CLIMATE change, ecology, the environment and the impact of new relief roads was under debate during a discussion of future transport in County Durham.

Community action groups attended the most recent session of the examination of the County Durham Plan, to object to Durham County Council's proposals for two relief roads to the north and west of Durham.

The council, which was accused of failing in its commitment to tackling the climate emergency it declared earlier this year, defended its proposals, saying the roads will remove traffic from the city centre, reduce air pollution and will ease congestion at pinch points in the city.

But inspector William Fieldhouse was told congestion on roads in the city were better than elsewhere nationally and that the developments could have a negative impact on biodiversity and protected species and landscapes, as well as the "nationally significant" site of the Battle of Neville's Cross.

Mr Fieldhouse was told the peak-time average speed of traffic on the A690 from the A1(M) to Neville's Cross was 19 mph while the average speed on the A167 from Sniperley to Neville's Cross was 14 mph.

He was also told that without the relief road, one section which currently takes five minutes would increase to six-and-a-half minutes, leading him to question whether it was a "severe issue".

Responding, Dave Wafer, who is the council's strategic head for transport, said: "I would suggest yes. You end up with a network that is unreliable.

"The lack of resilience is Durham means there are many times when the network can't cope."

The northern relief road would connect Pity Me and Brasside with the A690 near Carrville, while the western road would link Sniperley and Stonebridge, near Neville's Cross.

A spokesperson for the City of Durham coalition, representing Friends of Durham Greenbelt, the city's parish council and the City of the Durham Trust, said: "You can't expect free flow conditions in urban areas.

"Road speeds in Durham are much better than a lot of urban areas."

The session heard the roads would have an impact on ancient woodland in Kepier Gorge, Low Newton Nature Reserve and an area of Special Scientific Interest (SSI) at Brasside Ponds, as well as other areas where protected species are found.

Ecologist Val Standen raised concerns about the impact of biodiversity if habitats were divided by the roads. She said: "The impact of breaking up habitats is that smaller populations are not as resilient and less able to cope with changes.

"In a time of climate change we need all the resilience we can get."

A spokesperson for campaign group Durham Road Block said: "In the context of the climate emergency it is completely unacceptable the council can propose a transport strategy that increases emissions and will have an impact on biodiversity."

The council refuted claims the roads will lead to increased traffic and air pollution.

Durham resident and parish councillor Grenville Holland said: "The environmental damage is going to be considerable, irretrievable and can't be mitigated for."

Mr Wafer said he hoped the northern relief road would be open by the spring of 2024.