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Insights Economy plus ecology: how wildlife habitat innovations are just one legacy of the A14 upgrade

When Atkins worked as part of a joint venture to undertake detailed design responsibilities for the major A14 Cambridge to Huntingdon improvement scheme, our decade-long ecological understanding of the scheme also enabled us to introduce new innovations in biodiversity mitigation. 

The A14 is a major trunk road whose terminals are the Port of Felixstowe in Suffolk and junction 19 of the M1 in Leicestershire. It serves much traffic – from container lorries to heavy local traffic, especially around Cambridge. A key section of the £1.5 billion upgrade for Highways England was the 12-mile Huntingdon southern bypass, which opened to traffic in December 2019, one year ahead of schedule. 
image of the A14
Improving traffic flow 

The scheme was given the go-ahead because objectives included a number of future benefits: improving traffic flow between East Anglia and the Midlands, boosting local economies, cutting up to 20 minutes off average journey times, better-connected surrounding communities – especially for walkers and cyclists – and improving the route’s surrounding wildlife habitats. Teams had to work together to support the Development Consent Order – the level of permission needed for infrastructure developments categorised as nationally significant – which involved piloting new approaches and innovations as set out in the order. This included “a clearly demonstrable legacy for the local community beyond the physical presence of the new road.” This meant protecting and supporting indigenous species of wildlife and plants in the area and mitigating any negative effects of the road construction. 

As principle environmental consultant at Atkins, Jean Coultas led the ecological team’s work, liaising with partners and the five subcontractor companies who delivered the overall scheme. The ecological team’s initial task involved working with transport planners on a cost-benefit analysis to ensure that environmental statements met statutory requirements, gaining licenses in a timely manner to avoid delays and cost, and then as work got underway, creating new areas where biodiversity could thrive, supported by sensitive new planting schemes.  

Ecological challenges 

Jean said: “In a geographical area such as the flatlands of Cambridgeshire there are a significant number of ecological challenges. The water table is high, so drainage is generally poor, and the location is surrounded by flood compensation areas. So, we had to use the situation to the best advantage. For example, when we dug borrow pits nearby – to use earth for the new road – rather than bring in the soil needed from other locations, we didn’t fully refill them but instead created small lakes as new wildlife habitats.”

Indeed, these have resulted in,  more than a square mile being created as new wildlife habitats across 18 different areas. They have been carefully planted to encourage various indigenous species and habitats, including protected species like great crested newts. The habitats were also link-planted into existing woodland, so as to create a line of hedgerow to connect one area to another, which encourages dormice, also a protected species. 

High corridors and wildlife tunnels 

Jean added: “We also added plenty of high planting across main routes for bats and barn owls, creating a corridor high enough to protect them from any traffic. We also built 24 wildlife tunnelsacross the scheme to give animals a safe place to cross, supported by directional planting to persuade them to take safer routes.” Planting also now screens some lighting and signage, and specimen-size trees were planted to connect the scheme with nearby villages. 

Landscaping also involved realigning a river into a horseshoe shape to adjust the water course, so it worked with, and not against, surrounding flood compensation areas due to the variation of ground levels of the overall scheme. Thisled to movement of ground that had archaeological implications. There was also a new requirement to reassess the area for any archaeological finds ahead of changes being made,following a ground radar-type geophysical survey and the digging of trial trenches. The fascinating finds made national and international news, including  remains of woolly mammoths and rhinos, remains of a medieval village and rare Roman coins.  

Clear communication 
image of machinery
New technologies also helped the team work together to deliver new innovation into the project, such as the direct transfer of field data into an interactive GIS system, to share knowledge more widely with partners. The ecology team also led weekly telecoms meetings, and clear lines of communication were business as usual, which helped partners to respond efficiently in securing what was needed in terms of provisioning for the project; such as engaging with stakeholders and being granted ecological licences in time to avoid delays to the construction programme. 

Many valuable learnings have come out of the scheme, and to capture them for future use the ecology team has undertaken Highways England’s first ‘ecosystem services valuation’ – designed to capture and share the evidence of benefits in this scheme in a new and easily understandable way.  

As a consequence of this, the team is also working with the overall scheme contractors to expand the valuation, to allow the net balance of biodiversity gains and losses to be recorded. Jean said: “It’s important to introduce this level of biodiversity innovation into schemes of this size. Not only to meet the UK’s aspirations for positive impacts across our road networks, but also because with this scheme we have proven that you can introduce and enhance wildlife habitats in a cost-effective way.”