After twenty years of debate, Shrewsbury’s controversial North West Relief Road (NWRR) was approved by Shropshire Council’s planning application committee on 31 October. The event has taken on unexpected national significance since the NWRR is the first road offered a blank cheque from the Department for Transport (DfT) using funds from the cancellation of HS2’s northern leg.
Transport Secretary Mark Harper has publicly pledged that the DfT will “fully fund” the NWRR’s cost. This is surprising because nobody yet knows how much this four-mile stretch of road will cost. The current £81mn estimate for the NWRR is based on 2017 figures and when a Full Business Case is delivered next spring, the cost is expected to soar north of £200mn, or an astonishing £50mn per mile.
Campaigners against the road were blindsided by Harper’s pledge. With Shropshire Council close to bankruptcy and on the hook for the road’s skyrocketing costs, many assumed the NWRR was a zombie project. But the promise of HS2 funds has brought this controversial road back from the dead.
Shropshire Council’s Conservative administration seized on the announcement and rushed the road to planning on Halloween, despite huge questions remaining over the project. Chief among these is the question of when exactly the promised funding will arrive; the road’s high carbon cost; its destruction of over a thousand trees, including ‘irreplaceable’ veterans like the 550 year old Darwin Oak; and the potentially ‘catastrophic’ risk the road poses to the borehole that supplies Shrewsbury with fresh drinking water.
The latter concern is described by water experts as a potentially catastrophic and irreversible disaster. It could see Shropshire residents lose access to safe tap water and cost hundreds of millions of pounds to fix.
The Environment Agency, a long-standing critic of the scheme, says it is “not sufficiently reassured” by the council over the risk to the borehole, while Severn Trent Water says it “agrees to disagree” with the council over the issue, but has requested planning conditions to protect the borehole.
Mike Streetly, from campaign group Better Shrewsbury Transport (BeST), has been following the saga closely. “It’s a Halloween nightmare,” he tells me in a phone call. “We thought the road was dead, mainly because its cost had skyrocketed, and the council was near bankrupt. But the DfT’s blank cheque has pumped new life into the scheme and it’s lumbering to planning like Frankenstein’s monster”.
“What concerns us about the pledge of unlimited government cash is the lack of transparency. A recent FOI revealed that there isn’t a project board in the current governance structure for this work, and the executive board isn’t supported by agendas or minutes. This is no way to run a multi-million pound scheme, especially one UK taxpayers are funding with a blank cheque.”
A retired hydrogeologist with 30 years’ experience, Streetly has examined the drinking water issue in detail. “It’s an accident waiting to happen,” he says. “Severn Trent Water has asked for a detailed mitigation strategy and a multi-agency emergency response to be in place for the lifetime of the road. But who will pay for that? Will Shropshire get a blank cheque in perpetuity from the government? If the borehole is contaminated, who will pay for the clean-up? No one seems to have any details. That should really ring alarm bells.”
Alongside the drinking water issue are other concerns. The planning application has over 5,300 objections (versus around 200 supporting comments). Among the objectors is Shrewsbury Town Council, which believes the road isn’t fit for purpose.
Critics of the NWRR say it is a Trojan Horse designed to unlock land in the north west of Shrewsbury for developers to build thousands of new houses. The council’s traffic modelling has been criticised by a prominent local business for being outdated and incomplete. Thousands of new houses will mean yet more car journeys clogging up the town’s medieval streets.
Shropshire’s Labour group leader Julia Buckley, who is standing as Labour’s parliamentary candidate in Shrewsbury and Atcham and widely tipped to overturn Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski’s majority at the next election, is among those unconvinced by the traffic congestion argument. I speak to her on a grey October Saturday as she campaigns on Pride Hill in Shrewsbury.
