On the day Nick Harris was announced as its new Chief Executive, former transport minister Norman Baker has spoken out against Highways England plans for a new dual carriageway from Polegate to Lewes which would destroy areas of “beautiful Sussex countryside”.
Writing for Sussex Bylines, Baker emphasised the environmental impact of the plans.
“This new road, if built, would involve slapping down 163ac of concrete, and that’s not counting the 14 or so new accommodation bridges or underpasses for farmers, plus new roundabouts and slip roads,” he said.
“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.”
The A27 between Lewes and Polegate suffers from congestion due to the narrow carriageway and low capacity at junctions. There are limited overtaking opportunities, meaning that traffic regularly queues behind cyclists and other slow-moving vehicles.
Highways England started preparatory work on the scheme in March 2020, with junctions at Polegate and Berwick currently being remodelled.
The scheme proposes junction improvements and walking and cycling provision, along with construction of a section of dual carriageway.
However Baker said that the road would have a “highly damaging effect on local flora and fauna” and bring the “even more permanently damaging prospect” of new housing, with developers building next to the new road.
According to Baker, changing patterns following the Covid-19 pandemic are also worth considering, and he questioned whether the UK should be “bulldozing on” with the £27bn RIS2 roads programme while hosting COP26 in Glasgow.
“Climate change requires a handbrake turn now, not an answer in 2050," he said. "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.”
East Sussex sustainable transport group SCATE has also called for Highways England's A27 proposals to be reconsidered as it does not believe they adequately address issues of congestion.
Instead, the group has suggested the focus should be on improving the existing road between Southerham and Beddingham, taking into account the landscape and dealing with the constraints of chalk pits, rivers and flood plains.
According to SCATE, a multi-modal approach could be key with better rail and bus services, active travel provision and a planning policy that puts new homes near jobs. To improve capacity and increase traffic flow, the group has also suggested widening existing lanes and, where possible, providing extra lanes at small junctions.
A SCATE spokesperson said the group understands that Highways England has put Arcadis director Reuel Abrams in charge of the RIS3 pipeline projects in the South of England, and it is expecting "some form of public engagement about proposals around the A27 East of Lewes before the end of the year".
The spokesperson added: "SCATE East Sussex have been working to persuade Highways England that they must re-base all their previous demand and capacity calculations (which were already out of date the last time they proposed a new road and had it rejected for RIS2); take a genuine multi-modal approach to the issues; and finally put a proper price on the irreversbile environmental damage an offline solution would bring."
A Highways England spokesperson said the organisation is working to maintain and operate the strategic road network safely, while also delivering "safer, smoother and more reliable journeys".
The spokesperson added: “To help us do this, the government’s asked us to develop options for a programme of 32 schemes, the RIS3 Pipeline, between 2020 and 2025. The A27 Polegate to Lewes is one of the 32 schemes, and we’re at the very early stages of developing options for possible improvements there. Throughout this process we’ll be engaging with local stakeholders to help inform our work.
“Once we have a shortlist of options, people will be able to have their say on which option will be put forward to the government to help decide which schemes it will want to fund for delivery from 2025 onwards.”
*Please note: Highways England have now subsequently announced a rebrand to National Highways.