3 January 2018
Whether you’re a motorist in and around the South Downs or a dedicated user of public transport you will probably be aware of the various proposals put forward by Highways England (HE) to increase capacity on sections of the A27.
Some argue that these are necessary to make journey times more reliable and improve safety. But the Government’s 2013 announcement of investment to clear the infamous bottlenecks and improve stretches of road between them were met with a mixture of cautious welcome and dismay from locals. The former have been hearing similar promises since the 1960s and the latter argue that a better solution would be to invest in the public transport network.
The A27 enters and leaves the South Downs National Park no less than ten times as it runs north of the downs in East Sussex and along the coastal plain of West Sussex. This means that any schemes to widen it, create new sections of dual carriageway or make new junctions could have a big impact on our nationally designated, protected landscapes.
When considering the potential impacts of the A27 on the National Park we have to look at the big picture – the cumulative impact – not just each scheme in detail. The National Park Authority has approved a position statement on the approach it will adopt to all proposals for upgrading sections of the A27 and this has guided all of our work on the issue.
“We need Highways England to consider all the evidence from the start,” says Andy Beattie, Countryside and Policy Manager who has been leading on the National Park Authority’s response to the A27. “Previous experience has taught us that if the special qualities of the South Downs aren’t flagged up when schemes are first thought of it’s much harder to get them taken seriously at a later stage.
“For example, it’s good news that after a lot of discussion and putting forward our detailed evidence, Highways England has decided not to bring forward proposals for a northern route for the A27 around Chichester. This would have cut into the National Park and caused irreversible and unacceptable damage.”
There is no room to be complacent though. Working on the basis of the SDNPA position statement Andy and colleagues, including specialists in landscape, access, design and heritage, have been looking at Highways England’s plans for the A27 from Lewes to Polegate – a route which currently twists and turns with the landscape at the very foot of the chalk scarp.
“There are some good ideas amongst the proposals – for example creating an off-road route for walkers, cyclists and horse riders – but the junction designs look more suitable for a suburb than villages in a National Park,” continues Andy. “Crossing from north to south to get to the downs from the weald could be made much harder if the road is widened. But it’s the three options for a southern bypass at Selmeston, eight miles east of Lewes, which are most alarming.”
One of the proposals includes creating nearly 4km of new road through an undulating mediaeval landscape. The work would include six cuttings, five embankments and the loss of a 1km tree belt, 1.35km hedge and 1.9ha woodland. Andy believes that wildlife, views and tranquillity would all suffer unacceptable damage.
Even the alternative option using the current route would create issues: “Building up the levels of the road and cutting through hillsides to flatten out the undulations will result in increased speed and negatively impact both views and noise levels. We have also reminded Highways England of the ‘major development’ test. The National Planning Policy Framework makes it clear that any schemes proposed must prove that there really are no alternatives with less impact on the National Park’s special qualities.
“With new technology and learning from other schemes, more could be done to improve traffic flow and safety while reducing the impact and these options should be fully considered. We’d really like to see more imaginative solutions which look at how the A27 links with the local road network.
“Past evidence suggests that the majority of traffic on the A27 is local and that bottlenecks lead to congestion at peak times both on the trunk and tributary roads. If this is still the case, there’s a high risk that proposals will cause irrevocable damage to the National Park and do no more than move congestion to another nearby location, making the present situation worse.
“I’d like to see more investment into finding new ways to encourage people to reduce non-essential car journeys, travel at different times and have access to more reliable trains and buses and dedicated cycle routes. We’ll continue to work with all the agencies and authorities involved in bringing forward these proposals, calling for them to have regard to their duty to understand and mitigate damage to the National Park’s special qualities at the highest level.