The future of the £274m Norwich Western Link road has been plunged into huge doubt after Natural England signalled the council was unlikely to get a licence to allow bats to be disturbed by its construction.

The late intervention prompted an extraordinary outburst from Kay Mason Billig, the leader of Norfolk County Council, who said the "unelected quango" had "moved the goalposts" and was trying to "subvert the will of the people".

Dereham Times: Kay Mason BilligKay Mason Billig (Image: Norfolk County Council)

Barbastelle bats - which live in woodland along the route of the proposed road - are protected by law in the UK and a special licence is needed from Natural England to do anything which might disturb or harm them.

Mrs Mason Billig warned that, without such a licence, the road could not be built.

But council officers fear new guidance issued by Natural England means the Western Link is unlikely to obtain one - which could spell the death knell for the project.

The guidance is around Natural England's view on whether barbastelle bats have "favourable conservation status" - the minimum threshold at which the species is thriving in England and is expected to continue to thrive.

The organisation says there are not enough bats to grant favourable conservation status and states there is "no known mitigation or compensation" for loss of barbastelle roosting habitat in the short to medium term.

County Hall officers believe that means they will not be granted an environmental licence for the Western Link - to the frustration of Mrs Mason Billig.

"We were confident that we could comply with all requirements and follow Natural England’s advice concerning the measures we would have to take around barbastelle bats," she said.

"Our officers have been in dialogue with Natural England for over a year seeking their input and were confident we would secure the relevant license, in order to commence construction.

Dereham Times: A barbastelle batA barbastelle bat (Image: C. Packman)

"We were awaiting the latest comments from Natural England by February 29 but they contacted us to say that ‘due to a lack of resources’ they could not respond before March 15.

"Fair enough you may say, except that on March 8 Natural England issued new guidance notes, moving the goal posts to such an extent that they will make it almost impossible for us to be granted a licence."

Mrs Mason Billig said the timing of that "stinks" and said the council had sought legal advice.

She said: "Our officers have checked and double checked the guidance and we have taken legal advice on our position. The truth is that without that licence, we cannot build the road.

"Unfortunately, I fear this is yet another example of an unelected quango introducing new rules to suit their narrow remit without thought about how this affects everyone else.

"We saw this on nutrient neutrality, which was a disaster for the house building industry and now we see this new advice (and I use that term loosely), which threatens to block any infrastructure scheme in the whole of southern and central England and Wales.

Dereham Times: An artist's impression of the Norwich Western LinkAn artist's impression of the Norwich Western Link (Image: Norfolk County Council)

She said Natural England's report was "not worth the paper it is written on and yet, I am certain it will be used as an excuse to refuse us a licence to build the Western Link.

"Barbastelle bats are predominantly from central and southern Europe, they are widely distributed from Morocco to Sweden.

"Natural England by their own admission do not have enough data to confirm or deny their suppositions on the populations in the UK, yet they have made their decision.

"It beggars belief that vital infrastructure projects, which have the backing and funding from central government and the overwhelming support of the local population, can be blocked, on the hoof, without evidence and effectively in secret by such an unelected organisation.

"The cabinet and I are agreed, we will not sit by and let this project be derailed without a fight.

"We will be submitting our planning application, and we will be challenging this attempt to subvert the will of the people and their elected representatives by every means at our disposal."

Norfolk County Council's cabinet agreed in December to give the go-ahead for plans for the 3.9-mile-road, which would link the Northern Distributor Road to the A47 west of Norwich, to be lodged.

The Department for Transport (DfT) last year committed £213m towards the Norwich Western Link.

But officials left the door open to award £38m more towards the road's £274m price tag, using money 'saved' by scrapping the northern section of the HS2 high-speed rail link.

However, despite discussions between County Hall and the DfT, the government has yet to confirm the extra cash, although council leaders had insisted they were "confident" money would come.

The county council and supporters of the road, including businesses, say it will cut traffic congestion, reduce journey times, boost the economy and improve safety.

But critics say it will increase carbon emissions and damage habitats. Norfolk Wildlife Trust has raised concerns about the impact of the road, which includes a viaduct over the River Wensum, will have on bats and other wildlife.

The Labour and Green groups at County Hall, and some members of the Liberal Democrat group, are opposing the road, while the Stop The Wensum Link group was formed to fight it.

Dereham Times: Jamie OsbornJamie Osborn (Image: Jamie Osborn)

Green county councillor Jamie Osborn said: "The Norwich Western Link has been an enormous waste of hundreds of millions of pounds, and it has now been found that going ahead with the road could be illegal. 

"The Conservatives have been ignoring the glaring financial and environmental risks that have been obvious on the Norwich Western Link for years. By doing so they have put Norfolk's financial security at risk.

"The County Council must not waste any more of taxpayers' money on this doomed project, when vital services are already being cut."

Dereham Times: Steve MorphewSteve Morphew (Image: Denise Bradley)

Steve Morphew, leader of the Labour group, said: "This has been floundering and stumbling from crisis to crisis.

"The arrogance with which the Conservatives have been pushing this through without taking proper notice of the environmental and financial implications meant they have repeatedly failed to anticipate problems despite our efforts.

"It really is time to ditch the Western Link and look for less damaging, less costly and speedier solutions.

"It's probably time the cabinet members responsible were replaced as they now intend to spend a fortune in legal fees while the costs of the scheme balloon and the risks escalate."

Dereham Times: Steffan AquaroneSteffan Aquarone (Image: Alex Broadway)

Liberal Democrat county councillor Steffan Aquarone said: "I said several years ago that I didn't think the Western Link Road would ever go ahead, and it now looks like it won't.

"We need more healthcare facilities here in North Norfolk, not a £250m road through a conservation area that may, or may not, shave a few minutes off journey time to the west of Norwich.

"This road project, regardless of its claimed merits or ecological damage, is a poor use of money. An alternative solution needs to be put forward."

Dereham Times: David PettDavid Pett (Image: David Pett)

David Pett, from the Stop The Wensum Link campaign group, said: "This is a resounding victory for the preservation of our natural landscapes and wildlife. It sends a clear message that reckless development at the expense of our environment will not be tolerated.

"This outcome demonstrates the power of collective action and the importance of safeguarding our natural heritage. We commend Natural England for prioritising the protection of our environment and wildlife.

‘This serves as a reminder that sustainable alternatives must be pursued. It is an opportunity for NCC to reflect on the importance of responsible development that balances the needs of communities and the environment."

The council had already altered the route of the proposed £274m Western Link, after its own surveys showed the presence of barbastelle bats in woodland.

But ecologist Dr Charlotte Packman, who had been working with Norfolk Wildlife Trust, said her studies showed the mammals were far more widespread than the council had accepted.

Dereham Times: Gareth DalglishGareth Dalglish (Image: Norfolk Wildlife Trust)

Gareth Dalglish, Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s director of nature recovery, said: “We have been telling Norfolk County Council for several years that the proposed road will result in unacceptable harm to wildlife.

"Barbastelle bats are extremely rare, declining across the globe and very vulnerable to disturbance from development.  

“We have provided report after report to the council which demonstrates the sheer importance of this area for the UK’s largest community of barbastelle bats, found here in Norfolk.

"We have made it clear that the council would be very unlikely to get a licence for a development that would have such a damaging impact on wildlife. 

“This has never been about merely changing the route of the road to avoid individual trees, it has always been about avoiding damage to a whole landscape.

"It is important now that Norfolk County Council use this as an opportunity to find a solution to the traffic issues across the Wensum Valley that supports the prosperity of our communities in harmony with the area's special wildlife."