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Road Building Plans Trump Otter Habitat Concerns

In a case which gives guidance on the correct planning approach to infrastructure projects of national significance, concerns over the welfare of otters were not enough to convince the High Court to block construction of a controversial road linking the M6 motorway with the Lancashire port of Heysham.

Road signsCampaigners argued that consideration of the project had been ‘irremediably flawed’ and that Lancashire County Council and the Secretary of State for Transport had failed to properly consult the public or take into account  the impact on the unspoilt River Lune and its otter population. However, the Court noted that it was not its role to ‘micro-manage for perfection’ or to second guess the view of planners that the road’s proposed route was the right one.

The three-mile stretch of road to the Morecambe Bay port will link with previously built parts of the A683 and will include a combined footway and cycleway and 23 major structures, including bridges over the West Coast Mainline railway, the Lancaster Canal and the River Lune.

In dismissing the challenge brought by campaign group, Transport Solutions for Lancaster and Morecambe, the Court rejected arguments that the Secretary of State had wrongly deployed the ‘streamlined’ planning procedure laid down by the Planning Act 2008 in respect of nationally significant infrastructure projects.

Describing the campaign group’s arguments on that issue as ‘wholly artificial’, the Court found that the use of an alternative procedure would have brought little or no benefit to objectors. It was ‘overwhelmingly likely’ that the Secretary of State would have granted consent in any event and any interference by the court would, in the circumstances, be ‘wholly disproportionate’.

Although the public consultation process ‘fell short of ideal’ in one respect, it was generally comprehensive and fair. Arguments that the Secretary of State had impermissibly deviated from national planning policy statements were also ruled to be ‘without merit’.

It was submitted that the Secretary of State had failed to take adequate account of the project’s impact on the green belt and protected habitat sites of Europe-wide importance. However, the Court ruled that the reasons for rejecting alternative routes for the road had been set out in ‘coherent and compelling detail’.

The potential effect that construction of a new bridge across the River Lune might have on local otter populations had also been considered in a ‘pragmatic’ manner before it was decided that the project was ‘not likely’ to harm the creatures in ways prohibited by European law.

R on the Application of Gate v The Secretary of State for Transport & Anr. Case Number: CO/5073/2013