East Sussex County Council has announced a planning application for an £89 million road linking Bexhill and Hastings. BOB WILKINS, the authority's director of transport and environment, argues why the new jobs and housing it will bring are essential for the regeneration of one of Britain's most deprived areas.

Few can dispute that Hastings needs some assistance to lift its economic performance to match the rest of the South East.

It is the most deprived town in the region with five of its wards in the worst ten per cent, with another dozen in the worst 20 per cent.

It is for this reason that an influential task force has formed to promote a five-point plan for regenerating the town of Hastings, its sister Bexhill and the immediate surrounds.

Members come from a wide political spectrum and include Greg Barker, Conservative MP for Bexhill and Battle, and Labour MP Michael Foster, who represents Hastings and Rye.

Three councils - East Sussex County, Hastings Borough and Rother District - are represented along with two regeneration agencies, the South East England Development Agency and English Partnerships.

This five-point plan, which has been agreed with Government, is delivering improvements to education, housing, employment, broadband access and transport.

The transport elements are essential to the overall plan and include improvements to the rail network and improved bus services through "quality bus partnerships" between the operators, local authorities and other organisations Significantly, transport improvements are also proposed to the linkages north on the A21. But, most importantly, they aim to provide what is only the second route between Bexhill and Hastings, the first being a hugely congested A259.

This trunk road is already at least 60 per cent over its design capacity and causes massive disruption and grief for the population.

The major benefits of the link road are that it is essential to the delivery of the housing needs for the area and job creation and it will provide a strategic economic corridor linking the centre and north of Bexhill with the north west of Hastings.

The benefits of the scheme are estimated to be worth in excess of £300 million, compared to the construction costs of £89 million.

Such a ratio is seldom achieved.

Government normally requires that ratio to be 2-to-1 for schemes to go ahead. Here we have one that is 3.4-to-1, 70 per cent better than the requirement.

Contrary to the myths propagated by some opponents to the road, great care has been taken with it to ensure it does not cross the Combe Haven valley, a site of special scientific interest.

The proposed road will be so well landscaped it will be very difficult to see unless standing very close to it.

The environmental impact has been so carefully taken into account in the development of the scheme that it will formally register as only "minor adverse" immediately after construction and will have virtually no impact by the time plants mature and new ecological habitats become established.

The benefits, however, are enormous including the overall economic contribution it makes to the area, the opportunities it creates to use road space on the existing road to encourage more buses and cycling facilities, and the overall environmental relief it brings to thousands of residents alongside the A259.

The county council is incorporating into the scheme opportunities for people to cycle, walk, ride horses and use wheelchairs on a countryside route.

It is also working hard with its borough and district partners to develop a countryside park in the space between the existing A259 road and the new route.

The county council is also working with Sustrans, the sustainable transport charity, to promote a cycle route directly linking the town centres of Bexhill and Hastings along the seafront.

Indeed such was the level of commitment from the county, the borough and district councils to this scheme that Sustrans has included it within a national bid, which will be seeking Lottery funding in the autumn.

Of course, some would claim a narrow cycleway between Bexhill and Hastings would solve the traffic problems of the area but this is total nonsense.

What that cycleway would do is give another option for people who wish to take a different form of transport but nobody, including Sustrans, would claim it could substitute for the link road.

It is interesting that while many claim the road is not needed and can be substituted by public transport, it was the bus industry which pleaded with Government ministers to support the road scheme in order to create the flexibility in transport that is needed in the Bexhill and Hastings area for them to be able to develop much more effective and reliable services.

They, above all, would be most disappointed if pressure from people who are not seriously interested in the economy of the area, but are really just against any road building anywhere, were to prevent this road being built.

We are, of course, confident that will not be the outcome.

The regional transport board, which is wrestling with priorities across the whole of the South East, has recently reconfirmed its support for this project.

The planning application is in and there will be public exhibitions during the next week in Bexhill and Hastings, where the public can see for themselves the quality of the design and what this road can achieve. Design work is proceeding and we are optimistic that by 2009-10 construction will be under way and within five years Bexhill and Hastings will have a valuable piece of infrastructure which will place a final seal on its opportunities for regeneration.

I would ask readers to imagine how transport would operate in Brighton and Hove if the only road link between the two towns was a single carriageway along the seafront.

Those who oppose the Bexhill to Hastings link road would condemn those towns to that fate.

What do you think? Should the road be built or is there an alternative or more environmentally friendly route? Leave your comments below.