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M4 widening isn't 'smart' for safety or the environment

Chris Todd's picture

The Government has approved plans to widen part of the M4 motorway between London and Berkshire by turning the hard shoulder into a traffic lane.

This is really bad news. It’s not simply unpopular – it’s wrong.

The decision contradicts the recent House of Commons Transport Committee report that getting rid of the hard shoulder is dangerous, confusing and is putting people's lives at risk to cut costs.

MPs heard evidence from motoring organisations, highways officers and transport experts, and as a result, the Committee recommended an immediate halt to the rollout of all lane running.

The M4 decision ignores hundreds of representations against the plans during the inquiry process plus hundreds more who joined our August action to write to the Secretary of State asking him to reconsider the plans in the light of concerns on safety and pollution. 

Indeed, the Secretary of State’s decision letter acknowledges the following issues:

  • Carbon emissions: “the forecast increase in CO2 emissions as a result of the proposed development is approximately 4 million tonnes over the 60 year appraisal period.”
  • Green Belt: “that in both construction and operation the proposed development would be inappropriate development.”
  • Landscape: “in operation, the proposed development would increase the dominance of the M4 within the surrounding landscape.”
  • Air quality: “the potential risk to the health of the high residential populations in areas through which the M4 passes.”
  • Traffic predictions: “there are inevitably various sources of uncertainty in the traffic forecasting … and that these have implications for the reliability of the assessment of the air quality impacts which uses the traffic forecasts as a base.”

In the face of such concerns, it’s shocking that the road has been given the green light. 

There is one concession on air pollution:

Highways England will be required to monitor the actual concentrations of NO2 within adjacent Air Quality Monitoring Areas, and if it is found that that the M4 widening has “materially worsened air quality”, then a “scheme of mitigation” (unspecified) must be prepared. However, any scheme of mitigation could take 2 years to implement which can hardly be described as reducing emissions “as soon as possible”.  Given the Government’s lackadaisical approach to this issue it is not surprising that it is up in Court next month as ClientEarth challenges its plans for reducing air pollution.

Even without environmental and safety concerns, widening roads is not a long term solution. New roads cost vast amounts of money yet add to the problem by creating new traffic.

Shifting congestion around the road network is an expensive diversion from tackling the real issues. We need investment in alternative options, including better rail for passengers and freight, to give us real choice in our journeys, as well as action to reduce the need to travel.

Locally, investment in walking and bus services can also reduce the amount of local traffic using motorways.  Yet Highways England refused to do little more than raise the railing height on bridges crossing the M4 and to claim these as improvements for cyclists and horse riders.  It blatantly ignored its own recently adopted strategies to promote active travel and its actions risk locking in greater car dependency, while wasting vast amounts of public money in the process.

All in all, a poor decision for all road users.