“Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads.” The words of Doc Emmett Brown to Marty McFly in the closing sequence of the beloved 1985 film Back to the Future.
The time travelling pair then take to the air in their DeLorean and zoom off into the year 2015 – a future where people fly around in cars, drink in retro 1980s inspired bars and get fired from their jobs by fax.
But in Norfolk in the year 2015 the feeling was that the county very much did need roads.
It was the year when work on one of the most significant – the Norwich Northern Distributor Road – began, with then County Hall Labour leader George Nobbs, photographed cutting the turf to signal the start of work.
It was also the year Labour MP Clive Lewis won his parliamentary seat in Norwich South. More about that to come…
Anyway, the Northern Distributor Road (known as the NDR but, despite efforts by council leaders, rarely as the Broadland Northway) was constructed and opened in April 2018.
And that takes us to the present day, when attention has shifted to the Western Link – a proposed 3.9 mile road to connect the NDR (via the A1067 Fakenham Road) to the A47 to the west of Norwich.
The scheme faces an uncertain future and is the subject of intense debate in the county, with supporters and critics disputing its economic and environmental impact.
But at heart, the argument over the road is an intensely political one, dividing along party lines. And its fate could be decided as much by cold hard politics as economic or environmental arguments.
Conservative-controlled Norfolk County Council’s cabinet made the road one of its top three transport priorities back in 2016.
For the Conservatives, the link would bring economic boosts and reduce rat-running – while not getting it built would be a painful and embarrassing blow, given their aspirations and promises.
It would scupper their long-held ambitions to effectively complete what became the NDR.
When that £205m road was originally mooted, two decades ago, the Conservatives in control at County Hall at that time wanted it to link to the A47 to the west of Norwich – creating a northern bypass.
That was dropped due to the cost of crossing the Wensum Valley, a site of special scientific interest, so the road currently stops at the A1067 Fakenham Road.
No amount of councillors talking up how the NDR would, as its name suggests, distribute traffic, could conceal their disappointment at the thwarting of their original intent.
That was for a road running between Weston Longville and Ringland, linking to the A47 at a new junction at Wood Lane, near Honingham.
Andrew Proctor, Conservative leader of the council said it was “badly needed to tackle the traffic problems in this area” and would help businesses such as at the Food Enterprise Zone at Easton.
To strengthen its case, it has assembled a list of backers to show local support for the scheme – from the chamber of commerce to Norwich Airport, along with district councils which are in favour of the road.
And that is where Labour and its MP Clive Lewis come in.
While the Greens have consistently opposed the Western Link, Labour’s position has been rather more complex.
For his part, Mr Lewis has always been against it. He wrote to the council to oppose all the options which went out for public consultation.
And when the preferred route was agreed, he took no prisoners with his verdict, saying: “This road will be a monument to the folly of politicians who never got the memo about climate change and ecological destruction and future generations will mock the names that are attached to it.”
That proclamation, from an MP – whose constituency does not encompass any of the Western Link’s route but whose environmental credentials perhaps dampen how the Greens perform in Norwich South in parliamentary elections – created something of an issue for some in his party, not least at Norwich City Council.
A couple of weeks after the preferred route was picked, the Labour group at Norfolk County Council announced it would be campaigning against the road.
Leader Steve Morphew said it was “simply unaffordable and unjustifiable,” amid growing criticism over its environmental impact, including on bats.
But that all put the Labour-controlled Norwich City Council in a somewhat trickier position.
Up to that point City Hall had supported the road in principle – and continued, for a while, to stick to that stance.
Speaking in September 2019, Mike Stonard, the council’s cabinet member for sustainable and inclusive growth, said he wanted to wait until full analysis and modelling of all its impacts was published before deciding whether to pull support.
Shortly afterwards, the city council announced, unless conditions were met, it would withdraw its in-principle support.
Mr Stonard said: “If the Tories at county want us to change they’ll need to answer the questions, provide the evidence, reinstate the Highways Agency, or something very much like it, deliver on our bold Transport Plan and give us a meaningful say in transport and highways matters in the city.”
That reference to the Highways Agency is pertinent. Relations between the city and the county were soured in 2019 after the county council voted to end the Norwich City Highways Agency Agreement, which had been in place since 1974.
That meant Norwich City Council’s highways team transferred to Norfolk County Council – seen by City Hall as a power grab by County Hall.
What is also pertinent is that, in May 2021, people in Norwich were going to the polls at city and county level.
The Greens – Labour’s main rivals at City Hall – had a clear message against the Western Link.
The city Labour group’s had, up to that point, been more opaque , as well as being out of sync with their county counterparts and Mr Lewis.
And that has led to the latest situation, whereby the city council cabinet will next week say they will not back the road.
They will say it has not met five criteria, including air quality and decongestion benefits in the city, an investment package in public transport, cycling and walking in line with funding for the link road and evidence wildlife and landscape impacts can be mitigated.
But Labour are not the only party to have got themselves in a twist over the road. The Liberal Democrats have also had issues with a unified approach to the Western Link.
In 2020 the group voted to support it, with long serving Costessey councillor Tim East, who stepped down last year, a firm believer the road was crucial to ease rat-running.
But Steffan Aquarone, the group’s leader going into last year’s elections, stepped down from that role shortly after the election results were declared, saying he did not support his party’s backing for the road.
Despite the critics, Martin Wilby, the council’s cabinet member for highways and transport, continues to highlight the benefits of the road and played down the significance of the city council’s lack of support.
The local authority points out that CIty Hall had not been included as a key organisation supporting the project in the business cases submission.
However, a spokesman for the Department for Transport has said the city council’s position had been noted.
Time will tell.