Highways England seems to be pursuing a worrying trend of failing to involve local communities in decisions on new roads in any meaningful way.
It's time to review their performance, and the flawed consultation requirements of the Planning Act 2008.
Four major recent consultations it has held, either had no choice at all, such as for a new A358 between Taunton and Southfields, or as for the A5036 Liverpool Port Access Road, had such a bad choice such as to be no choice at all. Here local people were asked to choose between increasing traffic on an already heavily polluted corridor, or having their country park sliced in two, so what choice did they really have? Such an appalling situation is a sad indictment of transport policy and delivery today.
Even when there is apparently some form of choice, Highways England presents the options in such a way as to effectively rule out people choosing anything other than Highways England’s preference. This was done with the Lower Thames Crossing, where it presented its preference for a new crossing east of Gravesend and gave people the ability to tweak the alignment of the route north and south of the river, but not an option to question the location of the crossing. However, when challenged by some, it said that the option of a new crossing at Dartford was still on the table. The trouble is without all ‘options’ being placed on an equal footing in the consultation documents they are not going to be seen as options by most people. This is the most cynical manipulation of public opinion.
A similar thing has been seen at Stonehenge and the A303, where Highways England wants to dig up the World Heritage Site to build a mile of new dual carriageway through the landscape, in addition to the short tunnel it focusses on publicising. While saying it hadn’t necessarily ruled anything out, the choice that people were given was no choice at all. Build a short tunnel with all the destruction that would entail to the World Heritage Site was effectively presented as not up for negotiation, people could only really comment on whether they wanted the bypass north or south of Winterbourne Stoke.
According to the law, while developers, including Highways England are encouraged to engage early on with local communities and involve them in choosing the best option, they are not legally required to do so. The requirement is only for there to be a pre-application consultation of sufficient length and detail to allow people to meaningfully engage with the process.
For roads this means that Highways England can get away with meeting its statutory obligations by just consulting on its preferred option. However, for a road scheme, there are often many options that could be developed, including non-road solutions. If Highways England was fulfilling the spirit of the legislation and pursuing good practice then it should be consulting on all practicable options ahead of selecting a preferred route or solution. For this to happen at least two rounds of consultation are required, but because of the flexibility or looseness of the law, this isn’t mandatory.
So even though the legislation and guidance recognises the importance of early consultation and the benefits in local communities helping shape the outcome, there is unlikely to be any sanction if developers don’t do it. The Secretary of State can refuse to accept the application and ask that more consultation take place. In reality, this doesn’t happen because Highways England has by this stage already engaged contractors and spent quite a lot of public money working up its preferred scheme. The Government wanting the road built and on budget is more likely to be keen to press on, rather than ‘waste’ time consulting further. In any case, further consultation is probably pointless at this stage unless Highways England is forced to go back and restart the whole selection process again.
This is a fatal flaw in the Planning Act 2008 and one that Highways England, which has never been good at engagement in the first place, has exploited. Not only is this disempowering local communities but it is also bringing forward schemes that are highly damaging and in the long term won’t necessarily bring best value for money. This needs to change.
The new Government should urgently review the performance of Highways England and the consultation requirements of the Planning Act 2008.