“It’s like they are torturing us. Each step, it just gets worse.” Gilly McCadden is in tears. She has just learned that the route chosen for the GBP250m dual carriageway around Arundel in West Sussex will bring four lanes of 70mph traffic within metres of her house and garden.
The new route of the A27, bypassing a bypass built in the 1960s, has been planned – and resisted – since the 1980s. Now Highways England has unexpectedly chosen the “grey route” – a longer, more expensive plan that slices through three villages but avoids the South Downs national park. For locals in the village of Binsted who fought previous iterations of the plan for destroying ancient woodlands, it means the proposed road will crash through their gardens and peaceful meadows.
“We are glad the wildlife is getting saved,” said McCadden, a garden designer. “But you learn a lot about how these roads are constructed. You learn that the one element that doesn’t matter is people.”
The new road has been portrayed as a deeply polarising issue, with support in Arundel and opposition from residents of three affected villages – Binsted, Tortington and Walberton. But in Highways England’s latest public consultation, just 7% of the 5,000 respondents chose the grey route, while 64% of people called for no road to be built or for “online” improvements only, closely following the existing route of the 1960s single-carriageway bypass.
“That’s an absolutely astonishing result,” said Emma Tristram, a Binsted resident. “Highways England tried to stack the dice in their favour and they failed. They’ve shown the consultation is democratic rubbish.”
Mike and Diane Evans bought their dream home – with orchards, paddocks and a small ancient woodland – two years ago after careers in the armed forces. It had been anticipated that the road would pass relatively harmlessly behind their wood, but the grey route cuts across their front garden. They will have to sell up.
“I’ve served pretty much everywhere – Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Iran, Afghanistan. I’ve been in some pretty nasty places,” said Mike Evans. “This [house] has been just total heaven. I don’t know what we’ve done to deserve this. It feels like a punishment of some description.”
For McCadden, the “punishment” of the new route was compounded when she was informed that Highways England would not purchase her home, which she designed and built 21 years ago, nor consider it blighted. She must now prove she needs to sell for a reason other than escaping the bypass outside her front door, and try to sell the house herself for up to 20% beneath her asking price before the government’s roadbuilding company will consider buying it from her. “It feels like we’re living in a dystopian nightmare now,” she said. “They keep adding layers of horror.”
The proposed route avoids the national park but now crosses the edge of an estate in Walberton and close to the village primary school while bypassing a mile and a half of existing dual carriageway.
Despite the reprieve for the national park and ancient woodland, environmental groups including the Woodland Trust, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the Wildlife Trusts continue to oppose the new road, arguing that it will fragment habitat for dormice, endanger bat populations and ruin rare flushed fen habitat.
In Binsted, villagers say it will destroy the tight-knit community of 38 homes and pass within metres of Binsted’s 850-year-old church – built on a 2,000-year-old iron age embankment – and the scenic village pub. Mike Tristram said: “This is a place where people can step into a life that was sustainable before industrialisation brought us into the climate and ecological emergency that we’re in.”
Maggie Moore Alexander said her ill husband, Christopher, 84, a renowned architect and theorist of human-centred design, chose their Grade II-listed house after observing the peace of its garden, and now faced having the highway cross their land.
She said the anti-bypass campaigners had barely heard a familiar charge. “Somebody mentioned ‘nimby’ the other day and I thought: that’s interesting, I haven’t heard that in a while,” she said. “We’ve done a terrible job of protecting the world we live in and the natural systems around us that keep us afloat. One of the Highways England people said they didn’t consider Covid because it was just a blip. But there’s more and more evidence that this bypass is a stupid thing to do. The economic situation says it’s a stupid thing to do. There’s less and less traffic here.”
Tony Hunt, the mayor of Arundel, said the town council welcomed Highways England’s plan. “For over 40 years the A27 has run straight through the town, dividing our community into two halves,” he said. “With the growth of traffic, Arundel has become a bottleneck, with 21,000 journeys made each day on the single-lane section of the A27 that bisects the town.”
Andrew Griffith, who was one of Boris Johnson’s first appointments as chief business adviser before he became Arundel’s MP in 2019, said he had worked with the government to “secure the necessary support for Highways England to proceed” with the new road.
“It will reduce congestion, enhance air quality, improve road safety and support much-needed employment and economic growth,” he said. “Some question whether we need to improve our roads at all. Whilst I support a rapid switch to cleaner and quieter vehicles – and the UK is a leader in this respect – they will still need roads to drive upon and there is nothing environmentally friendly about pollution caused by congestion.”
o This article was amended on 25 October 2020 to correct the misspelling of Binsted in the picture caption.