Weeks before the 2015 General Election, the biggest shake-up of England’s road system in over a generation was completed.
Back on the roads, again
Now that the dust has settled, on the reforms at least, does this claim still stand up to scrutiny? Some argue there will be minimal damage to the countryside thanks to new techniques and technology. It’s certainly true that the focus of national spending up to 2020 is on maintenance, such as resurfacing, as well as converting motorway hard shoulders into lanes that you can drive along. Indeed, the new and replacement surfaces will be ‘low-noise’ as standard, so many roads will become quieter.
It would be wrong to be lulled into a false sense of tranquillity, however. As the chart below shows, when it comes to spending on the Strategic Road Network - motorways as well as trunk roads - the only way is up. Not just up, but dramatically so. It was announced in this summer’s budget that from 2020/21 vehicle excise duty from cars will be ring-fenced for a dedicated Road Fund. With annual receipts predicted to be £4.2 billion, that means spending on roads is planned to increase fivefold in as many years.
Road investment: source Department for Transport (February 2014) with Road Fund (in red) added by the author.
While there are many ideas about missing links and pinch points, there are few road schemes sufficiently designed to be ‘shovel ready’ - or at least ready for the planning process. So half a billion pounds is being spent on studies for major new proposals, such as a new expressway (effectively a mini-motorway) linking Oxford and Cambridge, and one between Manchester and Sheffield, including a tunnel under the Peak District but, sadly, not also under surrounding Green Belt. There are many other proposals to turn single-carriageway A-roads into expressways, including through the most sensitive areas of countryside.
Ministers are calling on the construction industry to recruit an ‘army of road builders’ to provide the necessary labour. A World Heritage Site, a National Park, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Special Areas of Conservation will all be in their firing lines.
Claims that new construction methods mean there need not be a trade-off between the environment and economy fail to stack up. The cost of tunnelling is such that even at Stonehenge, an archaeological landscape described by UNESCO as ‘without parallel’, only enough money has been allocated for a tunnel that is so short that it would protect little more than half of the designated site. In effect, millennia of archaeological remains would have to give way in months to being dug up for tunnel portals and dual carriageways, leaving the integrity of the site wrecked.
Similarly the promise of ultra-low emission vehicles - ignoring for the moment the lack of any real progress in making lorries greener - will not protect any prized panoramas nor save a single farmer’s field from being asphalted over.
It is clear, therefore, that our countryside is seriously under threat again. The question is then whether this can be justified as the necessary price of progress. The problem is the gap between the vision and the reality. At the heart of the Government’s Road Investment Strategy is the vision is for a ‘free-flow core network, with mile a minute speeds increasingly typical’. Yet the strategy’s forecasts show that it is the core network, such as the M25, M60 and M3, that will become increasingly gridlocked, even with a massive road-building programme. Not so much 60 miles per hour, then, as 16.
In 1989, the then Government announced ‘Roads for Prosperity’, the biggest roads programme since the Romans. The combination of green wellied Middle England occupying tree houses and mounting evidence that the newly built roads just filled up, not least the M25, proved a deadly combination. The programme was slashed in the November 1995 Budget.
Twenty years on, a major roads programme is back, this time dubbed ‘Roads for Productivity’. As the official forecasts show, it will be just as futile in reducing congestion. The question now is whether we can stop it before bulldozers despoil some of our most cherished places. While we may not win as soon as the Spending Review this November, you can be sure we will not be staying quiet.
Find out more
Read the Roads plan will destroy our precious countryside - cost will mean alternatives cut news release
Download the Beyond Transport Infrastructure report