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Roads to Nowhere

Air pollution, not Swampy, now stands in the way of plans for more roads

Andrew Allen's picture

The Government's belief that it can build its way out of congestion comes straight from the disasterous roads policy of the late 1980s - but this time it's air pollution, not Swampy, which stands in its way of the plans for more tarmac.

At Prime Minister's Questions last week Ben Howlett, the MP for Bath, asked David Cameron to approve a new A36/A46 link road near his constituency. As a cypher for "please solve congestion in my constiutency", it's the kind of question MPs of all sides are inclined to ask when their name comes up for PMQs.

In response, David Cameron chose not to talk about long term transport planning, or the need for decisions to take in health, climate change, conservation, landscape or other considerations. Instead, he took a swipe at air quality campaigners, suggesting new road building helps tackle pollution by reducing congestion and allowing the free flow of traffic:

"Some people think that if we care about air quality there is no room for any road building, but, of course, stationary traffic pollutes much more than moving traffic."

The sentiment here is that if only we could build enough roads we would all be able to travel as we chose. We have been here before. The near legendary 1989 White Paper, Roads for Prosperity closely echoed the words used by the Prime Minister at PMQs:

New roads take traffic away from places where it should not be, helping to protect local communities and buildings and making life tolerable in residential areas and shopping streets.

Roads for Prosperity attempted to make this vision a reality via plans for 2700 miles of shiny new tarmac across the countryside. It was a public relations disaster resulting in widespread protests that turned Swampy into a household name and concluded with the ignominious cancelling of numerous road building projects. 

While the environmental damage being caused by road building remains a touchstone issue (see for example, the M4 proposal over the Gwent Levels), it is the 40-50,000 people who die prematurely each year because of air pollution that are now taking the headlines. In recent weeks, the issue has featured prominently in the London Mayoral Elections and is the subject of a stinging report from MPs on the Environment Select Committee. Worse for the Government, it will soon find itself back in court to answer the charge that it has acted too slowly in reducing exposure to air pollution across the country - a matter over which they have already lost one case at the Supreme Court

A very large number of people care about air pollution and its impact on health (see research on London, for example). Rather than more big roads, this requires a proper cross-Government strategy with measures to encourage cleaner engines and electric cars and support better transport alternatives including public transport and decent infrastructure for cycling and walking. Importantly, it also requires a firm plan for fewer car journeys. 

It's time the Government permanently dropped its belief that we can build ourself out of road congestion. Rather that pursuing plans for damaging and unpopular new roads, we should concentrate on getting people out of their cars onto cleaner, greener alternatives.