A417 scheme must deliver on Government pledge to protect wildlife sites and habitat networks.
Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust has raised concerns about Highways England’s revised design for the A417 ‘missing link’ at the Air Balloon roundabout. The scheme design has improved; however, it still increases severance of two GWT nature reserves – covering the Barrow Wake and Crickley Hill Site of Special Scientific interest (SSSI) - and fails to deliver Biodiversity Net Gain. This is at odds with the Government’s commitment to ‘build better, build greener’ and the 25 Year Environment Plan, as well as the Prime Minister’s personal pledge to protect and expand the most important wildlife habitats.
Highways England has long promised that the ‘missing link’ road scheme will be landscape-led, repairing historic damage to the landscape and the wildlife it supports. For over five years GWT has worked with Highways England, alongside the Cotswolds National Landscape and the National Trust, acting constructively, pragmatically and at our own cost to support the design of an appropriate scheme.
The changes proposed in this second statutory consultation represent an improvement to the scheme – notably the reduced gradient of the road as it climbs Crickley Hill, the revised location of the crossing point for the Cotswolds Way and the inclusion of a new crossing near Shab Hill. However, three significant wildlife issues remain unresolved:
1) The road expansion increases severance and destruction within the nationally important Crickley Hill and Barrow Wake SSSI. These are some of the last remaining pockets of flower-rich grassland in the Cotswolds, supporting many threatened species. The link between them is a vital connection in Gloucestershire’s Nature Recovery Network. The Trust is calling for a minimum 50-metre wide wildlife bridge at the Shab Hill crossing, which combined with targeted habitat creation can mitigate the impact of the road scheme.
2) Despite previous assurances, the proposed scheme will result in a net loss of wildlife habitat. The Trust feels that achieving an increase of high-quality wildlife habitat ‘Biodiversity Net Gain’, guided by the Nature Recovery Network, is a fundamental measure of success for a truly ‘landscape led’ scheme.
3) At a time when the importance of nature and outdoor natural green spaces has become clearer and more precious than ever, it is essential that the scheme brings benefits for people, whilst avoiding increased impact on the most sensitive wildlife habitat.
New road schemes are not conducive with tackling the climate and ecological emergencies, but the Trust recognises the need to resolve safety and congestion issues at the Air Balloon roundabout. The Trust urges Highways England to give equal consideration to environmental issues as to engineering design to demonstrate their commitment to being landscape led. This will help to ensure the right level of protection is given to the special wildlife and unique natural heritage of the Cotswolds.