Destroy these outdated A27 plans, NOT the South Downs

A year after writing on this subject in our very first issue, the former Transport Minister and longtime Lewes MP Norman Baker demolishes the persistent proposals for a new A27 motorway to be built on unspoiled East Sussex countryside, along with the last-century thinking behind them, and issues a challenge to the local Conservatives who’ve been backing these plans…

BEFORE & AFTER – left: current view of a section of countryside east of Lewes; right: the same view if the proposed new A27 highway is built

Many years ago, there was an horrendous proposal to drive a swathe of unremitting and unforgiving concrete through the heart of historic Lewes. It was termed by its creators “the Lewes inner relief road”, though the only relief was that this destructive monstrosity was stopped by popular outrage, led by the Friends of Lewes.

The proposal, which incredibly included about seven split-level junctions through the town, has to be seen to be believed. A large-scale, three-dimensional model of the scheme can in fact be found in the Sussex archives at Falmer.

Outdated mindset = outdated approach

Yet the highway engineer’s mindset that, back then, was happy to wreck an historic town has, it seems, not fundamentally changed. How else to explain the creation of three possible routes for a new dual carriageway from Polegate to Lewes, all of which go through beautiful Sussex countryside, including even a section of the supposedly ultra-protected National Park?

This new road, if built, would involve slapping down 163 acres of concrete, and that’s not counting the 14 or so new accommodation bridges or underpasses for farmers, plus new roundabouts and slip roads. Moreover, precedence suggests land taken “temporarily” for construction works may in practice be lost forever. Just look at the section used in about 1986 to base works for the so-called “Comps Farm Diversion” near Beddingham. It remains covered in tarmac to this day.

More pollution is not the solution

This four-lane highway would also bring new – and constant – noise pollution to what is currently, along much of the proposed stretch, still an oasis of calm and tranquility. If you don’t believe me, check out this video from the pressure group SCATE East Sussex:

This video by local campaigning group SCATE East Sussex exposes the flaws in Highway England’s plans for a new A27 highway between Lewes and Polegate

It would also have a highly damaging effect on local flora and fauna. Pristine countryside lost to concrete cannot be recovered: once gone, it is lost forever. Do we really want to see this special section of the South Downs sacrificed to the motorcar?

The view from Wilmington Hill over the Low Weald countryside that would be devastated by the proposed new A27 motorway
The current view from Wilmington Hill – all three proposed “offline” routes for the new four-lane A27 highway would cut right through this unspoiled countryside. Photo: Derry Robinson

A nightmare for locals but a developer’s dream?

A new road would bring an even more permanently damaging prospect – as sure as night follows day, new roads bring new housing. We already have the prospect of thousands of new houses on land owned by Eton College north of Lewes. Developers would relish the prospect of a massive new road between Polegate and Lewes which they could then build with impunity next to.

“Key to the potential damage is the loss of lots of ancient woodland…I have grave concerns about the way development tends to trump conservation. Some of the presumptions we are given need to be challenged. Delivering a wildlife benefit should be an expected norm in planning applications.”  

Dr Tony Whitbread, expert ecologist and former CEO of Sussex Wildlife Trust

Perhaps those Conservative councillors who have been so bullish about a new road might begin to think twice about the wisdom of this, faced with the loosening of planning controls that their government is pursuing, and the huge unpopularity of this in electoral terms, as witnessed by the recent sensational loss of the hitherto very safe parliamentary seat of Chesham and Amersham to the Lib Dems.

A new highway won’t even reduce congestion – it will increase it!

Far from solving traffic congestion, this new motorway-style dual carriageway will add to it, including on the existing stretch of road where, even without any new housing, at least 40% of existing traffic is likely to remain. For the A27 between Lewes and Polegate is, essentially, a local road. It was only ever those trendy highway engineers, with their red braces and set squares and who love drawing lines on map, who saw this as some link in a fantasy road from Folkestone to Honiton.

A before (top) and after (bottom) view of countryside east of Lewes showing how the proposed new A27 four-lane highway would devastate wildlife and the environment
NOW (top photo – current countryside view) and FUTURE (bottom – how the view would change if the proposed new A27 were built)

Covid has changed travel patterns; the climate crisis changes everything

That all aside, is this really the time to be ploughing ahead with such a project? The pandemic has fundamentally changed travel patterns, with much more home-working now established and unlikely to be fully reversed. Just how reliable now are the traffic forecasts that Highways England has used to justify this controversial intervention?

And then there is the small matter of climate change, and the hosting of COP26 in Glasgow later this year, an event billed by many as the world’s last chance to prevent runaway, perhaps irreversible, climate change. Is it really a good look for the host nation, Great Britain, to be bulldozing on with a £27 billion road-building programme?

The transport secretary Grant Shapps has put all his chips on new technology saving the day, and asserts that this will allow us to carry on as normal, travelling where and when we want with no downside. This is disingenuous at best. Leaving aside the fact that a switch to electric does nothing to reduce congestion, an entire zero emission road fleet is decades away, and in any case will still generate pollution through the manufacturing process, and through harmful runoff from tyres and deposits from brakes, a hitherto neglected but not insubstantial problem. Ask any water company.

It’s time for a handbrake turn NOW

Climate change requires a handbrake turn now, not an answer in 2050. There is an immediate gain to be had by promoting modal shift from road to rail, as the Welsh government has begun doing. There is considerable spare capacity, both in existing rolling stock and in terms of train paths on the track, between Lewes and Polegate. Why not cut fares drastically and get people to switch to rail? Of course there is a cost to that, but it is a tiny fraction of the one billion pounds – yes, one thousand million pounds – a new dual carriageway stretch between the two towns would cost, and it would have none of the downsides.

Let me end with an encouraging quote from Councillor Keith Glazier, speaking on behalf of Transport for the South East. Back in May he said: “We know that continuing to cater for ever-rising car use in the South East is simply not an option if we’re to deliver the future we want…A better rail network can reduce congestion on our roads, improve air quality…and boost connectivity and drive substantial economic growth for people and businesses.

Absolutely right, Keith. Will you now, with your other hat on as leader of East Sussex County Council, be abandoning support for the ruinous plan for a new motorway-style dual carriageway between Lewes and Polegate?

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

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