SeaChange has released news of the ill-fated, long-awaited Queensway Gateway Road (QGR). In a press release from 13 December, SeaChange tells us that a new junction will mean that the road will finally be able to open to traffic. As to when, SeaChange keeps us guessing. However, since the road is already nearly six years late (p101), motorists would be well advised not to hold their breath.
What SeaChange utterly fails to mention in its announcement is that the junction is very far from what was promised in the business case for the road, and neither is it what the South East Local Enterprise Partnership gave it the money for.
The roundabout problem
The original plans for the road show a roundabout on the eastern end, at the junction with the A21. Astute observers will notice that in the new plans, the roundabout on the eastern end has disappeared and been replaced with three sets of traffic lights:
The roundabout has been a sticking point for the completion of the road for many years. The western end of the road was completed in 2019, to some fanfare from SeaChange. The road was already three years late (p101), and what was being celebrated was the opening of ‘the western section’ of the road only: in other words, a dead end.
Car showroom in the way
The road couldn’t be completed because of one sticky issue: the fact that there is a car showroom on exactly the spot where SeaChange wanted to build their roundabout. One might have thought they’d have thrashed this issue out many years earlier (the road was granted planning permission in January 2016), but no. SeaChange was unable to reach agreement with the owners of the car showroom about relocating, and the possibility of issuing a compulsory purchase notice is still under consideration. In the circumstances, the only option left to SeaChange was to dump the roundabout and put in some traffic lights instead.
Motorists angry already
This change to the plan has not gone down well with some motorists locally, many of them convinced that the new plans will cause even worse congestion than already exists in the area.
They may take some comfort from the fact that the traffic light junction is still considered to be a temporary solution (p228, point 6.3) whilst negotiations over land acquisition continue. However, there is evidence that SeaChange has no intention of pursuing the roundabout connection. The plan was for the car showroom to be relocated to the (also ill-fated) North Queensway ‘Innovation Park’ – this is outlined in the original planning application for the North Queensway site, put in by SeaChange in April 2021.
New car showroom vanishes
But in November 2021, SeaChange added new documents to the planning application for North Queensway. In these documents, plot 2.2, which was to be the car showroom, ‘is no longer to be developed’ (p3), and instead will be left as meadow (p10). This is good news for North Queensway – and Marline Valley – but leads to the inevitable question of whether SeaChange has given up on ever building the roundabout.
Temporary solution to become permanent?
Meanwhile, the South East Local Enterprise Partnership (SELEP), which funded the QGR, is also considering the possibility that the ‘temporary’ solution may become permanent. The report to SELEP’s Accountability Board meeting in November 2021 considers the impact of the ‘signalised’ junction becoming the permanent connection with the A21. It says (p230, point 8.3) that the design ‘meets the requirements of National Highways for highway network resilience for a 15 year time period post opening of the scheme’.
However, the same report (p230) raises concerns about proceeding as if the temporary solution would become the permanent solution:
While due consideration should be given to the potential for [the signalised junction] to be retained as a long-term solution it cannot be adopted as the final connection until SeaChange Sussex know it can progress to completion and opening. Adopting the scheme as a final connection prematurely would risk commitment to a scheme that could be determined to be undeliverable and would prejudice the delivery of the current scheme by adversely impacting the case for a [compulsory purchase order] to provide certainty on the land acquisition.
Benefits yet to be realised
SeaChange claimed in its consultation report on the QGR in 2014 that the road would support a staggering 1,370 jobs (p10) (this was scaled back to 900 jobs in the business case). So far, it has failed to create a single one, apart from a few temporary construction jobs. The jobs were to be created by selling land either side of the road (what was once the Hollington Valley nature reserve) to local businesses to develop. The latest report to SELEP notes (p231) that although the land has been for sale since 2019, so far there have been no takers – a problem which the report blames on covid.
As for the ‘transport benefits’, the report predicts (p231) that these will be realised with the completion of the junction in early 2022. Whether this new arrangement will really relieve local congestion as SeaChange claims, remains to be seen.
£10m to be repaid?
A potentially tricky issue is that the funding from SELEP was based on SeaChange’s original business plan, which promised a roundabout rather than three traffic lights. If the roundabout connection is never built, the funding could be withdrawn. This is made very clear in the report to the Accountability board, which states (p234):
It should be noted that if it is not possible to deliver the final connection with the A21 as set out within this report, that steps may be taken by the Board and Essex County Council (as the Accountable Body for SELEP) to recover the £10m [Local Growth Fund] allocation to the Project from East Sussex County Council.
And as SeaChange has already spent the entire £10m (p229, point 7.4), the county council would end up on the hook for the money.
More delay by SeaChange
When SeaChange first announced its plans for the new junction in June 2021 it said that the QGR would be open in early November that year. Nobody who has even a passing acquaintance with SeaChange projects should have been surprised when November came and went, and the road remained unfinished. In the SELEP report (p232), it is noted that the delay has been caused by ‘an extended timeline for receipt of technical approval from both East Sussex County Council and National Highway’. And why was technical approval delayed? According to the report, it was ‘prompted by a delay in submission of the full package of plans and detailed designs for the scheme by SeaChange Sussex‘.
To those unfamiliar with this fiasco of a road project, the new junction appears to be simply the next step in the process of building the road. Years late? 100% over budget? Now offering us something completely different to what was promised? Not a word about any of that in their breathless announcement about the new junction.
Absolute fiasco or great job-creation-congestion-reducing scheme? You decide.