Tom Hunt is a local councillor from East Cambridgeshire and was a candidate in this year’s Euro-elections.
Reading the Daily Telegraph a week ago today, I came across an article by the biographer, journalist and broadcaster Peter Stanford, which looked into a debate which has been ongoing for some time in my local area, whether or not Ely needs a southern bypass.
The piece included numerous references and quotes from English Heritage representatives.
Rarely have I ever come across such an unbalanced report – certainly never in the Daily Telegraph! However, the piece did raise a number of interesting questions: the role of localism in planning, that of English Heritage, and the future of our cathedral cities.
I was elected as a councillor representing the Ely South ward on East Cambridgeshire District Council in 2011, and I remember the campaign vividly. There was a significant problem. The A142 through Ely carries 15,000 vehicles a day, including 1,200 lorries which are unable to use the underpass at the station and instead have to use the level crossing. This crossing is currently closed around for around 35 minutes every hour. Lorries queuing for it block access to the underpass for other vehicles.
With the amount of freight between Felixstowe to Nuneaton due to increase, predictions are that the crossing gates could be down for 45 minutes out of every hour. Moreover, from an environmental and heritage perspective, over 15,000 vehicles per day passing through the City of Ely is becoming an increasing concern.
Local Conservatives proposed a new southern bypass. The bypass would enable the 15,000 vehicles a day to bypass Ely and would simultaneously solve the traffic bottleneck at the level crossing.
The Liberal Democrats proposed an underpass. Questions were raised about whether or not it would go beneath the water table, raising a number of environmental concerns. More importantly, though it would probably have eased traffic congestion, the15,000 vehicles would still have to go through Ely on the A142.
After these local elections, the Council began to investigate different solutions to the bottleneck. The public were provided with four different costed options to solve the bottleneck. A new southern bypass was one of the options; so too was the underpass. Option B, the southern bypass, received the backing of over 80 per cent of those who took part in the survey.
Some concerns were raised locally about the possible negative impact on the setting of Ely Cathedral in the fens, because the new bypass will involve the construction of a viaduct over the river Ouse and there is one view in particular, close to the river, that would likely be impacted. In reality, this is a vantage point enjoyed only by a very small number of people every year, usually fisherman.
Despite the concerns about the loss of one view, it was still felt by an overwhelming majority, overall and locally, that the bypass should go ahead. The Dean of Ely Cathedral, the Very Rev Mark Bonney, is surely someone well-placed to make an assessment of the heritage aspects of the application and able to weigh up the local needs and desires for a bypass while taking into account the heritage responsibilities. He came out in favour of the bypass and had a letter published prominently in the Telegraph calling for the decision to be made locally and for a new southern link road.
Having received overwhelming local support, an application was then submitted. It was voted on by both East Cambridgeshire District Council planning committee and the County Council planning committee. Both approved the bypass by significant majorities.
This is the true story – the local story. The statement in the Telegraph report that there was a viable alternative to the bypass was incorrect. The report also claimed that there was a local campaign against the bypass when the only campaign against the bypass was the one led by English Heritage and its London-based office, in opposition to local wishes.
As is evident from the Telegraph article, there is a very different version of events presented by English Heritage and their sympathisers. Virtually all of the English Heritage supporters appear not to be local and, as a consequence, do not to have to live with the day-to-day consequences of the failure to find a solution to the A142 bottleneck.
Over the last few years, great uncertainty has weighed over the bypass causing much anxiety locally – caused by only one body, English Heritage. Frankly, the way they have conducted themselves through the process has been insensitive and arrogant. Unfortunately, this is symptomatic of a kind of a patronising viewpoint that sees our Cathedral Cities as museums, rather than as living, breathing communities. At every stage of the planning process, English Heritage have made intense interventions and have been unyielding in their desire to block the scheme.
It was pressure from English Heritage that caused the Secretary of State to issue a “holding direction” after the decision was made locally to opt for a bypass. Thankfully, Eric Pickles saw sense, given the strength of the case for a bypass, and respected local wishes. He therefore withdrew the “holding direction” and has allowed the scheme to move forward.
By contrast, in another location, many believers in localism praised the role that English Heritage was able play in the planning process. In East Northamptonshire, the decision was made to reject an application for a wind farm. Barnwell Manor Wind Energy Ltd appealed – and won the appeal with the result that the planning inspector overturned the local decision. English Heritage then played a key role in bringing the case to the Court of Appeal, teamed up with the local council and were able to ensure that the decision to overturn the decision by the planning inspector was itself overturned due to heritage concerns. This wind farm has not gone ahead.
Though many in East Northamptonshire would have been delighted by the intervention of English Heritage in this instance, it does appear to have set a precedent – one that seems to have give the organisation the belief that, in the case of the Ely bypass, the wishes of local people and the local council should be over-ridden. The role of English Heritage in the planning process is inconsistent. Clearly, there is a role for English Heritage. However, it is one which should be monitored and when necessary questioned.
The other lesson from the Ely bypass debate is about the future of our cathedral cities. They are treasured assets that need to be treated with great care, but these cities are not museums – they are living communities. In going too far in constraining the ability of our cathedral cities to grow and provide for their populations, many conservationists and representatives of organisations such as English Heritage may actually threaten the viability of these communities. If it is made next to impossible for our cathedral cities to provide the transport infrastructure and shopping and leisure services that residents expect, it will drive many of the younger residents away from the area.
Those who genuinely care about and understand our cathedral cities should see the importance of conservation and heritage, but they should also see the importance of vibrant intergenerational, active communities in the present. English Heritage would do well to take this lesson on board, and hold back from seeking to ossify communities that are in fact ardent supporters of our most precious urban landscapes.