M6 junction overhaul abandoned to protect ancient woodland - but flooding fears linger
Plans to revamp a junction of the M6 near Lancaster have been shelved after it emerged that the radical redesign would have harmed an area of ancient woodland.
The route for the new South Lancaster Link Road was agreed by Lancashire County Council’s cabinet exactly two years ago this month. It would have seen the northbound entry and southbound exit slip roads of the motorway at junction 33 shifted just under two miles north of their current locations.
However, members have now given the green light to a realigned scheme which means there is now no need for such a significant change to the existing arrangements.
A County Hall cabinet meeting heard that the re-routed link road – part of plans to create at least 9,185 new homes, including student properties, to the south of the city – would be “acceptable in environmental, engineering and traffic terms”.
It would also be cheaper “in a time of increased construction costs” than the original design, which was priced at £106m in February 2021 – although no updated cost estimate for the tweaked project has been revealed.
However, campaigners opposed to the overarching development still have misgivings about the so-called South Lancaster Growth Catalyst, whilst the county councillor for the area expressed renewed concern about the potential for the revised route of the link road to worsen flooding in the area.
The new stretch of highway will now connect to the A6 Preston Lancaster Road at the Hampson Green roundabout and run across a new bridge over the West Coast Mainline. That contrasts with the previous plan for the link road to begin just east of the railway, off the current M6 junction 33 spur, which would have cut off two of the existing entry and exit points on the motorway in the process and resulted in them being relocated close to Lancaster University.
Following the now approved changes, the remainder of the planned route will continue largely as it was first conceived, closely following the path of the motorway in a northerly direction and bypassing the villages of Galgate and Ellel. When it reaches the point near the university where it was originally going to join up with the M6, it will still connect to a spine road planned along an upgraded Hazelrigg Lane, which is intended to serve the 3,500-home Bailrigg Garden Village.
The redesign will also allow a planned 500-space park and ride facility to be moved further east along Hazelrigg Lane, “enhancing its attraction”, according to highway officials, by pushing it closer to the motorway. It will be accessed via the link road and will see a shuttle bus running into Lancaster city centre via the A6 and the new garden village.
The link road rethink came in the wake of the discovery that part of the area to the west of junction 33 – through which the new route would have run – has the properties of ancient woodland. That followed environmental surveys undertaken as part of detailed design work carried out last year.
Cabinet member for economic development and growth Aidy Riggott told the meeting at which the changes were agreed that the re-routing was a “relatively modest” change which should not reopen the consultation into the six very different routes for the link road which were put to the public in 2020. The preferred option that was ultimately chosen by the county council – known as “Central 1” – was also the one that won the most public support, with 39 percent of over 450 respondents selecting it.
“It is not uncommon – and…should be regarded as a beneficial and necessary part of the scheme’s evolution – that alterations are made to the alignment to reflect new information as it is collected and assessed,” said County Cllr Riggott.
Council leader Phillippa Williamson stressed that the public would nevertheless be asked for their thoughts once again as part of a new public consultation starting next month ahead of the submission of a planning application.
However, Lancaster South East division representative Erica Lewis wanted to know whether the changes had led to any further consideration of a rejected option to build the road to the east, rather than the west, of the M6.
The Labour politician – and former Lancaster City Council leader – said that such a route would “take the road further from homes [in Galgate] and the Environment Agency has previously advised that [such an] alignment would optimise the flood risk reduction potential of the road”.
County Cllr Riggott said that he recognised concerns over the “sensitive issue” of flooding, but added that there were “convenient watercourses along the [western] route which could be used after drainage flows are attenuated”.
County Cllr Lewis said that that suggestion filled her with “horror” because those watercourses already contributed to flooding in Galgate – and she promised to continue to fight for flood risk reduction as part of the scheme.
More than two dozen public questions were lodged regarding the reimagined link road and the county council pledged to answer them and publish the responses on its website within five working days.
However, Charles Ainger, co-chair of the Sustainable Lancaster in Climate Emergency group, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that there was “still great concern locally about this misguided road scheme, as shown by the fact that 28 written questions about it were submitted to cabinet by members of the public”.
“This is a much higher number than usual and reflects not only the financial and environmental risks involved, but the lack of transparency over costs, process and the agreement between the city and county councils.
“We will make our views strongly felt at the upcoming public consultation – and we urge others to do the same,” he added.
County Cllr Riggott told the meeting that it was only the removal of the proposed new slip roads that meant the matter had had to be brought back to cabinet for further consideration, when it might otherwise have simply been considered part of the natural evolution of the scheme.
However, he pledged that the forthcoming consultation would form part of an “effective” communication effort, which will include “day and night drop-in event events” at which officials will be available to answer questions.