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Environmental rhetoric vs reality

Norman Baker's picture
busy road

As the COP 26 event in Glasgow approaches, greater scrutiny than usual is rightly being paid to the government’s environmental promises and, more pertinently, their actions.

The pledges and targets have won plaudits, yet they have also served to highlight the widening chasm between rhetoric and reality. Mind the gap.

Nowhere is this more stark than with the juxtaposition of their positive decarbonisation strategy on the one hand, and their hideous £27 billion road building programme on the other. Is this really a good look for Britain ahead of Glasgow?

No doubt when Philip Hammond as Chancellor announced in 2016 this massive splurge of new roads, he would have regarded this both as a good investment for the country, and a vote winner. Actually, it is neither.

The seminal 1992 report by the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment (SACTRA) proved beyond any doubt that increasing capacity on an existing corridor merely serves to attract extra vehicle traffic that previously did not exist, perhaps diverting it from rail or bus.

You need only look at the Birmingham area which over decades has had more road construction than almost any other part of the country, and where today’s traffic jams are as bad or indeed worse than almost anywhere else.

Or consider Newbury, given a hugely controversial bypass in the 1990s to relieve the town centre, except that it was not long before traffic levels in the town centre were soon back to where they had been, plus of course a whole lot more on the bypass.

Or look at the ever-widening M25 and its ever more frequent occurrences of traffic at a standstill.

That all aside, there is another huge downside to road building, and one which is irreversible and cannot be offset by technology. This is the damage to the environment.

Pristine countryside is lost to create space for cars and lorries which worsen climate change, pollute the air, and produce harmful run-off from tyres and deposits from brake dust, a hitherto neglected but not insubstantial problem.  Ask any water company.

But can the damage to the natural environment be outweighed by other gains?

I recall a visit I made as transport minister to a Midlands town to meet various councillors and businessmen (and they were all men). When are we getting our new road, they demanded. We have been campaigning for it since 1938! I had to explain that it was not a matter of Buggins’s Turn, and the reason countless governments of different colours had refused to fund the road was that it made no sense to do so, economically, environmentally or socially.

Evidence from across the country shows that when you build a road with more capacity into a town, there is as much likelihood of it pulling business out than attracting it, particularly if that’s town economy is less than vibrant. When the M4 was built to Wales, a lot of businesses felt they could relocate to the Reading area from where Wales could now easily be served. Similarly, when the A23 was dualled down to Brighton, businesses like Royal Mail felt they could operationally relocate to Gatwick.

As the local MP, I persuaded Southern to cut by a third their season ticket prices on the parallel railway between Eastbourne and Lewes. The result? A big upturn in those who switched from car to train, so many in fact that Southern actually made a small profit from the move. Meanwhile, the A27 had a little less traffic. Cost to the taxpayer? Zero. Cost to Southern? Zero.

To bolster this further, I had two bespoke signs erected along the A27 bearing the logo “Eastbourne to Lewes 20 minutes by train”. Here was helpful advice for motorists whose car journey between the two points would often take much longer than this, (and still would do if their desired new road were built). The one at the Eastbourne end was vandalised. Some people don’t like the facts. It was of course quickly reinstated.

Climate change requires a handbrake turn now, not an answer in 2050. There is an immediate gain to be had by promoting modal shift from road to rail, as the Welsh government has begun doing. With the pandemic fundamentally changing travel patterns and homeworking now established, just how reliable now are the traffic forecasts that Highways England has used to justify their controversial road building plans anyway? Why not cut fares drastically and get people to switch to rail? Of course there is a cost to that, but it is a tiny fraction of the billions of pounds set to be spent on new roads.

If the government wants environmental credibility, it needs to ditch the bulk of its £27 billion road building programme now.

The full version of this blog first appeared in Passenger Transport 248 issue published on 3 September.