Road building is not the only route
On Thursday, Danny Alexander set out the second part of the Government’s Spending Review, detailing plans for an apparent splurge of infrastructure spending. In hyperbolic overdrive, he claimed the largest investment in the railways since the Victorians, but the real attention was reserved for ‘the biggest new road building programme for 40 years’.
In reality, the £28 billion earmarked for new roads will be mainly used to deliver projects already proposed by the Highways Agency. We have long known that many of these developments would be environmentally destructive and hugely counterproductive. Some have already attracted fierce opposition, for instance the A21 Tonbridge to Pembury dualling which is currently undergoing a public inquiry.
But the problems with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury's announcement go much deeper than re-announcing specific schemes. Also in the Treasury documents are potentially far-reaching to objectives for roads policy which could revive zombie road schemes across the country.
Feasibility studies are to be commissioned to look at the A303, the A1 north of Newcastle, the A27 along the south coast, roads around Leeds Airport and between Sheffield and Manchester. This could end up creating the equivalent of motorway grade roads through the Stonehenge landscape, the Blackdown Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the South Downs National Park and across the Pennines. It would threaten precious landscapes and habitats, and the process of carrying out these feasibility studies will, in the meantime, create widespread blight and uncertainty.
There is also a mind-boggling commitment to dualling the large proportion of the Highways Agency network. This will doubtless lead discussions over the revival of other long-dead schemes such as highly controversial plan to build a Hereford Bypass.
Alexander's announcement actively takes money away from green transport initiatives. With the creation of the Single Local Growth Fund, money due to be allocated to a second round of the Local Sustainable Transport Fund supporting cycling and other sustainable transport has been handed to Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). As many of these groupings have drawn up transport plans calling for increased spending on roads, there is a very real risk that the limited money which was available for green transport will now syphoned off for more roads.
The Government has apparently learned nothing from previous attempts to resuscitate major road building. Most notoriously, 1989's,Roads for Prosperity White Paper, proposed a massive programme of new roads leading to confrontations at Twyford Down, Newbury, Fairmile and elsewhere. We have already seen the return of high profile and on-going local opposition to road building most recently at the site of the Bexhill Hastings Link Road, the site of a national rally against road building on 13 July.
In the run up to the Spending Review, Campaign for Better Transport argued strongly that to create jobs and support the economy, the Government should forget about new roads and instead invest in public transport and mending our existing crumbling highways. We welcome the re-commitment to spending plans for Network Rail (announced last year, but which could have been unpicked). There was also a £10 billion allocated for road repairs, some of which is new money. But the overwhelming feeling from Thursday’s announcement is of transport policy retreating to the dark ages.
Road building is not an elixir. Government should have learned from bitter experience that entrenching car dependency in this manner is environmentally damaging, expensive, slow and socially regressive. It is also unpopular – as with previous attempts to undertake major programmes of new roads, the Government’s plans will meet widespread and committed opposition on the ground and will not help them at the ballot box.