What happens when a road is open for traffic, yet the information about it is anything but?
In this guest blog, Andrea Needham from the Combe Haven Defenders updates us on the mystery surrounding the troubled Bexhill-Hastings Link Road.
In 2012, East Sussex County Council began building the Bexhill Hastings Link Road (BHLR), a three mile road running across the middle of an incredibly beautiful, remote and wildlife-rich valley. Despite huge protest, the road finally opened a year ago, the roar from the traffic destroying forever the tranquility of Combe Haven.
But that wasn't the end of it.
We had been told we needed a new road to relieve congestion and 'open up' the countryside for development. It turned out that the BHLR was simply moving congestion from one place to another – so we needed another road (this time right across the middle of a local wildlife site) to relieve the traffic jams caused by the first one. Then we needed two more in order to maximise the economic benefits of the first one.
So rather than one new road, we're getting four.
Whilst we haven't managed to stop these roads (although we have severely delayed at least two), we are keeping a close eye on issues including funding and project management.
Much of the funding comes from central government via the South East Local Enterprise Partnership (SELEP), and we've been reading the minutes of their meetings closely. Not long ago, we found that the North Bexhill Access Road (NBAR) had been allocated £16.6m by SELEP. Sounds a lot, until you start doing a little maths. At 2.4km, the NBAR would cost £6.9m/km. The BHLR, meanwhile, cost £22.2m/km, whilst Campaign for Better Transport's 2012 research (see page 4) found the average cost of the new roads proposed at that point to be £24.6m/km.
So the NBAR, at less than a third the per kilometre cost of comparable roads, would appear to be very seriously underfunded.
Our concern is that the developer – local not-for-profit 'regeneration' company SeaChange Sussex – may have downplayed the likely cost in order to secure funding, and that once the project is underway they will approach SELEP or East Sussex County Council (ESCC) for more money. In order to raise awareness of the situation – and hopefully to dissuade SeaChange from asking for more money – we launched a petition demanding that SELEP refuse to allocate any more public funds for the NBAR.
We got nearly 400 signatures, some online, and some gathered at a street stall. The petition was printed out in the form of a five metre-long 'road', which made it a more interesting picture for the local press. We're still waiting for a response from SELEP but we hope that it might make them think twice about allocating more public money for this awful road.
On another front, we've been trying to get hold of an ESCC 'assurance review' of the BHLR. We made a Freedom of Information (FoI) request for this document several months ago, and were put off and put off, but kept on nudging them (we use the excellent website 'What do they know' for FoI requests: not only do they email you reminders when it's time to chase up the relevant authority, but it also means that the information is in the public domain for everyone to see).
Eventually, we received a 15 page document, of which a huge proportion was redacted. This was, ESCC said, because, 'Disclosure of the redacted information, which includes information relating to commercial strategy, would compromise the Council’s competitive advantage in terms of settlement negotiations and also in terms of final price'. However, careful reading of the parts that hadn't been redacted suggested that ESCC had been rather more enthusiastic with their black pen than could be justified by reference to commercial strategy. Some redacted parts appeared to relate entirely to archaeology; others to risk management, planning conditions and 'reputation issues'.
It seemed very likely that many of the redactions had been made not because disclosing the information would compromise the council's commercial strategy, but because they would be embarrassing. We've put in a request for internal review, and are still waiting – 40 days on – for a response. If they don't respond very soon, or release only very small parts of the redacted information, we'll be making a complaint to the Information Commissioner.
Although traffic is roaring along the Bexhill-Hastings Link Road, it's not the end of the story: the county council has to be held accountable for the financial and environmental disaster it represents, and we're going to continue to do that.