The Government’s Roads Investment Strategy is set to lay down 1,300 ‘lane miles’ of tarmac in the next few years - the equivalent of a new motorway that measures the combined length of the M25 and M11. But with the roads budget due to be tripled to £3billion a year by 2020, that will just be the start. Slicing through habitats, wrecking the fabric of communities and making it ever harder to find tranquillity, the impact of the new roads programme will scar the face of England.
Road-building: time for a new direction
One place threatened by a new road is Stisted in north Essex, where the shortlisted options for dualling the A120 east of Braintree include a route that would inflict multiple kinds of damage. It would destroy the secluded and settled character of the village – which appears in the Domesday Book, and still numbers only 600 inhabitants - and it would compromise an important conservation area and threaten the wildlife habitat of the River Blackwater. Why do I care especially? Because Stisted is where I grew up, and its landscape is the foundation of all my writing. Soon the conversations of the river, and the answering hush of the Ashground, may be drowned by the roar of four lanes of traffic. It’s a sacred place for me. But to say that is only to personalise something that matters absolutely. The qualities enshrined in Stisted are priceless wherever they appear.
Essex County Council think the new road will help the area cope with increasing traffic and “leave a long term legacy of jobs and homes.” But new research commissioned by the Campaign to Protect Rural England has found that the net economic benefits of new schemes are, at best, negligible, while the jobs and homes they encourage tend to be out-of-town (on greenfield land) or in a ‘ribbon’ alongside the roads. Such car-dependent developments undermine our already struggling town centres, generating traffic to the point that the new roads quickly become full – when the whole wretched cycle starts again.
As for the promise of less congestion, the research shows that within five years of building new roads, any initial benefits are cancelled by growth in traffic. People stuck in jams feel a new road would improve their quality of life; politicians think it would improve our economy – that was understandable. But in the light of this new evidence, it’s harder than ever to argue that the short-term advantages can outweigh, or even balance, the loss of the rural landscapes that are so vital to farming and tourism, and the health and happiness of us all (not just motorists).
Philip Hammond’s maiden speech of 1997 highlighted the importance of balancing “continuing prosperity and quality of life”, having campaigned on the need for “longer-term solutions” to avoid the M25 taking up more Green Belt land in Runnymede and Weybridge. With the new research showing that the environmental impacts of new road schemes are underestimated by official assessments, longer-term solutions are more important than ever. Continuing to live by the old delusions will only worsen the damage of climate change and air pollution, threatening our future prosperity in every way. And then there are the social costs of urban decay and car-dependency, which leave people in city and country facing isolation and deprivation.
CPRE’s ideas for a more enlightened transport policy would make the best use of our land and existing infrastructure, and could be the basis of a more efficient and dynamic economy. After all, commuting by car is not a productive use of time for the average worker. This is why CPRE is calling on government to make new roads a last resort and instead do everything they can to invest in public transport, cycling and walking.
In 2010, Philip Hammond argued, as Transport Secretary, that reducing the demand for travel was “a key part of the sustainability agenda” that his department could promote. This could be achieved by regenerating the urban wastelands that could accommodate 1.1 million homes close to jobs and services, as well as through support for home working, high speed broadband and video conferencing. That is surely the way forward. Drooling tarmac over our greatest national asset – the countryside - will lock us in to an over-expanded road network that technology could soon render unnecessary.
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