Can the appearance of our road network be turned around from banality to beauty? That was the bold vision of Roads Minister, John Hayes MP, in a speech to CPRE earlier this month.
From banality to beauty: a new vision for roads
There was much that CPRE would agree with from what the minister said. Hearing a Roads Minister talking seriously about putting beauty and design at the heart of road travel, principles CPRE has espoused since its founding, was refreshing and encouraging; committing CPRE to being on a future design panel even more so.
The Minister spelled out a five point plan for future road developments. This included:
- making sure every project is rooted in its locality and actually enhances the natural landscape.
- working on a fresh approach to the Department for Transport’s relationship with contractors and other industry partners.
- creating a Design Panel like those created for Crossrail and HS2.
- establishing a set of design principles
- an appreciation of industry best practice
These are certainly commendable aims that respond to many of the demands that CPRE has been making. But they fail when it comes to the most important question: whether a new road needs to be built at all.
It is, in fact, doubtful that increasing the size of a road will ever make it more beautiful. As the notable landscape architect Nan Fairbrother wrote in 1970: ‘A lane is its boundaries – its containing banks and walls and trees and hedges, its windings and unexpected corners: ‘improvement’ merely substitutes a new route in the old position, like pulling down an old building to put up a new one .’1
So it is in 2015 with the government planning to widen hundreds of miles of roads. New ‘smart’ motorways may not take up extra land but the route has changed. The smell of an area becomes more acrid as extra cars arrive. The taste of fumes lingers for longer. The constant drone is heard further and further away. More of the green landscape is hidden from view.
Even the A road is not safe. Substituted for new routes as they’re destined to become four lane ‘express ways’, they will lose any memory they had of being on a human scale.
In several cities there are signs that people on foot and cycles are gaining the upper hand, making urban areas walkable and human, tolerating less and less the solo drivers who insist on taking their one-tonne metal shell wherever they go.
In the rural areas the opposite is happening as the rambler, the cyclist, even the pleasure driver is castigated and forced from the ever bigger and more hostile roads. Extra tarmac is provided, to ‘pour still more unmanageable numbers through the heart of the area’ , as Fairbrother argues.
Biodiversity, cultural heritage and landscape are under even more threat. Highways England will publish a new Biodiversity Action Plan in June but will have no target other than to keep producing reports. Cultural heritage and landscape meanwhile have so far not even received this minimal level of thought; although Highways England is expected to announce in March a commitment to produce an action plan for these issues.
To return once again to Fairbrother, ‘the starting point can no longer be traffic, allowed to increase without limit and still expecting to be supplied with unlimited access. The starting point must now be access, which increased traffic must share by efficient limitations’.
But in 2015 the starting point is building more roads with no limit in sight. Yet many still make the claim that there is a war on motorists. If there is a war then it is extremely one sided. Whilst there are no deaths attributable to fuel duty or congestion charging, 25,000 people a year die in England as a result of air pollution, much of it from the emissions of motorists. And more than 1,700 people a year are killed in the UK as a result of road injuries. That’s around five people every day. This is just the unacceptable human cost. The landscape and wildlife also suffer.
Crowded isn’t more charming. Destructive isn’t more delightful. More, more, more isn’t magnificent. And bigger will not mean beautiful. If the Roads Minister truly cares about beauty then he should end his plans to spend £15 billion on increasing road capacity. Instead he can follow CPRE President Sir Andrew Motion’s advice by ‘retrofitting the existing road network to a higher environmental standard, and retrofitting the traffic that drives on it as well.’ Perhaps then we will have a fighting chance of enhancing England’s beauty through roads.
1Fairbrother, N (1970), New lives, new landscapes, the Architectural Press, London
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