Published: 06:00, 11 March 2021
| Updated: 16:22, 11 March 2021
Kent's most snarled-up level crossing looks set to take the strain of more than 1,000 new homes after councillors made the shock decision to reject the final part of a £30 million bypass.
The traffic hotspot, in Sturry, is often gridlocked as motorists heading in and out of Canterbury get stuck at the barriers.
And the issue is now set to worsen after county councillors this week refused permission for a relief road diverting vehicles away from the railway station - just a month after their city counterparts approved two huge housing estates nearby.
Developers will now build 650 homes in Sturry and 456 in Broad Oak, but without the bypass.
The road would run from Sturry Hill, through the planned Sturry estate and to a new roundabout, where drivers could turn left over a viaduct and towards the A28 near the Park and Ride, or straight on to Broad Oak Road.
City councillors had already approved the section of road through the estate, but it fell to their colleagues at County Hall to green-light the viaduct - a three-lane bridge running over the River Stour and to a new roundabout in Sturry Road.
Officers recommended councillors approve the plan, stressing that it was "imperative" to get the necessary infrastructure in place to solve Sturry's severe congestion problems.
A funding package worth £5.9 million had been secured from a Government growth grant towards the project, but following a lengthy debate and after hearing concerns from residents and parish councils, members narrowly voted to refuse by six votes to five.
With KCC rejecting the plans, the £5.9m funding allocation has been lost, casting serious doubt on the road now ever being built.
It means added traffic from the new estates will now add to the more than 21,000 vehicles a day using the Sturry level crossing.
City council leader Ben Fitter-Harding says he is frustrated by KCC's decision and now finds future traffic problems "really worrying".
"It's disappointing," he said. "Sturry level crossing is already a nightmare for residents so we have to question the logic of not having that vital bypass in place.
"I honestly don't know what can happen with it now. We make these big long-term strategic plans with a belief they will generally be delivered.
"With such a vital infrastructure projects like this it's not always possible to have a plan B.
"It might be that there is less housing delivered because of this result. It's too early to say how much but a substantial amount will still proceed.
"That puts additional pressure on existing infrastructure and I find that really worrying. It's worrying for the residents of Sturry.
"It's definitely a lose-lose situation and puts us in a difficult position. But saying that, we can work with KCC and I'm sure we can come up with a positive way forward.
"We absolutely need to review the scheme and see what happens. We've sadly now lost the funding so I don't know where that can now come from.
"Setbacks like this are very difficult to comprehend."
Where would the road have gone?
Had all gone ahead as planned, drivers heading into Canterbury from Herne Bay and Thanet - and even those living in Sturry - would have been banned from passing over the level crossing, with only cyclists and buses allowed access.
Motorists will have instead been directed onto the relief road near to the Greenfields shooting range on Sturry Hill in order to bypass the level crossing.
They would then have travelled west along the relief road through the housing development until hitting a new roundabout.
Continuing straight on would have taken motorists onto Broad Oak Road.
A left turn would have taken them south over the viaduct and down onto a new roundabout on the A28 Sturry Road, near the sewage treatment works.
Cars heading out of the city would have been able to use the relief road or the level crossing.
Why was it rejected?
A key criticism was the plan to block traffic heading towards the city from using the level crossing.
It would have meant those living in places like Island Road and wanting to get into Sturry village centre having to instead use the relief road and loop back on themselves along the A28.
Speaking at Tuesday's crunch meeting, Sturry councillor Alan Marsh, who was not allowed to vote, said: "The most important issue is people from Thanet, Hersden and anywhere to the east would not be allowed to turn left over the level crossing.
"This is absolutely unacceptable. The left turn over the crossing is essential.
"This would divide the communities in Sturry and Fordwich."
The 250-metre viaduct, which would at its height have been 8.7 metres tall and supported by five piers, was planned to have two lanes for traffic and another for a one-way bus lane.
Councillors questioned whether - at a cost of an additional £4 million - a fourth lane could be added in order for the route to cater for increased vehicle numbers in the future.
Stressing that "some people think this bridge is a bridge too far, but I would say this bridge does not go far enough", Cllr Marsh said it would be sustainable to have an extra lane.
Among the other concerns raised were the increased likelihood of the use of 'rat-runs' to avoid the link road, fears for pedestrian safety on Sturry Hill, and the impact the viaduct would have on water craft navigating the River Stour.
Traffic statistics upon which the project is based date back to 2015, so calls were also made to reassess the data.
'The housing developments will still go ahead regardless...'
Sharon Thompson, KCC's head of planning applications, warned committee members of the implications of rejecting the plans.
"The housing developments will still go ahead regardless," she explained.
"In the event of refusing the application, all of the housing growth in the north east of Canterbury would use the existing and constrained highway networks.
"KCC and the planning inspectorate has identified that network as being inadequate to take that growth."
Despite those warnings, councillors refused to approve the viaduct.
Why were the 1,086 homes approved before the relief road?
The city council approved the Sturry and Broad Oak schemes last month - sparking accusations it jumped the gun by green-lighting the homes before getting confirmation on the relief road.
Kent councillor Andrew Bowles accused the city council of putting themselves in an impossible situation.
"If Canterbury City Council get themselves into a position that has locked them into allowing this level of development without knowing for a certainty that someone was going to bail them out for the infrastructure, we shouldn't be blackmailed into supporting it," he said.
In his authority's defence, city council leader Ben Fitter-Harding said: "KCC approved the transport strategy, which is part of our Local Plan, so [Cllr Bowles] knows this infrastructure is part of the plans and knows it needs to be delivered.
'Perhaps in an ideal world we would have taken all the decisions together at one committee but that's not always possible...'
"If he's got issues with the designs he's had an incredibly long time to feed in and supply that feedback. It's bizarre - I can't accept that argument."
"Both the decisions needed to be taken. Given that KCC has the highways function, it makes sense that they deal with highways-specific schemes.
"The housing needs to be delivered under the Local Plan anyway.
"Perhaps in an ideal world we would have taken all the decisions together at one committee but that's not always possible."
What happens next?
The two housing developments have planning permission and can therefore be built, but the relief road will go back to the drawing board.
The east-to-west spine road through the Sturry estate - which would have acted as part of the relief road - will still be provided as it essential for the network of roads within the development.
Developers of the two housing schemes were each to contribute £8.8 million to the entire bypass project, with £1.2m coming from those behind the Hoplands Farms project, and the shortfall made up from other developer contributions.
The £5.9 million grant earmarked to come from the South East Local Enterprise Partnership has now been lost due to KCC's decision on Tuesday.
The grant will instead be reallocated to other projects following a meeting tomorrow (Friday).
A new way of sourcing £5.9 million will therefore need to be found.
City council spokesman Leo Whitlock said: "We are in the process of assessing its implications and what our next steps should be."