The government's nature advisors say Norfolk County Council has known about the presence of bats in the area of the Norwich Western Link for more than 10 years - in response to criticism it has 'moved the goalposts'.

County Hall leader Kay Mason Billig recently slammed Natural England for attempting to "subvert the will of people" with what officers branded an "unexpected and dramatic" change in guidance around the £274m road.

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

Council officers said that threatens the future of the 3.9-mile road, which would connect the Northern Distributor Road to the A47 west of Norwich, because it could see the council denied the environmental licence needed to disturb barbastelle bats - a protected species - along the route.

Mrs Mason Billig said Natural England had "moved the goalposts" and Norfolk's Conservative MPs have called on environment secretary Steve Barclay to intervene.

Dereham Times: Environment secretary Steve BarclayEnvironment secretary Steve Barclay

And that has prompted Natural England officers to issue a statement explaining their side of the situation.

READ MORE: Norfolk MPs criticised for 'attack' on Natural England

Council 'aware of bats' for 10 years

James Marshall, Natural England's deputy director for Norfolk and Suffolk, stressed it was up to the council to decide whether to grant planning permission, with members of the planning committee weighing up the advice and guidance given by Natural England.

Dereham Times: A visualisation of the Norwich Western LinkA visualisation of the Norwich Western Link (Image: Newsquest)

He said: "For the Norwich Western Link (NWL), the local planning authority is Norfolk County Council.

"The council is also the developer for the scheme. As the developer, it is the council's responsibility to show there is no satisfactory alternative to their scheme and that the conservation status of the bats will not be negatively affected by the scheme.

"On the council's application for the NWL, and their previous scheme for the Norwich Northern Distributor Road, Natural England has been working closely with them and the council has been aware that the current road proposal may affect the population of barbastelle bats for more than 10 years.

"Barbastelle bats are protected by environmental laws."

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

Natural England recently published a report into 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.

Mr Marshall said: "These assessments do not introduce new targets or rules, but are intended to provide the most comprehensive overview of current knowledge on status to help planners, decision makers and practitioners meet their aspirations and legal duties to protect and recover nature."

While the planning decision will be up to the council, after it is made, Natural England would decide whether to grant the environmental licence to allow the bats to be disturbed by the construction of the road.


What the council says

Norfolk County Council has previously altered the route of the road after surveys showed the presence of the bats.

A Norfolk County Council spokesman said: "The presence of barbastelle bats in the area has been a key consideration in the development of the Norwich Western Link.

"The project team have had regular contact with Natural England over a number of years and their input has helped to shape the approaches that have been taken.

"We are very keen to work with Natural England alongside and as part of the planning process to find a solution which would enable the necessary protected species licences to be granted by them."

The council has previously been criticised by opponents who say it should have paid more heed to warnings that it had underestimated how widespread bats were in the area of the road.