The roads programme: saloon bar policy-making

The Government has been boasting for some time that it is committed to the largest road building programme for fifty years. Now it has announced how it intends to spend £15 billion on roads by the end of the decade. There is £100 million to improve cycling provision and to ‘cycle-proof’ new roads, and £300 million for an environmental fund to reduce the carbon, noise and landscape impacts of the roads network, and these funds are very welcome.

The trouble lies with plans for the remaining £14.6 billion. These include schemes that will damage National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and a tunnel under Stonehenge (in itself a good thing) that will fail to preserve the setting of the country’s most important World Heritage Site.

CPRE will be engaging with these proposals in detail. We have funded a roads campaigner for nine months and hope to do much more, working alongside the Campaign for Better Transport and other likeminded organisations. We will undoubtedly produce a good deal of detailed analysis, but it seems worth making a few points now.

First, as I wrote in a previous blog, after the controversy of the previous roads programme an academic and political consensus emerged that new roads do not relieve congestion in the long term; they generate new demand and quickly fill up. All the evidence to this effect has now been magicked away. It has not been questioned, still less disproved by new research. Rather, politicians have chosen simply to ignore it. They want to apply ‘common sense’ solutions to what are, in fact, complex issues. This is not evidence-based policy making, it is the wisdom of the saloon bar.

Second, and linked to this, roads do not just connect places, they encourage development. CPRE, after all, came into existence largely to oppose the ribbon development of the 1920s. I sympathise as much as any Minister with motorists who work hard and do the right thing and still find themselves sitting in traffic jams on the A303 – but why, then, allow a massive business park to be built there (named Solstice Park, I kid you not) and why allow it to expand when the traffic is already so bad?

Third, we have a government that claims it is the greenest ever and an opposition claiming it would be greener. But all three main parties, as well as UKIP, treat the roads programme as a business issue almost unrelated to the environment. Indeed, the environment is increasingly viewed through the lens of growth: who can build the most green stuff, who can create the most green jobs. The Lib Dem PR on today’s announcement couples its support for ‘a record investment in renewable energy’ with its support for an ‘enormous’ investment in roads, with no hint that we might need more renewable energy simply to make up for all the extra petrol we are using.

Nobody should oppose all new roads or carriageways in principle, and we should certainly welcome improvements to existing roads to fix potholes, reduce noise and light pollution, build green bridges and so on. But anyone who cares for the countryside should find the growing consensus that we can build our way out of congestion deeply worrying. It is easy to drive tarmac through the countryside, much harder to develop a truly sustainable transport system.

5 Responses to “The roads programme: saloon bar policy-making”


  1. 1 Suzanne Keene December 2, 2014 at 6:47 pm

    It’s a pity the announcement doesn’t mention upgrading the railway lines to the southwest. For instance the line from Waterloo to Exeter St Davids is single track for a lot of its route through S Wiltshire, where it pretty much parallels the A303. Gillingham, Dorset, is set for a considerable expansion for housing – which will undoubtedly feed through to rail transport demand. The line from Paddington to the S West was of course washed away last winter and had to be repaired as an emergency as there is no viable inland track at present.

  2. 2 geoff lambert December 6, 2014 at 9:05 am

    Good to see some expenditure on roads. lots of simple bottlenecks can effectively be removed, but £1bill to tunnel around Stonehenge, what a waste. We still lack any sensible integration of transport. Government have just built a new busway in Luton but nowhere to park your car to transfer to the bus, so car usage has not changed. While rail could be a real alternative it never will be while we overprice it and have incompetent people running the trains. I recently decided to go by train from a local station only to find a deal between the local authority and train company had increased parking charges to 50% above other station parking costs, now the parking costs more than the train ticket so its cheaper and quicker to drive!!

    When in the car you are at least in control, no leaves on the line or bad weather forecast that brings public transport to a grinding halt and you stranded. you take it steady but at least you get there. The car should not be the answer but in reality its the only reliable and cost effective method to choose.

  3. 3 CPRE Local Supporter December 23, 2014 at 2:16 am

    This comment on the Government’s roads announcement was written rather hastily (on the day it was made, 1 December) before the assessments by experienced commentators. It is a pity that Shaun Spiers did not first read and absorb what Christian Wolmar wrote on 2 December on the Labour Party’s ‘Progress’ website. See –
    http://www.progressonline.org.uk/2014/12/02/the-age-of-the-new-road-is-already-over/
    or use the link – http://www.progressonline.org.uk/author/christian-wolmar/

    Christian Wolmar is the most experienced of transport writers and commentators on transport in Britain and takes a much more realistic view. He brings matters back down to earth. As he is a former Labour MEP, one might hope that Shaun Spiers would take note of what is said on ‘Progress’ before setting off on a subject on which he is not an expert.

    • 4 geoff lambert December 23, 2014 at 3:54 pm

      What an amazing article. ‘traffic has barely increased since the 1990’s’ where do these people live. Why would you believe anything they say. Investment in transport infrastructure is a necessity but sensible integration is the key. My local privatised train company has huge signs on the nearby motorway (provided free!) advertising fast frequent trains to London. It omits to say that its £7 just to park your car and then £34 return (most expensive in Europe) for a journey of 30+ miles, costing less than £8 by road. Not surprising no one is taking up the offer. As for the motorway traffic its up over 50% I wonder why!

      • 5 cpresupporter December 31, 2014 at 4:20 pm

        The main letter in the ‘Guardian’ about the Government’s 1 December announcement of its ‘Road Investment Strategy’ puts the position more accurately than does this news-and-views response. It notes that “The road scheme announced for Arundel – a new bypass – is the only scheme in the whole road investment strategy for England which is a major, hugely damaging dual carriageway through unspoilt countryside…. All the other schemes listed are widening of existing major roads and motorways, and junction improvements.” This is a different picture from that painted by CPRE above and on its website. See letter at:
        http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/dec/02/road-to-growth-or-road-to-re-election

        Christian Wolmar is the best journalist writing on transport and his facts about the lack of traffic growth since 2000 are correct. Where ‘motorway traffic up by 50%’ comes from isn’t clear. It isn’t possible to use a car into Central London without paying a high congestion charge and parking fees so the figures quoted look suspect. Train travel into London is certainly too expensive (compare cost of travel into Liverpool or Glasgow) and some train companies are overcharging users for station parking (captive markets both). However CPRE is not campaigning for a basic change in the structure of the railways, the only way to reverse this. The Campaign for Better Transport has done better; it has had some success in opposing real fare increases.


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