Leader's claim Norfolk is 'a car county' prompts criticism
- Credit: Highways England
A council leader has come under fire after saying that people need to accept that Norfolk's rural nature means it is largely a "car county".
Andrew Proctor, leader of Norfolk County Council, made the remark in response to a question about bus services in the west of the county at the authority's annual meeting on Monday.
Mr Proctor was re-elected as the council's leader at the meeting, which was held at the Norfolk Showground because of the need to social distance due to coronavirus and due to work on County Hall continuing.
Alexandra Kemp, independent councillor for Clenchwarton and King's Lynn South, asked a question about cuts to community bus services in west Norfolk, triggered by the end of a funding contribution by Tesco.
Miss Kemp asked if the council would put pressure on them to be restored.
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Mr Proctor referred to the government's national Bus Back Better strategy, saying that would help provide different modes of transport to suit everybody.
But he added: "In some respects, you have got to accept that Norfolk is a car county, but also we want to make sure that people can get around in different ways, whether that's walking, cycling, buses and so forth."
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However, his comment about Norfolk being a "car county" was criticised by opposition councillors.
Labour's Emma Corlett said: "We are the strategic transport authority, so in a position to do something about that. What about the quarter of households who have no access to a vehicle and those who want affordable options?"
Former Liberal Democrat group leader Steff Aquarone, who stepped down from that role after the elections, citing his party's support for the Norwich Western Link as the reason, said it was "a sad, tired, anti-environmental assumption".
Green Jamie Osborn, who tabled a defeated motion about climate change at the council meeting, said a commitment to cars would not help cut emissions.
The county council has a target to cut its carbon emissions from 11.6 million tonnes per year to zero by 2030.
But Mr Osborn said: "There is no way to square emissions from transport with targets if we continue to prioritise a car based strategy."
After the meeting, Chris Dady, chairman of the Norfolk branch of the Campaign To Protect Rural England (CPRE), said more ambition was needed.
His group has a national campaign calling for more investment in community transport, pedestrian and cycle links, rather than in major road-building schemes.
He said: "Whenever we talk to councillors, they always seem to think that electric cars are going to be the answer - and that's not the case.
"Relying on cars is completely the wrong approach. Because we are so rural, our carbon emissions are higher than a lot of other areas."
Mr Dady said it would also help reduce reliance on cars if bus operators and rail firms in the county could better synchronise their timings.
And Matt White, founder of Car Free Norwich, said the county council should explore what Manchester is doing, in taking buses back under public control.
He said: "That's what we should be looking at. If Norfolk is a car county it is only because people have been forced to use their cars. We could change that.
"There are many people who cannot afford cars and many are in rural areas, so there's a social justice issue as well as the environmental one."
Paul Tuohy, chief executive of the national group Campaign for Better Transport, said: "Rural areas deserve good public transport networks just as much as urban ones.
"Whilst cars are an important element of the transport mix, we must remember that a quarter of people don’t have access to a car so rely on public transport to get to work and education, visit friends and family, go shopping and take part in leisure activities.
"We also need to remember that the vast majority of carbon emissions from transport come from cars and we have to reduce these to tackle climate change.
"Rather than building ever more roads we need to be smarter and look at the alternatives that will help tackle congestion as well as reducing transport’s impact on the environment.”
The council's cabinet is due to meet next month to agree to lodge a business case for the controversial £153m Western Link, which would connect the Northern Distributor Road to the A47 west of Norwich.
Supporters of that road say it would stop rat-running and boost businesses, but critics, including the CPRE, say it would be environmentally damaging.
Meanwhile, Mr Proctor, who at the meeting reappointed the same cabinet members, bar the appointment of deputies for adult social care and children's services, said last month's election results showed Norfolk had made an "emphatic choice" to back the Conservatives.
He said his administration's priorities were to protect valued services, invest in care, strengthen community resilience, lead economic development, support families and young people and care for the environment.