Opposition accuses county council of misleading public over impacts of proposed Sudbury relief road
Accusations have been fired that the public was misled about the impact of a proposed Sudbury bypass, after it emerged a report initially suggested the negative effects would “far outweigh” the positive.
Opposition campaigners are seeking answers, after alleging that the initial business case for a relief road, first shown to the public in March 2017, changed key wording from an earlier environmental impact assessment, to downplay the adverse impact of such a road.
The assessment by WSP from January 2017, released last week following a Freedom of Information (FOI) Act request, concluded that the damage to environment outside Sudbury, including new land divisions, noise and light pollution, would “far outweigh” the benefits to the town’s conservation area.
However, in the initial business case, the wording states the negative impact “may outweigh” the benefits.
Suffolk county councillor Robert Lindsay, a vocal opponent of the bypass proposals, called the revelations “very disturbing”.
He argued the environmental report had been watered down to persuade county leaders to spend £600,000 of public money on a more detailed study.
But a spokeswoman for the county council said further investigations are ongoing to help understand the “benefits and dis-benefits” better, adding that the new outline business case clearly recognises the potential adverse effects of a relief road.
This sentiment was echoed by relief road supporter Jack Owen, a town and county councillor for Sudbury, who said opponents of the bypass were “clutching at hairs”, and suggested that all parties should wait for the full assessment to be completed before passing judgement.
The idea of constructing a relief road for Sudbury has been controversial.
Advocates argue it is the best way to alleviate congestion and pollution in the town, while opposition like the Save Our Meadows campaign says a bypass will only attract more development, thus creating heavier traffic.
The Suffolk Public Sector Leaders Group agreed at the end of last year to provide £600,000, derived from business rate payments, towards a detailed business case for the relief road proposal.
But Mr Lindsay, of the Green Party, said he felt there was no way they would have made the decision to spend this amount of taxpayer money had the public seen the report as it was originally worded.
He claimed the county council was being driven by “an ideological need” to build a bypass.
“I just find it shocking,” Cllr Lindsay told the Free Press. “It totally changes the conclusions of the report.
“My bigger emotion is of extreme concern and anger that they appear to have produced a dodgy dossier and used it to convince Suffolk leaders to spend £600,000 on a more detailed study.
“I want the public to know that it looks as though the truth is being distorted. I think this will influence a lot of people with an open mind about the proposal.
“I hope there’s an honest explanation for this. I hope they can assure us that anything in this detailed business case will not be massaged to try to promote building a new road.”
In response to accusations that the report’s wording was altered, a spokeswoman for Suffolk County Council said: “The paragraph in the environmental studies and survey report was the initial thoughts at that early point of assessment.
“The paragraph in the main document summary brings together a summary of the whole document, not just the environmental report.
“It is clear that the strategic outline business case continued to recognise the potential adverse impact of the relief road on the historic environment.
“Further and more extensive investigations have followed from our strategic outline business case and will seek to understand the level of benefit and dis-benefit better.
“This work is now being undertaken as part of our current work looking at all options for relieving congestion in Sudbury.”
An additional response by cabinet member for highways Mary Evans, seen by the Free Press, stated the county council and WSP, the original author of the environmental report, had agreed the wording could be changed.
Cllr Evans explained this was because they believed the initial wording did not give adequate weight to the positive receptors of the proposals, and they felt the impact assessment was “not sufficiently advanced” to be able to weigh up the balance between the positive and negative effects.
Supporters of the relief road scheme have also defended the council.
Labour councillor Jack Owen, a long-time backer of the bypass proposal, said: “Robert Lindsay is clutching at hairs and being very selective by singling out one word.
“‘May’ or ‘will’ are emotional words and an opinion of producer of the report. The opponents of a bypass are not prepared to see any positives in the report, and are not prepared to wait for the full assessment.
“Let us see what comes out of the report later this year and then have the debate.”
South Suffolk MP James Cartlidge, another long-time supporter of the relief road scheme, added: “The issue of whether to proceed with a bypass in Sudbury has been running for years and in that time a range of reports and recommendations have come forward.
"But the most important thing is that nothing has happened – and the problem of traffic in Sudbury, particularly HGVs, remains as unresolved as ever.
"I cannot really comment on what drafts of previous reports written by third parties may or may not have said, but the underlying policy position has not changed.
"We have heavy congestion in Sudbury, with damaging pollution levels on roads such as Cross Street.
"We therefore have to find some kind of solution. I have campaigned in principle for some kind of relief road because I cannot see another way to move the HGV traffic.
"But, any proposal would need detailed consideration that weighs up all potential factors and it is critical to remember that no route has been set out, let alone planned for.
"The good news is that, partly as a result of campaigning by those from across all parties who want to see a solution, we now have a much more detailed ‘Outline Business Case’ in process that will look at all possible solutions including the potential case for a bypass.
"We should therefore focus on that process and ensure that all sides of the debate have an input.
"Of course, it’s important we get the process right and I will be meeting officials involved in drawing up the OBC in the coming weeks for an update on what progress they are making."