Dead squirrels and aspirational buses: the Link Road construction exhibition

May 29, 2014 by combehavendefenders

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe bi-annual construction exhibitions, in Sidley, St Leonards and Crowhurst, are continuing.  East Sussex County Council (ESCC) is required to put these on, to keep ‘stakeholders’ (that’s us, folks) informed of their progress in building the Link Road.  One gets the very strong sense that the ESCC staff and contractors who are forced to attend these charades would rather be almost anywhere else than in a community centre on a wet day, surrounded by largely hostile locals.

Lacklustre and thrown together

The first one was held in Sidley. It was a very lacklustre affair, in contrast to the previous exhibitions which included lovely models of the road and lots of people to talk to. This one looked as if it had been thrown together earlier that day, by someone hurriedly (and with terrible written English) making a few posters, then printing them out and tacking them to the wall.

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Sea Change don’t answer the questions again

We were sad to see that Sea Change – developers of the Link Road to the Link Road (aka the Gateway Road) were not present. At the last exhibition, the Sea Change representative was notable by his unwillingness to answer perfectly straightforward questions. We were promised answers to our questions within a month; six months on, we’re still waiting.

Not insisting that Sea Change show up was very poor public relations on the part of the county council, as the Gateway Road is now under construction and there were people who had come wanting to ask questions about it. In recent weeks a huge hoarding has been put up along Wrestwood Road where the Gateway Road is being built, obscuring the building work. It would appear that Sea Change wishes to hide in more ways than one.

Shy, so shy….

The people we were offered included three engineers, the project manager, the environmental manager and the PR person, Chloe de Renzy Martin. We asked the latter three if we could ask them questions on film; all declined. The environmental manager claimed that we could not film as we were on private premises (funny that – we thought it was a community centre, for the community), whilst Chloe de Renzy Martin said she was too vain to be filmed. We pointed out that by having their answers recorded on camera, there was no chance of our misrepresenting them, but they were unpersuaded.

Construction hours increase by 30%
We were keen to explore the issue of the 30% increase in permitted hours of work, which to us suggested that – ESCC protestations notwithstanding – the project was behind schedule and they were running to catch up. Not at all: it turns out that rather than ask for ad hoc permission to increase work hours, it’s more efficient to ask for a blanket increase, which they may – or may not – use. There was, however, some disagreement as to whether the excessively wet winter had caused delays: project manager Bob Pape insisted it hadn’t, whilst Chloe de Renzy Martin said that it had.

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Flooded construction site, winter 13/14.

Jobs, jobs, jobs
We were given very short shrift when we tried to discuss the supposed economic benefits of the road with Chloe de Renzy Martin. She was unable to explain why ESCC’s claim that the project will create 3,000 jobs was directly contradicted by the Department for Transport.  The DfT says that ESCC has ‘significantly overestimated’ the economic benefits, and that the real number of jobs was likely to be in the order of 900. In a rather testy exchange, Chloe told us that, ‘I’m not here to discuss the whys and wherefores of the road’.

Dead squirrels…
In the most extraordinary conversation, the environmental manager, Mark White, explained the incident we had filmed during the tree clearance in the railway cutting in Sidley in April.  An ecologist picks something out of a tree that has just been felled and hides it in a hard hat so we can’t see it. It was not, as we had supposed, a bird’s nest, but was in fact a dead squirrel. Why the dead squirrel didn’t fall off its perch before the tree was felled, or indeed during the felling, he could not explain. It seems that the ecologist, knowing that we were watching him, and supposing us to be of a delicate disposition, felt it necessary to hide said dead squirrel in case the two of us were overcome by the sight of it.

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Grey squirrel, not dead. Photo: KGGucwa

But no nesting birds

This would be hilarious if it weren’t so serious. A huge number of trees were felled during the bird nesting season, and it’s simply not credible that virtually none of them contained nesting birds. Someone else joined in the discussion at this point, and questioned how it was that near Ninfield Road bridge, only one tree had been left standing, supposedly because it contained a bird’s nest.

Was it really possible, she asked, that out of all those hundreds of trees, only one contained a nest? Apparently so – and in addition, there were no ground nesting birds whatsoever in all the dense scrub that was chainsawed along the banks of the cutting – or at least, ‘Not that we recorded’, which some might say was rather a disingenuous answer. But how fortunate that so many birds had had the foresight to build elsewhere this year.

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Railway cutting by Ninfield Road bridge: one tree left standing

Protected species thriving as habitats destroyed

In addition to his certainty that no birds had been harmed, Mark White assured us that not one single animal of a protected species has been killed during the construction process. How one defines ‘killed’ is an interesting question: it may be that no animals have been killed by, for instance, being run over by construction vehicles. However, what of the badgers left homeless by destruction of their setts, and the many reports of dead badgers found on the roadside, having been hit by cars? A local resident, living near Buxton Drive, reported that she used to see many badgers (and foxes, which are not a protected species) in her garden. Now she sees none.

12% less than nothing
Mark White was very keen to tell us that at the start of the project, contractors aimed to reduce the projected carbon emissions caused by the build itself by 5%. In fact, he claimed, they have so far reduced them by 12%. Which sounds fine until you remember that had the road not been built, there would have been no emissions caused by construction. Therefore what they claim is a 12% ‘reduction’ in carbon emissions is in reality a huge increase. The spin is impressive: some of these people should get a job in government.

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Project manager ‘fairly confident’
Our final interviewee was Bob Pape, project manager. It was Bob who, at the last exhibition, put his hand over our camera to prevent us filming our exchange with ‘John’ from Seachange. Asked to explain why he did this, he said that he thought we were ‘picking on’ John by asking him questions. Why exactly John was present if not to answer questions was not made clear.

No delays, honestly guv

Bob insisted that the project had not been delayed by the winter weather. Asked if he thought it would come in on budget, he said cautiously that he was ‘fairly confident’. What about the 3,000 jobs that ESCC claims will be created? That was true, he said, ‘If that’s what it says on the leaflet’. Did he really believe all these jobs would materialise? Yes, he said, ‘In the fullness of time East Sussex will be proven to be correct’. This man should run for prime minister.

Buses: an aspiration, not a commitment
A pressing question for campaigners has been whether there will be buses running along the Link Road from the day it opens. This is crucial, as if there are no bus services from the start, it is likely that many people will get into the habit of driving along the road, and not use the buses when- or if – they eventually arrive.

Bob was a little vague about this. He had been in talks with bus companies, he said, and there was an ‘aspiration’ to have buses running along the Link Road, although not from the day the road opens. An aspiration? He refused to be drawn on this, becoming slightly flustered and saying he’d have to check the wording and was not going to use the word ‘commitment’.  So there we have it: £113m on the Link Road, but only an ‘aspiration’ to provide a bus service for those who don’t have – or don’t want to use – cars.

Upset people, fobbed off

The sense we got from the exhibition was that there were a lot of upset people.  People were upset because all the trees behind their houses had been chopped down; because the animals had vanished from their gardens; because the swans they saw nesting in the valley every year without fail were no longer there; because Sidley is full of dust and traffic and traders are at risk of losing their livelihoods.  Some of the comments suggested that people felt their questions had not been answered, or that they had been fobbed off.

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Comment forms at construction exhibition in Sidley

Only one more to go

Those who have bravely endured these construction exhibitions, perhaps in the vain hope that they might get some answers, should take heart: there should only be one more (unless the project overruns).  That’ll be the final opportunity for ESCC and its contractors to roll out the misinformation and obfuscation that has surrounded this road scheme from the very start.  We won’t miss it.

 

 

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