6 June 2010
Jenny Ragget from the White Horse Alliance with the petition.
Nearly a year after the government scrapped Wiltshire’s controversial Westbury bypass plan, the European Commission is to investigate allegations that building the road would have breached European wildlife law. The eastern bypass of Westbury would have taken the A350 through the unspoiled Wellhead Valley, between the town and the western escarpment of Salisbury Plain.
The area is home to strictly protected European wildlife, including dormice and all four of Europe’s rarest bat species. Surveys have shown that populations of bats in the Westbury area are linked to the Bath and Bradford special area of conservation (SAC) for bats. The European Habitats Directive requires risks to these sites from major developments to be assessed. This was not done for the Westbury bypass.
At a hearing in Brussels last week the petitions committee of the European Parliament agreed that a petition  submitted by the White Horse Alliance  a year ago should be investigated further by the European Commission.
In its preliminary conclusions on the petition  the Commission told the committee ‘the information supplied by the petitioner raises significant questions as to whether the site and strict species protection provisions of the Habitats Directive were adequately addressed in the decision making process. The Commission is, therefore, seeking clarification from the United Kingdom authorities on the allegations made in the petition. The Commission will inform the Committee on Petitions of the outcome of this enquiry.
The committee expects the UK government to reply ‘within the next two months’. Unless it receives adequate justifications for the way the Habitats Directive was applied at Westbury and in the SW generally, the Commission could pursue ‘infringement proceedings’ against the UK.
The investigation could have implications for regional proposals for new roads and massive new areas of housing across the SW. The Commission will look into allegations in the petition that Natural England failed to ensure that the region’s Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas for birds (SPAs) were given the protection conferred on them by European law. Despite surveys showing that several sites were already suffering excessive pollution from traffic, campaigners claim that ‘appropriate assessments’ were not carried out under the Habitats Directive and alternatives to new roads were not considered by local and regional planners or the government.
Schemes in line for investigation could include Devon County Council’s ‘South Devon Link Road’ between Newton Abbot and Torbay. The Commission may also look into allegations that the Habitats Directive was not correctly applied in considering whether the proposed new visitors’ centre at Stonehenge could endanger the wildlife of two European sites - Salisbury Plain and the Avon river system.
After the hearing on Monday last week WHA representatives Patrick Kinnersly and Jenny Raggett were met by Giles Chichester, MEP for the SW, and David Lowe, head of the Petitions Committee secretariat.
‘It was a welcome surprise to find our concerns taken so seriously in Brussels’ said Jenny ‘the protection of European biodiversity is certainly being taken to heart by the Commission.’
Patrick Kinnersly commented: ‘We asked Natural England months ago to give this special place the protection it deserves – appropriate landscape designations for the escarpment of Salisbury Plain including the White Horse and the Wellhead Valley, and habitat designations to safeguard the internationally important wildlife. NE has not admitted any mistake in not opposing the scheme and has not applied the safeguards offered by European and UK law.
‘The Wellhead Valley remains wide open to development and NE can give us no undertaking to oppose any future plans for roads, housing or industrial estates. We hope that pressure from the European Commission may now force Natural England and the UK government to take our concerns seriously.’
1. ‘Petition 0777/2009 by Mr. Patrick Kinnersly (British), on behalf of White Horse Alliance, on alleged failure of the British authorities to comply with the EC Habitats Directive in connection with the proposed Westbury bypass and other major highway schemes’
2. The White Horse Alliance is a coalition of 12 environmental and transport campaigns, including Wiltshire CPRE and the Westbury Bypass Alliance, and three parish councils. It was set up three years ago to fight the bypass plan at public inquiry. The inquiry was held in Westbury between June and October 2008. The inquiry inspector recommended against planning approval for the scheme because the benefits were not great enough to justify the damage it would have done to the landscape. The government scrapped the scheme in July 2009.
3. European Parliament Petitions Committee, ‘Notice to Members 25 March 2010’