Billion-pound vandalism: Norman Baker takes aim at the plans for the A27

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I recall a visit I made to a Midlands town to meet various councillors and businessmen (and they were all men) when I was a transport minister. ‘When are we getting our new road?’ they demanded. ‘We have been campaigning for it since 1938!’ I had to explain that it was not a matter of Buggins’ Turn, and the reason countless governments of different colours had refused to fund the road was that it made no sense to do so, economically, environmentally or socially. 

This same knee-jerk petulant protest can be found amongst many in Eastbourne who have been calling for decades for a dual carriageway between Lewes and Polegate. But what exactly do they think this will achieve for Eastbourne? 

The alleged benefits in their eyes, insofar as these can be discerned at all, would appear to be twofold. One is that such a road would help the economy of the town. The second is that it would reduce accidents. Both arguments are flawed.

Evidence from across the country shows that when you build a road with more capacity into a town, there is as much likelihood of it pulling business out than attracting it, particularly if that town’s economy is less than vibrant. When the M4 was built to Wales, a lot of businesses felt they could relocate to the Reading area from where Wales could now easily be served. Similarly, when the A23 was dualled down to Brighton, businesses like Royal Mail felt they could operationally relocate to Gatwick. 

In terms of safety, the last time I checked, the road with the worst accident rate in East Sussex was the A259 from Polegate to Hastings, yet those same siren voices in Eastbourne never seem to mention this, nor the serious accidents that occur on the dual carriageway stretch of the A27 between Lewes and Brighton. 

Nor do they seem to want to factor in that if a new dual carriageway were built between Polegate and Lewes, 40% of existing traffic, being local, would remain on the existing road and doubtless feel able to drive faster. Nor the fact that during my time as the local MP, I secured a good many safety improvements to the existing road that significantly reduced the accident rate, such as islands at junctions and reduced speed limits.

But then I don’t really believe these alleged safety concerns are what is driving the call for a new dual carriageway. But then that is more respectable than the real reason, which is simply that these people want to put their foot down and knock a few minutes off the journey time rather than be stuck behind a car travelling at 45 mph. 

Actually even that is a chimera. They may manage to cut the journey time from Folkington to Beddingham with their brand new spanking road, but they will then have to wait longer to negotiate the junctions at either end, negating any time-saving along the new stretch. Moreover, long-established evidence from the Department for Transport, dating from 1992, demonstrates conclusively that increasing road capacity merely attracts more vehicles. In short, you cannot build your way out of congestion, as somewhere like Birmingham proves all too painfully. 

I have, after around 30 years of campaigning against calls for a dual carriageway along this stretch, yet to hear any coherent arguments against the points I have just made. All I have heard are bald assertions that ‘obviously it makes sense’ and irritation that people like me raise inconvenient arguments against their simplistic prejudices. 

Of course, it is not simply that the upsides they believe will arise are mere fantasies that evaporate as soon as you blow on them. It is that this road, if ever built, will cost taxpayers £1bn, and will cause immense irreversible damage to our beautiful countryside and villages.

A thousand million pounds! And for what? When I was the local MP, I persuaded Southern to cut by a third their season ticket prices on the parallel railway between Eastbourne and Lewes. The result? A big upturn in those who switched from car to train, so many in fact that Southern actually made a small profit from the move. Meanwhile, the A27 had a little less traffic. Cost to the taxpayer? Zero. Cost to Southern? Zero.

To bolster this further, I had two bespoke signs erected along the A27 bearing the logo ‘Eastbourne to Lewes 20 minutes by train’. Here was helpful advice for motorists whose journey between the two points would take longer than this, especially in rush hours (and still would do if their desired new road were built). The one at the Eastbourne end was vandalised. Some people don’t like the facts. It was of course quickly reinstated by Highways England, as would be any vandalised road sign.

I suppose money is only money, and the Chancellor certainly seems to have loads to dish out. But the countryside is something else. Once ruined, it cannot be reclaimed. Has anyone in Eastbourne considered what a road of at least 30m width will do to our countryside, including a section within the National Park? But then maybe that is of little concern to them and their colonial mindset. The countryside must be served up to meet their wishes. What about the villages the three identified routes will affect? Too bad. What about the splendid Mount Caburn that will have to have a raised road in front of it? Shrugged shoulders. 

Just like in the example of the Midlands road I gave, proposals for a new dual carriageway between Polegate and Lewes have been rejected many times over the years because they don’t make sense: because of the enormous cost, the massive damage to the countryside, and the fact that the road will not achieve what its proponents want it to. 

The pressure group SCATE East Sussex is calmly, diligently and professionally now taking up the challenge to stop this latest attempt to run a concrete scar across our countryside. They have my full support.  

Rt Hon Norman Baker was MP for Lewes from 1997 to 2015, and Transport Minister from 2010 to 2013.

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