Archive for January, 2014

New Roads: junking the evidence

Here is my column in February’s Countryman.  I wrote it when Danny Alexander was boasting about the biggest road building programme since the 1970s.  The Government now says it is planning the biggest roads programme for 50 years.


Anyone who has ever been stuck in traffic has probably mused on how much faster they would go if only the road had an extra lane.  Now the Government is promising the biggest road-building programme since the 1970s.  In particular, it proposes that all major A Roads should be dual carriageways (though without being quite clear how this will be funded).

Some of the policy, such as the emphasis on maintaining roads as well as building them, is welcome.  Survey after survey shows that motorists (not to mention cyclists) hate potholes even more than congestion.  And there is a commitment to quieter road surfaces and less intrusive lighting. 

But the central proposition – that new roads relieve congestion and are needed because of growing demand – is disastrously wrong.  There is a wealth of evidence that new roads quickly fill up, leaving congestion as bad as before.  This may not accord with the common sense of the fuming motorist in a traffic jam, but it has been accepted by policy makers for twenty years.  Now, without explanation, the evidence is to be disregarded: new roads are back in fashion. Continue reading ‘New Roads: junking the evidence’

HS2: just another infrastructure project?

Today’s Times carries a story that CPRE is reconsidering its support for high speed rail.  This is true, though if we do change our line it will be a board decision.

CPRE’s conditional support for HS2 has been unpopular with many members – see some of the comments on my previous two blogs on the subject – but that is not why we are having second thoughts.  The reason is that it is increasingly hard to see HS2 as any sort of green project.  I continue to think that HS2’s long-term benefits to the countryside and the wider environment could outweigh the harm it will inevitably cause, but it is doubtful whether the Government believes this, or cares.     Continue reading ‘HS2: just another infrastructure project?’

A masterclass from Chris Huhne: how not to win an argument

Rather late in the day I’ve caught up with Chris Huhne’s article on housing in this morning’s Guardian.  It offers a masterclass in how to frame a reasonable argument (we need a big increase in house building) in a way that will alienate many of those you want to persuade.

Huhne says we need new towns in the south east, but that the PM is running scared of “losing nimby votes in the Tory heartlands.  Without new towns, the coalition has only a partial answer.  The loosening of planning controls has been half-hearted and ineffective….  Some of the cheapest housing of any major city in the US is in Houston, Texas, where there are no planning controls.  The tougher the planning controls, the higher are house prices.”

Where to begin – the assumption that new towns (if needed) must be in the south east; the dreary dismissal of opponents of development as ‘nimby’; the invocation of Texan planning laws as some sort of model for Britain?… Continue reading ‘A masterclass from Chris Huhne: how not to win an argument’

Debating shale gas

Today’s story in the Sunday Times says that CPRE is “poised to throw itself into the controversy over fracking with the launch of a national programme of town-hall meetings” is a little overblown.

Our policy position on shale gas states that CPRE “does not oppose the exploitation of shale gas in principle provided it meets certain conditions”.  But then it sets conditions that have certainly not yet been met, and may never be.

“Our primary aim is to ensure that the location and operation of shale gas sites do not harm the beauty and tranquillity of the English countryside.  We are also concerned to ensure that the natural resources of the countryside, especially water, are not polluted or used unsustainably; and that it can be demonstrated how the exploitation of shale gas contributes towards meeting our climate change commitments consistent with established Government policy, for example by substituting for unabated coal use.  CPRE will oppose proposals which fail to meet these conditions.” Continue reading ‘Debating shale gas’

Fracking and the moral limits of markets

The Prime Minister is going “all out” for fracking.  “Nothing would go ahead if there were environmental dangers,” he says, but he has clearly made up his mind that there is no danger – can be no danger!  So, millions of pounds will be thrown at councils to persuade them to accept fracking and, according to one report, “direct cash payments could be made to homeowners living near fracking sites”.

As the Guardian leader puts it, the Government’s enthusiasm for fracking “feels more like an ambush than an attempt to woo a public that is still uncertain what it’s being sold”.  CPRE’s Policy Guidance Note on shale gas, produced towards the end of last year, stated that we do “not oppose the exploitation of shale gas in principle provided it meets certain conditions”.  These include serious concerns about its impact on the countryside, carbon emissions, water pollution and much else.  We argued against a gung-ho embrace of fracking as a solution to the country’s energy problems, but that seems to be exactly what we are getting.

The suggestion that local authority support for fracking can be bought is particularly concerning.  CPRE believes that planning decisions should be made on their merits, uninfluenced by money.  That is our position on housing and wind farms, and it is our position on fracking.

But will people support fracking because there is money in it for them?  Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: the moral limits of markets, suggests that they may have a deeper sense of what is right.  Ministers might consider Chapter 3, ‘How markets crowd out morals,’ with its warning that “sometimes, offering payment for a certain behaviour gets you less of it, not more”.  Continue reading ‘Fracking and the moral limits of markets’

Time for a rethink on planning

Following the Daily Telegraph’s coverage of a speech that Nadam Zahawi MP almost made on the NPPF, I have written an article for the Telegraph website.

My main point, of course, is that the Prime Minister needs to listen to loyal backbenchers like Zahawi (there are many others) who are telling him that the Government’s planning reforms have not resulted in good quality housing that enhances places and is supported by local people, but (all too often) in bog standard developments plonked down on the most profitable greenfield sites.    Continue reading ‘Time for a rethink on planning’

The Treasury’s Roads Policy: a disaster in the making

Yesterday I gave evidence to the House of Commons Transport Select Committee on the Government’s Action for Roads command paper.  In the spirit of relentless positivity that characterises CPRE I managed to find a couple of things in the Government’s roads policy that we like – the emphasis on maintaining existing roads (as well as building new ones) and commitments to reduce noise and light pollution.  But there is rather more to dislike.

Action for Roads signals the return of a predict-and-provide approach to road building.  For almost twenty years it has been accepted by the Government and almost everyone else that new roads create new demand and quickly fill up.  This is not to say that there can never be a case for a new road or extra carriageways.  But there is oodles of evidence that building new roads is generally not the best way to relieve congestion, and very little evidence that the state of our roads is holding back the economy. 

However, infrastructure is in.  Managing demand is so 1990s.  The Treasury wants to get stuff built, and the Treasury (surprise, surprise) is calling the shots.  So without any attempt to question the evidence that has guided policy for 20 years, we are now going to get a huge road building programme in the name of relieving congestion and stimulating growth.  Continue reading ‘The Treasury’s Roads Policy: a disaster in the making’

Where will we live?

There is a fascinating analysis of the housing crisis by James Meek in the current issue of the London Review of Books.  Much of it is concerned with the ‘bedroom tax’ and changes to the benefit regime, and some readers will not get beyond the first paragraph, with its overly-cynical suggestion that the Government is engaged in a ‘let-the-poor-be-poor crusade, a Campaign for Real Poverty’.  But take or leave the leftist polemic, the article is well worth reading, not least because it suggests that the housing crisis is harder to solve and more complex than politicians from any of the major parties would have us believe. 

Housing has moved up the political agenda, but the proposed solutions are inadequate to the challenge we face.  In particular, Meek dismisses the view that simply releasing more land for development will solve the problem. 

He notes that some “believe the aim of Britain’s private housebuilders is to build as many homes as possible, and that they are only prevented from doing so by a cranky planning system”.  But, he says, “putting aside land for houses isn’t the same as building them.  The historical evidence suggests Britain’s private housebuilders have been driven less by the urge to build the maximum number of new homes than by the urge to make as much (or lose as little) money as possible.” Continue reading ‘Where will we live?’