Can we build beautiful roads? And should we build them at all?

A record of John Hayes’s recent speech to CPRE and the Campaign for Better Transport on ‘making roads beautiful’ is now on Storify. Here is my column on the speech, which will appear in the next issue of the Countryman.

Politicians do not usually talk about beauty. It is considered effete. But John Hayes, the Roads Minister, has no such qualms. In a previous job he waged war on wind turbines on the grounds that they are “simply ugly”. And he believes that “a civilisation is largely defined by what it builds,” a thought that should worry us.

So I was delighted when John Hayes told CPRE he wanted to give a speech on how to build beautiful roads. It is not every year – not every decade – that a politician asks us to host a speech on beauty. But beautiful roads? Surely not.

The speech acknowledged that “sub-standard, ubiquitous, drab, cheap, soul-sapping design” has become the norm when it comes to roads. No one thinks a new road will be beautiful, and there are few calls to make existing roads less ugly: the pressure is for greater safety or less congestion.

Hayes set out a beguiling vision of a Britain “criss-crossed by award-winning roads which sink softly into the landscape”. “Our goal”, he said, “is not just to undo the most intrusive, insensitive road design of the past 50 years. It is to create a new aesthetic, values that reflect and even enhance the beauty of the local landscape.”

It is a wonderful aim, and CPRE looks forward to participating in a new roads Design Panel. But we have two big reservations. First, the money earmarked for environmental and design improvements is a small fraction of the £15 billion roads programme. If the roads we have built in the last 50 years really are so awful and ugly – and they are – let’s start by improving them, before building new ones.

And second, though some new roads may be necessary all the evidence shows that they quickly fill up, leading to pressure for yet more road-building and clogging up the towns where most journeys start and finish. We need to find ways to manage demand for new roads – and on that, the Government has been silent.

Afterword

In my response to John Hayes I quoted one of his heroes, G.K. Chesterton, writing in a CPRE publication for Penn Country, Buckingham, in 1932. Chesterton railed against “utilitarian ugliness” and “vandals and vulgarians… the usual anonymous and mechanical forces that are laying waste this country”. And he celebrated one of the “little victories of local patriotism” that stopped a major new road.

It was, he said, “proposed to open a vast and devastating arterial road through the very heart of this particular countryside; not because somebody wanted to visit that particular countryside; not even because somebody wanted to cross it to some particular town or homestead; but because there was a vague idea that everybody must move on, like loiterers admonished by the police. For these people England is a place on the road to somewhere; and they do not even know where.”

The current assumption that we need a big road building programme needs questioning.

3 Responses to “Can we build beautiful roads? And should we build them at all?”


  1. 1 antvren February 11, 2015 at 3:03 am

    Beautiful roads? When we’re busy hurtling along them at 70mph or as fast as we can? Beauty is best appreciated at slower speeds. So cut the speed limit on scenic routes, so that everyone can take it in at the pace of the dawdling sightseer. Same roads might even be cycle-friendly.
    We do too much travelling. It costs time and family life, money, hassle, environment, sometimes lives. We certainly want to get to our destination, but we could do without the travelling. “The best way to get where you’re going, is to be there already.”

  2. 2 A. Crampin February 11, 2015 at 8:54 am

    But what are Mr Hayes “new aesthetic values”?

  3. 3 Phillip Ellis March 13, 2015 at 7:23 pm

    We certainly need better roads in the south east as they are too full of vehicles and now going through villages.
    The rate of house building down south is obscene and is increasing demand for roads.

    We should be building more houses and new towns up north or should we just find a way of reducing our overcrowded island?


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