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Roads to Nowhere

Durham's dinosaur plans

Jo Ellis, Durham campaigner

In this guest blog, local campaigner Jo Ellis explains why new roads in this heritage city are not the future Durham needs.

"When I first heard that Durham County Council wanted to build some roads round the World Heritage Site of Durham, I wasn’t really all that worried by it. I didn’t think it could possibly happen."

I was working for them at the time, and, like all good town planners, I knew that you can’t deal with congestion by building new roads. Durham, in fact, rather prided itself on having a miniature congestion zone in the city centre and a Park and Ride system instead.  And the countryside around the City is so stippled with historic sites that you can hardly put up a shed without hitting a mediaeval wall or something. And, like most local authorities, DCC was skint. It was having to close care facilities and neglect the parks. It just didn’t have the money for big vanity projects.

But the problem with this scheme is that, if you don’t know anything much about transport, it looks logical. Durham is shaped, as we used to say, “like Dangermouse” – the triangular city centre being the mouse’s face, with the two suburbs of Pity Me (yes, this is a real place) and Gilesgate/ Carrville on either side. The A1 runs to the east of the city, and traffic from the west must run through the city to reach it. Why not, then, build a road from one “ear” to the other, so that people could get to the A1 more easily?

It would be costly, no doubt, but we could solve that problem: release large areas of the green belt, permit developers to build expensive houses there on condition they contributed towards the roads, and bingo! These new housing estates would generate more traffic, of course, but the roads would deal with that. It was an impressive-sounding Grand Scheme.

We commissioned some highway consultants to argue the case for the roads being necessary. They couldn’t quite do it. The roads through Durham weren’t really all that busy, and not that many of the people going through the city really were going to the A1, and perhaps not all of the new homes would house two driving commuters. No, the figures couldn’t be slightly changed. We were “already at the outside edge of reasonable.”

Why, I asked, weren’t we considering the potential for sustainable transport – especially since County Durham has one of the lowest rates of car ownership in the country? Didn’t it matter that the roads would increase our carbon footprint, add to local air pollution, and channel more traffic towards the already-congested A1? Wouldn’t a ring road undermine the city centre in favour of out-of-town shopping centres?  

I felt vindicated when the Planning Inspectorate finally delivered its verdict. The inspector said, 

"The proposed Western and Northern Relief Roads are not justified, deliverable or environmentally acceptable. They are incompatible with the Government’s soundness tests and directly threaten the achievement of sustainable development."

But now the Plan has reared its ugly head again. The same grandiose rhetoric about bold strategies to revolutionise the County. The same nods to the concept of sustainability, without any real steps to achieve it. And the same ring road.

The figures stack up even less well than they did, because these days local authorities aren’t allowed to make up their own calculations of housing need: they have to use the Government’s. It turns out that DCC overestimated the number of homes needed by about 5 or 6,000. Furthermore, they’ve actually already given permission for most of the housing we’ll need over the coming 20 years or so – nearly 20,000 of the required 26,000 homes.

The argument that there’s no alternative but to build big new estates in the green belt has evaporated, but the estates are still in the Plan because they’re needed in order to fund the roads. And the roads are still in the Plan because...well, who knows?

It’s always tragic when a major road scheme goes ahead. It always means a lack of imagination, a lack of consideration for the local and global environment, and a fatalistic assumption that we’ve got to feed our love of the private car. But in this case, it doesn’t stand alone. It means building houses for the rich in one of the most deprived parts of the country. It means failing to provide for the high proportion of people who don’t drive. It means another of the County’s town centres starved of investment. It means trashing the historic landscape around the World Heritage Site.

Join me in telling the County Council that new roads in our heritage city are not the future Durham needs.


People can comment on the County Durham Plan online or by email