“There is no denying that Shrewsbury has serious traffic problems,” she tells me. “What concerns me most, though, about the council’s attempt to tackle it, is the lack of a contingency plan. What happens if the money promised from HS2 doesn’t turn up, or doesn’t arrive until 2029? Even if planning permission is granted, the council still needs a detailed offer from the DfT, then the Full Business Case will need to be signed off, and then they’ll need to advertise procurement for a larger scale contract. This is not a quick process. There are unlikely to be any spades in the ground before a general election.”
Councillor Buckley assures me there are faster, more cost-effective solutions: “We could relieve residents’ misery by dualling the A5, investing in the roundabouts at Sundorne and Battlefield and stopping rat running through the villages. It would cost a fraction of £200mn and it would be delivered years before the tarmac sets on the NWRR. The DfT’s fully funded promise is a blatant attempt to shore up the failing Conservative vote. But voters aren’t silly. They can tell when something is too good to be true.”
Even if the funding does materialise, there remain grave concerns over the NWRR’s environmental impact. As an activist with Extinction Rebellion Shrewsbury, I’ve long seen the NWRR as emblematic of the failure of leadership on climate we’re seeing both nationally and locally. Building the road will create 48,000 tonnes of CO2e for an alleged annual operational saving of 359 tonnes. It won’t be ‘net zero’ for 130 years, long after my kids and their kids are dead. Admittedly, it’s a drop in the ocean in terms of global emissions. But if we can’t even shelve a local scheme in Shropshire for the sake of the climate emergency, what hope have we got of achieving our net zero targets nationally?
It’s not just the climate crisis. The road will also worsen the ecological emergency with the felling of over a thousand trees, including the 550-year-old Darwin Oak. This iconic tree has stood since Columbus sailed to the Americas and is named after Shrewsbury’s most famous son, who walked under it as a young man. It has become a galvanising symbol of opposition against the road. This is our Sycamore Gap moment. Shropshire is a beautiful rural county, Housman’s land of lost content. But our council is hellbent on turning the Shire into Mordor.
With every opposition party in Shropshire against the road, the Conservatives’ belief that it is an electoral winner is questionable. Liberal Democrat councillor Rob Wilson, who won his seat in Shrewsbury in 2021 after a shock victory over pro-road Conservative council leader Peter Nutting, believes the NWRR is the Tory’s white whale: “They have become totally fixated on this thing,” he tells me via email. “It’s an outdated, twentieth century solution to today’s issues – we need safer streets and more sustainable transport choices, not four miles of single carriageway bypass. The traffic modelling actually shows that traffic will increase in some parts of the town, and no modelling has been carried out in the rural areas that it’s supposed to help.”
As the NWRR heads towards a Halloween decision, the fractious political landscape shows no sign of abating. After taking legal advice, the council is trying to exclude key opposition members of the planning committee over claims of “predetermination”.
Councillor Julian Dean, the only Green Party councillor on the planning committee, has been told he must exclude himself because he also sits on Shrewsbury Town Council, which has formally opposed the road. Two Liberal Democrat councillors in the same position have been told the same, causing uproar.
“The Conservatives are trying to quell dissent in order to make sure that the road can be passed without vital pre-conditions being attached, particularly over the safety of Shrewsbury’s drinking water supply,” Councillor Dean explains over the phone. “They claim we can’t be trusted to make an evidence based decision. Meanwhile, Conservative councillors continue to make unfounded claims about the supposed benefits of the road. It feels like they are taking a bulldozer to both the countryside and local democracy itself.”
At a four-hour meeting of Shropshire Council’s Northern Planning Committee on 31 October, the road was granted planning approval with six votes for (all Conservative councillors) and five votes against (Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green councillors). Somewhat unusually, the committee resolved to now move towards agreeing planning conditions and legal agreements with landowners and the Environment Agency over issues including the risk to the water supply. A final decision on the road will be taken by the committee once these agreements are in place. Meanwhile campaigners are preparing a legal challenge, and a petition to save the Darwin Oak has reached over 14,000 signatures.