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. 

As well as a lot of assertion and hope, the Government presents some evidence to support the case for road building.  Both Action for Roads and Transport: An Engine for Growth  (the nearest thing we have to a national transport strategy) state that the World Economic Forum ranks the UK 24th in the world for the quality of its roads infrastructure.  But this killer fact turns out to be based solely on a survey of 97 executives.  The 2006 Eddington Study found that the UK was very well connected in transport terms, with lots of alternative routes and a high degree of resilience. What has changed since then?  And should we expect a small and crowded country like ours to have roads that are as free of traffic as some of more sparsely populated countries? 

Then there is the prediction that traffic on the Strategic Roads Network will grow 46% by 2040.  It is clear, I hope even to the Treasury, that no amount of road building could keep up with that demand.  And as almost all journeys start and finish on local roads, which tend to be more congested, and far harder and costlier to widen, even if one could accommodate this extra traffic on A roads and motorways, the result would be gridlock at either end.  So the only rational response is to manage demand, something on which Action for Roads is almost silent.        

One obvious place to start is integrating planning policy with transport policy.  If you want to generate traffic, build lots of out of town retail parks and low density housing on the edge of towns; if you want to sustain public transport, promote town centre-first policies and denser urban communities.  And so on.  But for whatever reason (perhaps they are both too busy receiving instructions from the Treasury) the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG) seem barely to talk to each other.

CLG’s draft Planning Practice Guidance suggests that DfT has yet to progress draft guidance on transport at the plan-making level.  And CLG does not seem to have persuaded the DfT that, in the words of the National Planning Policy Framework, ‘the purpose of the planning system is to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development’.  The term ‘sustainable development’ is missing from Action for Roads, Transport – An Engine for Growth, and the consultation on turning the Highways Agency into a publicly owned company (particularly significant as the more independent agency will have responsibility for the road-building programme). 

It is also far from clear how a massive road building programme is compatible with the commitment in the Climate Change Act to cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050.  Even the DfT’s own National Transport Model shows emissions increasing beyond current levels in the 2030s. 

And has the DfT talked to Defra?  Although Action for Roads includes a welcome commitment to build new infrastructure in less damaging ways than previously, its claim (para 3.6) that ‘there no longer has to be a choice between a well-functioning road network and a well-protected environment’ underplays the impact of dualling most of the country’s major single carriageway A roads.  How is the largest road building programme since the 1970s compatible with the commitment in the Natural Environment White Paper of a net gain for nature?  (The Welsh Government is responsible for the proposal to extend the M4 through the Gwent Levels – but egged on by the Treasury.)

I hope the Select Committee will raise some serious questions about Action for Roads and its flimsy evidence base.  A Government once committed to a modal shift from road and air travel seems to have abandoned a rational transport policy, one that is compatible with its commitments on nature, climate change and sustainable development, in favour of just building things.  We will get HS2, once justified in terms of modal shift, but we will also get lots of new roads and runways.  This is simply not acceptable!  Expect some big battles ahead. 

For more on the issue, including some of CPRE’s solutions, see the paper that went to CPRE’s Policy Committee last autumn.  There is also plenty about the roads campaign on the Campaign for Better Transport’s website


4 Responses to “The Treasury’s Roads Policy: a disaster in the making”

  1. 1 Barnetian January 7, 2014 at 6:29 pm

    The London Boorough of Barnet is quite happy to promote a huge expansion of the ‘out-of-town’ Brent Cross shopping centre, and predicts over 29,000 extra cars/day for the whole, wider project.

  2. 2 Dave H (@BCCletts) January 7, 2014 at 10:38 pm

    I drive long distances overnight, as this offers very consistent and reliable journey times, and one tends to find that the (few) other drivers you encounter are professional in their outlook and well aware of other road users.

    But frankly in the past 2-3 years the volume of traffic has fallen off a cliff. Yes I can drive 50 miles on the M6, A66, A1 and never see another vehicle going in my direction, with just a handful coming the other way. This is not only a detail for rods outside the urban areas. Within 400m of my house is the busy motorway interchange at Charing Cross (Glasgow that is). On a working day the approach roads will be gridlocked at 5pm and I can stand on Sauchiehall Street looking West for a near continuous queue for nearly 1 Km. On some nights, by 18.30 I can stand in the same spot (on North Street) and look the length or the long straight street and not see a single moving motor vehicle.

    In an age where we have massive interest in resource management as a key way to be profitable and efficient, there is a huge elephant in the corner. The average private car for example sits idle for 96% of the time, and a comparative analysis of the use of road capacity would turn up similar appallingly inefficient use of such major capital projects. Tellingly David Begg, when convenor of Lothian Region’s Transportation department used to point out the had the M9 been a railway line it would have been closed and ripped up a la Beeching years ago.

    That wasteful use of resources sees car parks at workplaces using up valuable land and only used for 9-10 hours per day, in a few places organisations are building on their car parks, as a cheap source of land with a better return from use as offices or production space. Substantial ‘floor’ areas would be unlocked if the private car was excluded from city centres.

    The effect rolls over into the wider economy, and personal financial well-being. Not owning a car, but buying your transport mode as appropriate is unlocking between £2000 and £3000 a year in disposable income for an increasing number of households, and it does this without demanding an increase in the national wage bill, or increasing the Tax Code of the wage-earners. Companies also benefit – one company cut their car costs by 60% but gained an increased flexibility over the former pool car fleet.

    The disaster in the making is more than just building the roads that lie empty for most of the time, although they are the most prominent visual example of the issue.

    • 3 Tim Lund January 8, 2014 at 9:47 am

      Wow. I wish I had something to add. I feel like recommitting myself to economically informed green campaigning all over again.

  3. 4 Arthur Franks January 8, 2014 at 3:58 pm

    I read recently that car ownership had probably peaked, therefore road traffic should decline apart from commercials. Why build more roads when no matter how many are built we are always on catch up. Manage what we have and get the roads repaired. Repairing will reduce congestion especially on local roads.

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