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Roads to Nowhere

Spending Review heralds the triumph of 'grands projets' over everyday transport

Stephen Joseph's picture
Photo: construction work

So after months of waiting we can now see transport spending priorities for the next few years - and it's not a good read.

Sure, there is good news in there. We appear to have succeeded in saving the Bus Service Operators Grant. There is serious investment in railways - not just HS2 but in upgrades to existing lines which have largely survived the pauses and reviews. There is a commitment to smartcards and flexible tickets for part time workers (though still no timescale). Some funding will still go into cycling and sustainable transport. A potholes fund has been created.

But overall the news isn't good. The Road Investment Strategy - £15bn funding to trunk roads - survives and expands, and is joined by Local Growth Funding - which our analysis shows has been used overwhelmingly for road building. Within this there is a new "Local Majors Fund", avowedly for big local transport projects, and in practice (from the list the Chancellor gave) this means roads. Key rail freight capacity upgrades which are needed now to satisfy suppressed demand for consumer and construction rail traffic are now not expected until after 2019.

Really what this is about is the triumph of the 'grands projets' which is where the big money is now going - big roads, big rail, even in London the big tube upgrades. This has all the hallmarks of what our press release immediately after the Review called the "Hi-vis Chancellor" who is never happier than donning a hard hat and hi vis jacket to visit a large construction site.

So for many areas there will be incentives and money to go for big roads, and no funding for anything else. Lowestoft, Hereford and Worthing - to take three examples - will get their bypasses or relief roads, but  there will be no money there, or in many other places, for high quality cycle networks, or safe routes to school, or good bus services - even if the local authorities in those places wanted them (and most have spent years making sure they provide no space for cycling or buses).

Added to this, the extra cuts on local authority budgets via the Department of Communities and Local Government will mean that local transport will lose out further. Councils like Somerset and Lancashire have already signalled a move towards basic services only - and that doesn't mean transport. Bus subsidies will go completely. Road maintenance will be focused on key routes and will often be patch and mend rather than good long term repairs. Traffic management - except that funded through parking fees and fines - will go.

The Chancellor and the wider political media and world may not care much about this, because it is under the radar - the focus on big projects and big roads may sound good and positive. But there are lots of reasons to oppose this whole approach.

First, it junks whole decades of evidence that big roads don't solve traffic problems or help the economy. If anything, they'll make things worse by generating extra traffic and congestion, and by moving development to car-centred places which are unreachable by those without cars.

Second, it will by doing this worsen air pollution and add to climate change, at a time when the UK is already struggling to meet air quality standards. As a result, this roads revival will create places that will be really rubbish - they'll look horrible, the air won't be breathable and they'll be really congested. So the roads won't help revive local economies because they won't be places that people will want to live, work or invest in. By being so car-centred they'll also end up excluding people without cars - the young, the old, the disabled - from employment and society.

This approach also won't work politically. The public at large won't thank the Chancellor and the 'grands projets' tendency for funding big roads. What they'll see is that, even if the Hereford bypass, the Lowestoft wet dock road and others like them are built, the rest of the road network in the towns and the countryside around them will have more potholes and fewer buses. Polling of motorists already puts local road maintenance as a priority ahead of everything else (including extra motorway lanes). So failings in everyday transport will come back to bite the Government.

This gives some opportunity for building public opposition to this package. And there are three further grounds for hope from all this.

First, rail investment is continuing - and not just in HS2. The Hendy Review of Network Rail confirmed most current investment projects, including major electrification, even though some are delayed. If rumours are true, the forthcoming Northern and Trans-Pennine franchises will see huge improvements in the quality and quantity of local rail services across the North of England.

Second, and linked to this, there's devolution. The Spending Review included further announcements of devolution deals for city regions and funding for Transport for the North and Midlands Connect. These new arrangements, allied with the forthcoming Buses Bill giving these bodies more powers, will give opportunities for really big sustainable transport improvements. Even if George Osborne has set this process going, these devolved bodies won't necessarily follow his 'grands projets' philosophy. They will be able to strike out in new directions, towards low carbon and sustainable development rather than more and bigger sheds on more and bigger bypasses. We'll be helping and encouraging them in this.

Finally, there is a big question about delivery. The big road projects will face an obstacle course in approval and management - there are already signs that Highways England and local authorities are running into problems delivering the investment commitments they've made. If and when these road building commitments get delayed, there will be the small budgets for the cycling and walking strategy and sustainable travel that we have helped secure and which can be easily topped up and deliver things quickly.

So there are still lots of things we can do to push transport in more sensible directions. We can work with the wide range of people and businesses that want pleasant, unpolluted places to live and work, and with the new devolved groupings to get there. And we'll keep pointing out to the Government the folly of their plans, the impact of their funding big roads rather sustainable transport and why and how they can change direction. In the meantime, we should celebrate the victories we have had - saving the bus grant, continuing sustainable transport funding, getting local and freight rail upgrades and even a small fund for potholes. These are small victories but they do show that change is possible.