused flooding problems both near their homes and also in Egerton Park which floods regularly. Pete flagged up the issue of frequent flooding in the Combe Haven valley and the danger and impracticability of substituting fords for bridges.
Derrick Coffee’s concerns were around the contradiction between ESCC’s expression of certainties supporting the case for the bus lane removal and uncertainties or complete ignorance around future levels of bus services: the nature and extent of those services is after all, unknown, including to ESCC. Consultants working for ESCC have suggested that services could be expanded and the two regional hospitals of Eastbourne and Hastings have both talked openly of the need for bus services linking the two to provide access to the different clinical services that each will in future offer. Those consultants have made no reference though to evening, Sunday and Bank Holiday services. Derrick Spoke on behalf of the Hastings Alliance.
Speaking for the Combe Haven Defenders, Andrea Needham pointed out that the exercise in amendments was a purely ‘cost cutting’ (‘value engineering’) one, dressed up as inconsequential, minor and very sensible changes to the scheme. She gave an example of an application to a planning committee for the provision of a canopy to a small area of a school playground being viewed as ‘material’, while major amendments in today’s BHLR plan were somehow ‘non-material’. Diversions of the ‘Greenway’ would make it less attractive to non-vehicle users, resulting in more car trips, provision of a ford instead of a bridge would create hazards in flood conditions, and arrangements for combining equestrians, pedestrians an cyclists would cause conflict.
Following our addresses, various councillors’ commented, mostly in support of the ESCC position. Only Cllr Field agreed that the bus lane removal was a ‘material amendment’ and that there was a danger of traffic backing up behind buses.
Cllr Ensor’s views (Bexhill) would, he said, exclude all representations of those not living in his locality.
Tony Cook summed up and demonstrated a misunderstanding of Derrick’s point around the anticipated ‘low’ level of bus services. Derrick described this expectation of bus services as ‘pessimistic and unimaginative’; Tony Cook referred to that pessimism as a description of the function of the amendment to the junction without the bus lane. He thus missed the point altogether that the ‘low level’ of bus services cannot be assumed because no-one on the planning committee has any idea of the future extent or nature of bus services. There is no bus strategy.
FULL COUNCIL MEETING – SAME DAY
The funding increase of over £13m was agreed after almost 2 hours of overwhelmingly evidence free dialogue: you couldn’t call it debate.
Accusations of incompetent management of finances came from the Lib Dems and Labour, accompanied by calls for Lead Member for Transport Economy and Environment to resign. These were very soon laid aside with assertions of support in the light of the ‘higher costs of cancellation’. There was fear expressed of then losing the government’s £56m (now less than half the costs). This of course ignored the ‘non-BHLR, public transport option’ that we now know was offered to ministers so, no, the funds would not necessarily be lost. That’s of no interest: they will have their road whatever the cost.
Just one councilor (Rosalyn St Pierre, Lib Dem, Ringmer and Lewes Bridge) queried the BHLR ‘jobs assertions’ mentioning the DfT assessment of ‘1,000’, flowing from the road and developments. That was the sole piece of evidence featured in the whole session. She also queried the levelling of blame at protestors. She suggested that it had been foolish to pretend that protests would not arise: they were predictable. “Many young people hate road building” she said.
Cllr Field (Lib Dem Battle/Crowhurst) didn’t want this road but supported a road. She also supported some development in villages to ensure viable services were available.
Cllr Hodges, (Labour, Hastings) believed that the (3,500!) jobs would flow to the premises (and their vast car parks?) and create clusters.
Cllr Shuttleworth (Lib Dem, Eastbourne) warned that there may be further requests for even more money from ESCC coffers.
Cllr Pragnell (Con, Hastings) Defended the increase ‘…benefits the whole county…3,000 jobs’, while Cllr Elkin, (Con Eastbourne) spoke in similar vein – panacea for jobs, etc.
Cllr Carstairs (UKIP) simply offered support. Clr Keeley (UKIP) – known to be opposed to BHLR, was not present.
