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The road less travelled

The road less travelled Photo: © Highways England

We now know we have a new roads minister. Andrew Jones MP replaces John Hayes, who this year gave a very interesting and thoughtful speech to CPRE on making roads beautiful.

I’ve already written in a previous blog Matthew Ford blogabout how an England with more roads, traffic, pollution and congestion is unlikely to be a more beautiful one. This blog looks at whether the Government’s plans for roads will put us on the path to sustainable transport or lead to even more car dependency.

Just to recap, John Hayes laid out a five-point plan to put beauty and good design at the heart of future road building, which we will now be encouraging the new minister to take up as soon as possible.

One statement John Hayes made right at the start of his speech really stuck with me: “There is the well-trodden path we have travelled down as a nation many times, when driving major public projects over the past century, and that is the path of mere utility, of banality - even ugliness.

“But then there is the road less travelled. The road of beauty of form enhancing function. The road, I will argue today, that we must now take.”

The road less travelled really is a beautiful concept. The road less travelled will mean a rural England where countryside is not destroyed to make way for more roads; where there is less traffic, less congestion and less air, noise and light pollution. But the Government’s plans for roads do not represent the road less travelled. They will lead to a road significantly more travelled as £15 billion is spent on more road capacity over the next five years.

Unfortunately, the Government’s plans also lead us straight down the well-trodden path that we have travelled down as a nation many times; trying to build our way out of congestion. Nobody likes congestion and CPRE is committed to tackling it. But study after study, including by CPRE, show that increasing road capacity does not tackle congestion. It simply leads to even more people driving.

The road that we must take, if we are serious about creating a smarter transport system, is clear. The diagram below was produced by the Sustainable Development Commission and shows where the emphasis should be placed.

sustainable transport hierarchy

You start with the emphasis on reducing demand. This means planning towns in a way so that people are not dependent on cars to get around, as well as providing infrastructure such as high-speed broadband and video-conferencing. Instead, Highways England has allocated £80 million for the next five years for housing and growth, with a real risk that this will lead to out-of-town retail parks and car-dependent housing developments on green fields.

Next you move to people using more sustainable means of transport such as cycling, walking, buses, trains and trams. CPRE has had a major success in bringing about a Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy, which we will be ensuring there is enough funding for. But money for local buses is being cut across the country and, while the cost of motoring continues to go down, rail fares continue to rise year on year.

Once you’ve achieved a shift to sustainable transport modes, you try to make the transport system more efficient through initiatives like car sharing and promoting ultra-low emission vehicles.

Then, only after you’ve exhausted these three options, do you consider making increases in capacity.

But if we look to Highways England’s Delivery Plan for roads over the next five years (see our briefing) these transport options are completely flipped on their head. The plan is instead to spend 92% of their non-maintenance capital expenditure on capacity increases and ‘enhancements’, meaning a major increase in road capacity of 1,300 lane miles.

 delivery plan for roads


Next they spend 5% of their capital expenditure on environment, innovation and air pollution, which fall under the category of efficiency improvements. A meagre 2% is then spent on cycling, safety and integration, which can hardly drive the shift we want to see into sustainable forms of transport. As for demand reduction, where most emphasis should be placed to bring about a smarter transport system, no money is committed and it is in fact never mentioned. The remaining 1% goes on housing and growth.

After John Hayes’ speech, CPRE’s President Sir Andrew Motion said the following: “If we care about the countryside – its look, its feel, its sustainability, its durability, we must not – we must not - spend the DfT [Department for Transport] budget on trailing concrete highways through green fields, so they can simply fill up with more cars, emitting more fumes to hasten the death of the planet.”

He went on to say that building new roads should always be the option of last resort. We are far away from that beautiful concept at present, which means CPRE and the new Roads Minister, Andrew Jones MP, have a lot of work to do.

Find out more

Read John Hayes MP's full speech at the Making Roads Beautiful event

Read Sir Andrew Motion's response at the Making Roads Beautiful event

View the Storify page for the Make Roads Beautiful event


Nobody likes congestion and CPRE is committed to tackling it. But study after study, including by CPRE, show that increasing road capacity does not tackle congestion.

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