Road to nowhere? Norwich Western Link's uncertain future

Visualisation of Norwich Western Link

A visualisation of the proposed Norwich Western Link seen from the north at Taverham and looking south towards Honingham. The viaduct over the River Wensum is visible in the centre of the image - Credit: Norfolk County Council

The much-trumpeted Western Link Road has been years in the pipeline. But a sudden surge in its price tag has left its future far from certain. DAN GRIMMER reports on how we got here, and what lies ahead for the county's most controversial infrastructure project

Just three years ago, bosses at Norfolk County Council believed they could build the Western Link for £153m.

The price tag for 3.9 miles of road has now soared by just shy of £100m on that figure.

The road's bill, we learned at the end of last week, is now an estimated £251m.

That is almost £50m more than County Hall spent on the 12.5 mile Northern Distributor Road, while the work to dual the remaining nine miles of the A11 around a decade ago cost £134m.

When the Northern Distributor Road was originally mooted, almost 20 years ago, council bosses wanted it to link to the A47 to the west of Norwich.

The Wensum Valley

The Wensum Valley - Credit: XR Norwich

But that was dropped due to the cost of crossing the River Wensum, a site of special scientific interest and special area of conservation, with Natural England and the Environment Agency raising concerns.

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That is why the NDR, also known as the Broadland Northway, currently stops at the A1067 Fakenham Road.

However, the aspiration to complete the so-called 'missing link' to the A47 did not fade.

It was made one of the council's priorities in 2016 and three years later, the Conservative-controlled cabinet agreed a preferred route.

That 3.9 mile road would go from the A1067, near the NDR, travelling halfway between Weston Longville and Ringland.

It would link to the A47 at a new junction at Wood Lane near Honingham, with a 720-metre-long viaduct over the River Wensum.

Artist's impression of a viaduct which could carry the Western Link over the River Wensum. Photo: No

Artist's impression of a viaduct which could carry the Western Link over the River Wensum. Photo: Norfolk County Council - Credit: Norfolk County Council

Supporters of the road include the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, Norfolk Chamber of Commerce, Norwich Airport, Norfolk Fire and Rescue, the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership, Road Haulage Association, First buses, most of the county's MPs and a number of district councils.

Norfolk County Council leaders say it would bring economic benefits and ease rat-running, while they would mitigate for any environmental impact.

The council submitted a business case for the road to the government last year - hoping the Department for Transport will provide 85pc of the scheme's cost - £169m at the time the case was submitted.

A £40m risk reserve had been added in to the budget for the road - but the newly estimated cost exceeds that figure.

While the council hopes the government will still provide 85pc of the cost of the road - the gap would need to filled through money borrowed by County Hall.

Opposition comes from the likes of the Norfolk branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, Norfolk Wildlife Trust and the Norfolk Rivers Trust.

They have all expressed concerns about the impact of the chosen route on wildlife.

The Western Link protest at the Norfolk Showground on the day a decision will be made. Picture: Neil

Campaigners against the Western Link - Credit: Neil Didsbury

The Wensum Valley Alliance, Friends of the Earth, Extinction Rebellion and owners of woodland on the route are also opposing the scheme, with the Stop the Wensum Link campaign group battling to prevent it.

The Labour and Green groups at Norfolk County Council and the Greens are against the road, while the Liberal Democrat group is more split, with some members in favour and some against.

Earlier this year, Norwich City Council withdrew its support for the road, which it had previously supported in principle.

In May last year, the county council revealed the road's price tag had increased to £198m, with inflation, market forces and £22m for environmental mitigation given as reasons for the increase.

Meanwhile, independent bat experts, Wild Wings Ecology, warned the road would wipe out what they say is the largest barbastelle bat colony in the UK.

And, in February, the council confirmed it would need to shift the route of the road because of the presence of protected bats.

The impact of that on the council's budget - and how the route would have to move - was due to be discussed at a meeting of the Conservative-controlled cabinet this month.

But that was delayed by a month until July's meeting because all the necessary work was not completed on time.

Now, from cabinet papers published last week, we can see the full picture.

Norfolk County Council's County Hall headquarters

Norfolk County Council's headquarters at County Hall - Credit: Mike Page

To put that £251m figure into some sort of context, the council's total budget for 2022-23 is £1.637bn.

The authority will spend £617m on children's services, including schools and £495m on adult social care.

The Third River Crossing at Great Yarmouth is expected to cost £121m and the Long Stratton bypass has an estimated cost of almost £38m.

County Hall's coffers are already straining. Possible cuts to other services were announced by the authority on the very same day that the soaring Western Link bill emerged.

The council is hoping that central government - which has its own acute pressures on its finances - will provide the extra cash that its flagship project will now cost. Without it, all bets are off.

All eyes are now on Whitehall to see what signal it might give. For County Hall, these are nervous times.