Save the countryside: build more roads

Patrick McLoughlin, the Transport Secretary made an interesting speech last week in which he talked about the need to meet ‘people’s rising expectations, both for the quality of our infrastructure and the impact of construction on the environment’.

I will pass over his bold reframing of HS2 as the biggest conservation programme in Europe. Most of the speech was about the roads programme. The Government has almost abandoned demand management, returning to a predict-and-provide approach to accommodating road traffic, so it was superficially encouraging to hear the Secretary of State talking about how to ‘manage the increasing demands on our roads’. What he was really talking about, however, was accommodating demand by using technology, which is not quite the same thing.

More encouraging was a commitment to build less damaging roads, tackling light pollution, building green bridges and better noise barriers, working to ‘blend new roads much better into the landscape’.

Existing roads can be improved, and it if you are going to build lots of new ones (which the Government says it will) it is good to try to minimise the damage they will cause. But it is important to acknowledge that however hard you try, they will cause environmental harm.

And here the Secretary of State rather over-played his hand. How is this for a whopping non sequitur?
‘People tend to think of road building as destructive. But it’s not always that simple.
‘Take the motorway network.
‘More than 1 million broadleaf trees were planted during construction in the 1970s. That’s more than the forestry commission planted across the entire country at the time.’

Good for the 1970s motorway tree planting. But ten million broadleaf trees could not bring back the countryside and houses destroyed by those roads. The Government is keen on environmental offsetting, but destruction is destruction, however hard you try to offset it.

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