Putting the brakes on our road building ‘obsession’

Does the case for the government’s multi-billion pound road building plan really stack up?

It is hard to imagine a more contentious idea. In a bid to reduce journey times between Sheffield and Manchester by a few minutes, the government recently committed public money to the case for building the longest road tunnel in the world.

Such is Westminster’s belief in the economic power of slightly faster car travel that it is considering spending billions on a tunnel linking the cities that would bring limited benefits while damaging the integrity of one of the most popular National Parks in the UK.

To dismiss this outlandish idea would be to underestimate the government’s support for road building. The last five years have seen a roads white paper promising ‘the biggest road investment in half a century’ and changes to land-use planning which project a 30% increase in traffic by 2030 while perpetuating the myth that building new road capacity can solve the resulting congestion.

‘Economic concerns trump all others’

To take forward the predict-and-provide approach to road building, a total of £30bn is going on five-year rolling programme for the strategic road network, a separate multi-billion pot for local road building, and increased funding and autonomy for Highways England (previously the Highways Agency).

Behind the rush for roads is the belief that they are good for the economy. In a world where economic concerns trump all others, modelling is used to argue that roads support growth, and that new tarmac is better value than other transport choices.

These are deeply contested ideas. Often, to justify a new road, too much stock is placed in aggregating small journey time savings while too little consideration is given to local public opinion, loss of natural resources and public amenity, and the benefits of greener alternatives.

Other impacts such as air pollution and carbon emissions are wished away with fanciful projections about fuel efficiency improvements, the take-up of electric cars or national policy objectives. Cars also lock in sedentary lifestyles, but whether an already struggling NHS can deal with increasing obesity and mental health problems is never even a consideration.

There are better, more sustainable ways of meeting our transport needs than building ever-more roads

Numerous new road building projects have now come forward in recent years, including a large number of resurrected ‘zombie roads’ which had previously been ruled out.

Proposals include schemes in nationally and internationally designated areas such as the South Downs (A27 Arundel bypass), Peak District (Longdendale bypass and the TransPennine Tunnel), Norfolk Broads (A47 Acle Straight), on the A303 at Stonehenge, and in the Cotswolds (A417 dual carriageway linking the M5 to the M4). Many others threaten important local green spaces, such as the Port of Liverpool access road (A5036).

Tarmacking the countryside and green spaces is always controversial and some environmentally damaging schemes have been dropped in the face of fierce opposition. Plans for a second bypass of Chichester clipping the South Downs National Park were unceremoniously shelved earlier this year when the scale of the brewing public relations disaster forced the government to intervene.

Others, however, have already gone ahead. This spring, Highways England began dualling the A21 between Tonbridge and Pembury in Surrey, chopping down several hectares of ancient woodland in the process.

Although the £70m project includes some new habitat creation and other mitigation, the loss of 1,000-year-old trees to he landscape and as habitats cannot be so easily offset. The Woodland Trust, which fought the A21 scheme, has pointed to another 350 areas of woodland threatened by development proposals, including new roads and HS2.

Examples to learn from

There are better, more sustainable ways of meeting our transport needs than building ever-more roads. For example, Transport for the North has been clear it sees the majority of the area’s strategic transport needs being best met by a revitalised rail network.

South Yorkshire has adopted a traffic light approach to high-level planning which aims to guide development to sites already well-served by transport infrastructure (including public transport).

Big new housing developments like Shawfair on the reopened Borders Railway or the Kilnwood Vale at Crawley aim to break the reliance on cars by making bus and train easier and quicker alternatives.

Business developments like Quorum in north-east England and Chiswick Park in west London make a feature of limited car parking and instead have successfully focused on sustainable travelling planning.

Nationally, Campaign for Better Transport continues to promote changes to planning guidance, challenges how realistic or desirable the government’s traffic growth projections are, and calls for better modelling so the full social and environmental benefits of walking, cycling and public transport are captured.

Locally, we support campaigns opposing environmentally damaging proposals. We also highlight the growing number of housing, business and retail developments based around sustainable transport options.

As the examples above show, there is clear evidence that this integration of transport and land-use planning offers more effective and affordable solutions than national government’s obsession with big new roads.


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