Cllr Wallis (Lib Dem, Eastbourne) echoing Cllr St Pierre’s scepticism, alone expressed doubt over the links between roads and jobs.
The low points of the meeting (there were many) were characterised by comments on:
Jobs – there would be 3,000; there would be 3,500. It varied during the meeting. These would all be ‘high quality’ jobs.
Environment – cancelling the BHLR would lead to desecration of the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) – it would be opened up for developers. The Combe Haven is less important than the AONB. BHLR would allow people to enjoy the scenery as they drive through. People could get to the countryside more easily.
Costs – Cllr Tutt – Lib Dem, Eastbourne, quoted the costs of BHLR to local council tax payers as £288.00 for every inhabitant of East Sussex. He then went on to support the increase.
Costs for the BHLR were described as rising from £50m to £113m now. (This ignored the 2002 cost assessment of £24m (South Coast Multi-Modal Study), and misquoted the government’s conditional approval in 2004 of £47m).
Lead member for Economy, Transport and Environment, Cllr Carl Maynard, spoke of the benefits to the ‘travel to work area’ (with BHLR, to become the ‘drive to work area’?). Cllr Simmons described the investment in the road as ‘an exact science’. An amazing claim which shows clearly that he has never read the Department for Transport’s analysis of the case for the Link Road. But hang on: we haven’t yet met a councillor who has read it. Obsessive progress of this great and expensive ‘vanity project’ doesn’t permit an analytical approach.
One councillor was barracked for suggesting that the rising costs from the capital budget were unpalatable in the light of cuts to services. He wasn’t evidently understanding the separation of budgets. But the public’s anger of this profligate use of their money in a time of cuts is real, and we should remember the threat made by former leader Cllr Peter Jones to use capital from the education budget to fund the road if he didn’t get a government contribution.
Blame for delay was laid by some councillors at the door not only of the protestors but that of the Department for Transport. Clearly the conduct of the BHLR project by the County Council is viewed by councillors as ‘perfect’. The awful truth is that most delays are due to mismanagement by the council itself, and that is in no small part due to their pursuit at any cost of what is at best a mediocre road scheme irrelevant to the needs of Bexhill and Hastings, and at worst a disaster for the county as a whole and Bexhill and Hastings in particular. Failure of ESCC to work effectively with the government’s statutory environmental bodies – Environment Agency, Natural England and English Heritage – cost them a delay of almost three years between the 2004 ministerial approval and the 2007 planning application to which all three raised objections, two formally. The 2004 approval, incidentally, costed the BHLR at £47m!
GATHERING IN THE VALLEY – 13th JULY AT CROWHURST
Hundreds turned up for the national rally at Crowhurst recreation ground on a glorious day to hear music, speeches from local and national figures, enjoy a coconut shie and great food. Walkers arrived with guides from Bexhill, St Leonards, Hastings and Crowhurst stations to see the valley, scarred but still tranquil.
Speakers included Stephen Joseph, Director of the Campaign for Better Transport; John Stewart, veteran campaigner from Clear Skies/Plane Stupid (Heathrow, third runway issue); Ralph Smyth, Senior Transport Campaigner at CPRE; Georgia Wrighton of CPRE Sussex; Tony Whitbread, CEO of Sussex Wildlife Trust, also speaking for Wildlife Trusts UK.
Andrea Needham of Combe Haven Defenders, Derrick Coffee of Campaign for Better Transport- East Sussex, Michael Bernard of BLINKRR and Sonia Howley of Crowhurst Road to Nowhere Action Group gave a local take on the history of the scheme, heritage of the valley(s) and the habitat destruction evident to all who passed through the valley on this day.
The successful event was organised by Crowhurst Road to Nowhere Action Group; Combe Haven Defenders and Campaign for Better Transport.
The Combe Haven Defenders website carries excellent coverage of the day’s events and other news:
Two excellent letters from the Hastings Observer express the continuing anger over the destructive and ever more costly road scheme: