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Roads to Nowhere

Time to slay this zombie motorway

Guest blogger Kevin Chapman from West Midlands Campaign for Better Transport writes on why plans for a Birmingham western orbital motorway should be consigned to history. 

It has been described as the “zombie motorway”, a project that keeps coming back from the dead.  

The Western Orbital route, a proposed new  road that would  run between Junction 4a of the M5 and Junction 2 of the M54, running to the west of Birmingham and the Black Country through countryside in Worcestershire and South Staffordshire.   It is a scheme that dates back to the development of the motorways in the 1960’s, gained traction in 1989 when the Department for Transport did some detailed designed work and undertook a public consultation exercise, was shelved in 1996, came back out of the box in 2001 in a watered down form and was shelved again and now has crawled back out of the woodwork onto the local agenda.

 Express & Star

Local residents feel a sense of déjà vu.   The areas local newspaper, the Express and Star has looked at the latest proposals and noticed they are identical to those of 1989.

The scheme is being pushed by Midlands Connect.   Never heard of them?   Midlands Connect is a consortium of local authorities and unaccountable Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEP’s) – which were set up by Government to improve local economies but are opaque.   

This time round Midlands Connect is pointing to what they perceive to be an urgent need to improve transport infrastructure.  The M5 through the West Midlands is now 50 years old.  Most of it has been built on elevated sections.   Highways England is in the middle of a massive repair job to ensure they don’t crumble away.   Midlands Connect also claim the Western Orbital will help improve air quality through the Black Country where emissions are now at dangerously high levels, the road will reduce congestion along the M5 and that links for freight will be improved.

Let’s consider all these arguments.   Firstly, the M5 is congested.   However, much of the congestion is not caused by through traffic going between the North and South West but by regional traffic heading into Birmingham and local traffic using the motorway for a portion of its journey.  The Western Orbital Route will not address these.   Instead, planners ought to be looking at alternatives to the M5 for these journeys.   That should include investment in better public transport in the Black Country (such as the Midland Metro route through Dudley) and improvements to the regional rail network which is under strain.   It is notable that while Midlands Connect has spent a considerable amount of time and money on a “Motorway Hubs” study, no report has yet been produced by them regarding regional rail links, and the Cross Country rail franchise (which operates some of the services providing regional rail in the Midlands) is up for renewal with a public consultation in progress.

Saying building a new road going to improve air quality is rather like saying building a new coal fired powered station will.  To improve air quality, there needs to be modal shift which would help reduce congestion on the M5 and a move away from petrol and diesel engined powered vehicles towards electric and hybrid powered ones.

Will the Western Orbital Route reduce congestion?   There is now plenty of evidence that has come out since the 1980’s that new roads actually increase congestion via inducing traffic, rather than reducing it.  This includes the report “Trunk Roads and the Generation of Traffic” which was published by the DfT’s Standing Committee on Trunk Road Assessment in 1994.  Proponents of the Western Orbital Route will point to the M6 toll road to the north of the West Midlands conurbation and say that isn’t congested – but that is because drivers (including many operators of HGV’s won’t use it in order to avoid the toll. 

Part of the reason that roads including the M5 are in a poor condition is because the government have continued to increase the maximum permitted weight of HGV’s over the years.   The M5 is important for freight traffic – but much of this could be transferred over to rail, provided suitable infrastructure is put in place.  

Midlands Connect also say the Western Orbital Route would allow the creation of garden villages which would allow 45,000 people to move into the local area.   Predictably, local residents and politicians are angry about this as the new road and construction of new housing would mean the destruction of green belt and the urbanisation of countryside.    Rather than this, surely it would be more sensible to encourage new housing to be built in an urban area which already has the infrastructure to support it – the Black Country?

The Western Orbital Route could also be redundant by the time it is built.   The world and technology is changing rapidly.   Planners in the Black Country once said several large shopping centres would be required in the area, each the size of the Merry Hill complex.   As retailing is moving away from bricks and mortar to clicks and on-line orders there is no longer a need for large shopping centres.    Personal car use is also predicted to decline, as peoples lifestyles change  - for example doing their supermarket shopping on-line rather than driving to an out of town store (and a number of retailers have axed plans for new supermarkets).

In conclusion, the Western Orbital Route is the wrong solution to the problem.   It would be hugely expensive in cost and cause huge damage to the environment and green belt.  Rather than living to see another day it should be consigned, like shoulder pads and ghetto blasters, to history.


  Kevin Chapman is Chair of West Midlands Campaign for Better Transport: the group campaigns on local issues and supports the national organisation in pressing for sustainable transport.