• Old Roads and New Hope

    So this coming weekend, people from Hastings, Bexhill and further afield will be gathering on route of the proposed link road there to help determine how they might go about defending the beautiful and tranquil Combe Haven Valley. It has been classed by the County Council themselves as ″probably the finest medium-sized valley in East Sussex, outside of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.″ Watermeadows and the river mark the central point from which low, rolling hills rise up like soft inversions of the clouds. The last time I went there, it was the first day of sun after a protracted period of heavy rain and somehow it felt on some strange, subtle level like there was hope in the air. A strange and undefinable hope, one that perhaps was yet to be determined but no less tangible for that.

    But come last spring, to hear the decision on the road, such hopes seemed suddenly much further off. The two SSSI’s the road would affect would be cut off from each other by the road and ‘severance’, in conservation speak represents a big part of the effect this scheme would have. All kinds of populations of creatures would be affected by this, and not just between the two designated areas but also between other complimentary areas such as the adjacent species-rich floodplain grassland and fen. Habitat links such as hedges, copses and ditches would be cut in two.

    There are eight species of bat present in the area and studies have shown that continuous lighting along roads creates barriers which at least some of them will not cross from instinctive fear of being picked off by predators. There are also concerns that small populations of dormice in land that would be south of the road would become isolated.

    There is also the issue of the impact of noise on birds like redshank, lapwing and snipe within the SSSI’s, with nearby Marline Valley being directly adjacent to the road. It was hoped that the remainder of the site could absorb birds forced away from proximity to the road but this takes no account of whether the place is already at a fairly full ‘carrying capacity’ in terms of the bird population it supports.

    There are similar concerns about the visual impact on birds such as waders and waterfowl. This can be felt up to 1km away and affects a substantial proportion of the Combe Haven SSSI. Otters have been recorded in the vicinity of the scheme and it is possible that watervoles are still present in the valley. There would be undoubted effects on the local badger population and on that of the great crested newts and other reptiles while nitrogen deposition during and after construction would affect the sensitive waterways of what constitutes a priceless habitat.

    The Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 enshrined the necessity of protecting these sites and means that the County Council have a duty to not only conserve but to enhance them. There are other laws and guidelines that emphasise similar responsibilities such as “Delivering Sustainable Development” which states that Local Planning Authorities should seek to enhance the environment as part of development proposals, “Biodiversity and Geological Conservation” which describes how

    planning decisions should maintain, enhance, restore, and add to biodiversity

    interests and the draft South East Plan which seeks to avoid a net loss of

    biodiversity and to actively pursue opportunities to achieve a net gain of biodiversity

    across the region.

    There have been objections from Natural England and the Environment Agency citing unacceptable damage to habitats as well as increased flood risk. The heads of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, The Campaign to Protect Rural England and The Campaign for Better Transport all wrote to Transport Secretary Justine Greening calling the project "the most environmentally harmful and least economically justified road scheme currently being proposed in England."

    All of this; these sad, depressing runs of information somehow only serve to re-enforce a sense of a reversion to a bitter status quo. Was nothing learnt, you have to wonder, from the worse excesses of the eighties and nineties, does anybody reasonably think this constitutes a meaningful step towards a forward thinking transport policy? That the A257 around Hastings and Bexhill is badly congested is almost as obvious a point as the fact that the public consultation about the road was hopelessly skewed, with less than 2% of the population answering a poll that placed the scheme in favour while letters of complaint outnumbered those in support of the scheme to the tune of thirtytwo to one. Meanwhile a poll conducted by The Hastings and St Leonards’ Observer in 2010 found 62% of respondents were against the scheme.

    That 80% of cars upon the present road start and finish their journeys within Bexhill or Hastings and that this could have represented a chance for a local transport initiative with real potential seems lost upon the councillors fixated with a fix of infrastructure. The approval of the scheme is a reflection on a national transport policy that seems as regressive with ever, with the approval of so many schemes despite – how can we term it – overwhelming financial disincentives, reinforces the sense of unmitigated loss. Costs for the Hastings contract alone have already spiralled by at least 150% to the tune of £100 million. As the history of other schemes has shown, it’s almost guaranteed that costs will rocket further during the process of construction.

    The hope that I felt on that early spring day is largely carried now by such actions as the coming camp at Hastings. But nothing will really shift without the willingness for many more to engage in, to wrestle with or simply entertain the wider argument that must confront the so far seemingly intractable issue of our ongoing car culture. Meanwhile the sense of blindness within so many within Westminster appears to be entrenched, just as it does within the countless County Halls packed full of men full of yesterday’s thinking. In places like Hastings up and down the country, they are already calibrating the damage due to come because so far too few seem willing to believe that as a nation we can be prised from behind the wheels of a tide of rubber, steel and moulded plastic. Our ability to do so remains the greatest hope we have for a society that can meet a future of increased energy restraint while preserving that which should remain most valuable, to say nothing of the hope for our steering clear from extremes of a climate that may soon be beyond our control.

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branchlines

The posts here originally grew from a website that was set up to advertise a book that describes things a long time ago. That book was always intended to address more than any single issue, even if it encompassed that as well.

At its broadest, I hoped it could help express how things can be when anyone of us acts on behalf of the environment, of their community, of our collective future itself. It was informed by far more than simply the times it describes; it was an attempt to articulate a feeling that has carried on and grown and means more than just a narrow 'us and them'.

I'm mainly working on other writing at the moment but thought there was probably something to be said for keeping these posts online while the issues they deal with remain relevant. I hope you find something on these pages that proves of interest or use as we all rise to meet the new times.

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