Community leaders were divided last night on the best way forward for Chichester’s A27 just days ahead of crucial council decisions.
Chichester has been asked to chose one of two options before the end of the month, MP Gillian Keegan reiterated to the community meeting after announcing last week her appeal for more time had been rejected.
The community can either back Highways England’s preferred option, revealed by Mrs Keegan as Option 2 with mitigations, to ‘formally uncancel the scheme’ and re-secure up to £250m originally allocated in the Government’s Road Investment Strategy (RIS) 1.
Or Chichester can choose to reject the funds and continue to pursue its own solution to bid for the second pot of central roads funding, RIS2, which Mrs Keegan said ‘was not guaranteed’ but would be supported by Highways.
After discussing the merits of both during the three-hour meeting at the Council House in Chichester, the group - made up of parish, district and county councillors, business and education leaders and campaigners - took a straw poll and voted 36-26 in favour of RIS2.
Feedback from the group will now ‘steer’ Chichester district councillors at a special meeting on Wednesday and West Sussex County Council’s cabinet member for highways and infrastructure, Bob Lanzer, who will jointly make the final decision to present to Highways within the next four days.
Mrs Keegan began with an hour-long update on her meetings with transport minister Jesse Norman MP and Highways’ CEO Jim O’Sullivan.
She said Highways were keen to implement its preferred Option 2, with more discussion with the community, which was backed by 31 per cent during last summer’s public consultations but was also deeply unpopular with many because it included a new southern link road dissecting communities as well as flyovers.
“Highways England are very keen to do this option for a number of reasons,” Mrs Keegan said.
“They see all the problems here in Chichester and secondly once they fix other parts of the A27, it’s not going to be very helpful to the overall scheme if traffic stops at Chichester, and it will only get worse if everyone exports their traffic jams and environmental problems to us.”
Mrs Keegan said she felt choosing Option 2 ‘wasn’t going to work’ because it was unlikely to find the community consensus Highways has asked for because ‘there’s a lot of people with concerns with that option’.
She said to secure money and start building in 2020, a decision was needed by the end of September because there were only 31 months of the current five-year RIS left.
Mrs Keegan said to have a chance of securing the second pot of money, a bid would need to be submitted by Easter, though ‘nothing on RIS2 was guaranteed’.
She warned there would be similar budget constraints and any new scheme would need to match the Cost Benefit Ratio (CBR) of Highways’ options.
In a letter to Mrs Keegan, handed out at the meeting, Highways CEO Mr O’Sullivan said the early years of RIS2 were ‘virtually full’ so any Chichester scheme ‘would most likely start in 2023’ and be competing with ‘many schemes nationally’.
He admitted Highways handling of a potential northern route - which saw two options drawn up before being dropped in March 2016 - was ‘not well communicated or managed’.
Giving reasons for it being discarded, Mr O’Sullivan said: “Such a route would heavily contravene current planning guidance due to impacts on the national park, incurs higher cost reducing the BCR and, contrary to popular belief, has had limited development and design work done.
“Against all other schemes we are looking at across the country this idea has almost no probability of success.”
Mr O’Sullivan had said bypass options were being considered through a national park at Arundel because ‘the whole of Arundel is in a national park’, Mrs Keegan said, adding alternative options were a ‘much preferred option’.
She said Highways had continued to examine a offline options ranging from £329m to £600m ‘probably longer than they should have’ when they found to be outside of the National Planning Framework.
The government company had quantified a BCR of a £329m option which she said ‘went down to where it wouldn’t be considered’, and because ‘the material detriment to affected businesses like Goodwood and Rolls-Royce’ hadn’t been examined it was mothballed 14 months ago.
“I went straight into the meeting saying this has been a complete cock-up, by either whoever made the decision to add the northern options or whoever took them out halfway through,” Mrs Keegan added.
Members then discussed the pros and cons of both choice in groups before voting.
Summing up the polar opinions in the room, Jeremy Hunt, county councillor for Chichester North, said: “I’ve gone for RIS1 because, that money’s on the table now and I’m very concerned if we don’t do this we might lose the money completely.”
While cllr Jamie Fitzjohn said: “As the county councillor for Chichester South, I would vote for RIS2, the simple reason being I believe in this process, and I believe in democracy, and 47 per cent of people rejected RIS1, simple as that.”
Louise Goldsmith, West Sussex County Council leader, concluded by saying ‘tonight has been quite challenging’ but said everyone was ‘unanimous in wanting to do the right thing for the area’.
She pledged her commitment to ‘continue with the community voice’ and promised not to renege on money to fund outside transport consultants for help with a community-led scheme.