The Oxford Cambridge Expressway

Otmoor Nature Reserve lies within the chosen corridor B

In June ELF was approached by the Horton-cum-Studley Expressway Group (“the group”), established in response to local communities becoming aware of plans for a proposed major road build linking Oxford and Cambridge. The Oxford to Cambridge Expressway is a large road building proposal (requiring a Development Consent Order (DCO)) connecting the two cities east to west and would enable the delivery of 1 million new homes to be built along the route, by 2050.

The group came to ELF to obtain advice about lack of provision of a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) by Highways England, when making the decision as to which corridor for the route of the expressway should be progressed; A, B or C. As each corridor follows an entirely different locational route, it was important to assess the environmental impacts early in the decision making. Concerns were exacerbated as Corridor B, if chosen, would be the most impactful on nature. Impacts on Otmoor, an RSPB nature reserve, were of particular concern locally. In the event, on the 12th September Corridor B was chosen, and announced by the Secretary of State (SoS) for Transport. Local people had not been consulted because no SEA had been undertaken.

The Environmental Assessment of Plans and Programmes Regulations 2004 (SEA Regulations) (implementing the SEA Directive 2001/42/EC) is one of the many European environmental laws that our membership of the EU has enabled. The group argued that the SEA procedure was designed to exactly capture this type of proposal, when it is still in its very early development stages, and for the purposes of the SEA Regulations, this decision constituted a “plan or programme” for which an SEA was required under Regulation 5, prior to the decision being taken. Once at DCO stage, and the route chosen, the ability to properly assess the choice of corridor routes for all practical purposes will have passed.

ELF was lucky enough to instruct Merrow Golden at FTB, acting pro-bono under the ELF scheme. Prior to the key decision to choose Corridor B, ELF wrote a letter regarding the group’s concerns, marking a line in the sand ahead of the decision. Our letter sent, in late August, had the endorsement of the RSPB, Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire (BCNWT) and the Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT). Our small local group had engaged with some of the big names in nature conservation locally, also contacting George Monbiot who had been so concerned as to write about the proposals.

A principle lies at the heart of this matter – that an SEA should be carried out in the early stages of such strategic development to access environmental impacts. Further grounds of concern were that HE was in breach of Article 7 of the Aarhus Convention, as the public must be given “sufficient time” to be informed about the public consultation and to effectively participate in it”.

Following the decision to progress Corridor B, on the 12th September, we acted quickly to decide on next steps. Bringing together a coalition of local people and wildlife conservation charities, ELF approached Leigh Day, ELF solicitor members. On the 27th September a pre-action protocol letter was sent to the SoS for Transport on behalf of the BBOWT, supported by other nature charities including the RSPB. It seems the group were the small stones that started an avalanche and ELF is delighted to have played a part. On the 21st November proceedings were issued and we will watch closely what happens.