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Roads to Nowhere

Action for Roads – a year and half of making dents in the roads programme

Sian Berry's picture
Campaigners at Parliament for the Infrastructure Bill debate

It's been a stormy 19 months since a major new road-building programme was put forward by ministers, and we've had some success in blunting its most terrible features: from a £500 million 'green retrofit' for main roads to a new law on cycling and walking investment.

In June 2013, a set of Spending Review announcements by the Treasury's George Osborne and Danny Alexander promised 'the biggest road investment in half a century', and this was followed up with the publication of ‘Action for Roads’ by the Department for Transport in July. We reacted with 'fury', calling the plans 'a colossal transport policy error'.

This package of 'road reform' policies, had so many facets you’d be forgiven for not keeping up, but every one of these has needed scrutiny, urgent changes and campaigning effort since then, and has been the main focus of our work and the actions we’ve asked our supporters to take.

The plans included: switching the Highways Agency to an arms-length government-owned company, and increasing its budget threefold up to 2021, attempting to bring private investment into a new generation of toll roads, reviewing every section of the strategic road network, via 18 'Route Strategies' and six major 'Feasibility Studies', a new national planning policy for transport, and a £15 billion 5-year 'Road Investment Strategy'.

Now, with the end of this process (and the end of this this Parliament) looming, the results of our campaign to put some significant dents in the plans can be seen and – while there's still a huge job ahead of us to defeat a whole stack of individual road schemes that remain in the programme – the changes we've pushed through have helped to give a more enlightened roads policy at least a fighting chance of emerging from the gloom.

Highlights of the campaign have included:

The Government dropping the idea of a new generation of toll roads, paid for by private investors, after plans for the A14 caused an outcry:

Helping, with some amazing work from colleagues at CPRE, to generate a record-breaking response to the draft National Policy Statement (NPS) for roads. In December 2013, we called the draft new planning policy a ‘national disaster’. It was a true return to predict-and-provide road-building and also contained a 'climate gag' clause that tried to remove carbon impacts from road planning decisions.

Ensuring local environmental campaigners were able to put their views into the Feasibility Studies for six contentious road corridors, including the A27 through the South Downs, trans-Pennine routes through the Peak District, and the A303 past Stonehenge. Opinions that didn't focus on increasing road capacity were still sidelined, however, and Anne from Friends of the Peak District wrote this open letter to George Osborne:

Better not bigger report coverPublishing our manifesto for a 'green retrofit' of the strategic road network, alongside 12 other environment and transport organisations. This showed how the impact of existing roads on wildlife, landscapes, people walking and cycling and on public transport, and the serious health issue of air pollution, needed urgent action - asking for a £300 million a year fund within the Road Investment Strategy:

Warning the Government that putting fracking and road-building together in the Infrastructure Bill was bound to lead to trouble:

Putting forward the idea (at the time a pretty audacious one) of adding a whole new investment strategy to the Infrastructure Bill that would give cycling and walking the same 5-year funding security that the Government was promising for roads:

Along with Sustrans, Living Streets, CPRE, CTC, British Cycling and a coalition of health charities, getting more than 10,000 people writing to their MPs to vote the Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Strategy into the Infrastructure Bill.

So, what have we ended up with?

The new road-building craze certainly hasn't gone away, and unless there's a radical change in policy from the next Government we will still see around £30 billion being spent on roads one way or the other over the next five years. The process of selecting and assessing transport schemes still favours roads through pessimistic traffic growth forecasts, reliance on small time savings by drivers to calculate economic benefits, and a (more recent) focus on ‘unlocking’ land for development with road schemes.

However, a number of checks and impediments to giving new roads the green light have been restored due to our campaigning with fellow NGOs. The ‘climate gag’ clause has now been removed from the final draft NPS, and National Parks have regained special protection. The appalling chapter 2 in the draft NPS, which defined the ‘need’ for new roads and was a virtual homage to the ‘predict and provide’ policies of Margaret Thatcher, has been heavily rewritten and now explicitly says it is NOT a policy based on national forecasts, and that local conditions and factors must be taken into account.

“Up to 2030 under central forecasts, road traffic is forecast to increase by 30%, rail journeys by 40%, while rail freight has the potential to nearly double.”
Draft National Policy Statement, December 2013

“The Government’s policy on development of the Strategic Road Network is not that of  predicting traffic growth and then providing for that growth regardless. Individual schemes will be brought forward to tackle specific issues, including those of safety, rather than to meet unconstrained traffic growth (i.e. ‘predict and provide’).”
Final National Policy Statement, December 2014

Some very big wins:

We’ve also won our argument for a retrofit programme to reduce the impact of existing major roads, with £500 million taken from the Road Investment Strategy pot to fund it, along with a range of promises – backed by funding – to make any new roads at least look better and to have more environmental mitigation built in.

More on this later today as minster John Hayes is giving a speech hosted by us and CPRE on the topic of 'making roads beautiful'. This 'green plating' will increase the cost of road schemes and may also help undermine the economic case for widening, if both more capacity and better environmental outcomes aren't affordable when a road comes up for review. Which option ministers choose in the future when these conflicts arise will be very interesting to see.

And, finally, after gaining the backing of the influential All-Party Parliamentary Cycling Group, the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy was accepted as a Government amendment and included in the Infrastructure Bill last week. This is a HUGE victory, which the Times called ‘historic’ and Sustrans said showed ‘the power of campaigning’!

CPRE’s Ralph Smyth wrote in the Guardian that “The combination of thousands of people contacting their MPs, persuasive new research, and old-fashioned lobbying building on the hard work by the all-party parliamentary cycling group of MPs proved unstoppable.”   In Parliament, roads minister John Hayes described the measure as having had more tributes 'than a ’60s pop band' due to the level of public support.

Sian Berry

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Still on the to do list:

There's much left to do, of course. Reducing air pollution is still not included in the Infrastructure Bill as a legal duty of the new Highways England company, but the legal position of campaigners seeking to challenge individual schemes is still much stronger than before thanks to the success of Client Earth's landmark case in the European Court of Justice earlier this year.

The schemes within the plans (and those emerging from future Feasibility Studies, which are among the most controversial) will need strong challenges from local campaigners if they are to be dropped. We have a precedent for success in the 1990s road campaign movement, which saw the initial 600 schemes of 'Roads for Prosperity' reduced by three quarters. And with local communities linking up and working together to make the best arguments against new and bigger roads, we can do the same again. If you're concerned about a road plan in your area, read our campaigner guide and get in touch with me and Chris for advice.

And, as the general election approaches, don't forget to keep telling us, your local candidates and the wider world how you think the £30 billion road budget could be better spent!