The Government's upcoming Infrastructure Bill will mix more freedom for the Highways Agency to build roads with freedom for fracking companies to drill under our homes. Expect a backlash!
In a move best described as 'courageous, Minister', the Financial Times reported last week that the Infrastructure Bill expected in the Queen's Speech on 4 June will combine a range of planning and organisational changes designed to reduce barriers to road-building and fracking across the UK.
As the FT says, a furious backlash against the combined bill is expected and its progress through parliament is likely to be beset with protests, amendments and huge amounts of public pressure to back down on these twin threats to the climate and the countryside. CPRE has called it a 'high risk strategy' and, asked why they might have chosen to do this said "Some within government may, in fact, see it even as a test of their virility."
On shale gas extraction (fracking) the expected measures would change trespass laws to allow fracking companies to drill under homes without permission. On roads, the legislation will change the Highways Agency from being run directly by the Department for Transport into a company owned by the Government – a 'GoCo' - with much greater freedom to make changes to the main road network without ministerial (or public) scrutiny of individual spending decisions.
The bill is also expected to include legal reforms to create a special court for hearing planning appeals and Judicial Reviews against planning decisions – another way of fast-tracking decisions on roads and many other developments.
In December, we warned that the creation of a GoCo to run main roads was a worrying move towards privatisation, with serious consequences for accountability, transparency and would be a step backwards for letting the public have their say about transport funding. We are also very concerned about the massive increase in budget that will be given to the new company, with funds for main road projects more than tripling by 2020.
Stonehenge back under threat
A strong taste of what may be in store when future Highways Agency business plans are drawn up was seen on Tuesday when the first reports from the DfT's six 'feasibility studies' on major cross-country road routes were published.
On two of the routes, the A47 from Great Yarmouth to Peterborough and the A303 from London to Devon, the only definite options being taken forward to the next stage are from proposals put forward by business groups, Local Enterprise Partnerships and local authorities for major expansions of all the single-carriageway stretches of these roads.
For the A303, this takes in the 12 km single carriageway that runs alongside Stonehenge and a scheme there tops the list of possible interventions for further study. The last time the A303 at Stonehenge was considered for widening, plans for a dual carriageway and 2.1 km tunnel past the stones were cancelled due to the lack of benefit for a huge cost.
The ministerial decision in 2007 said "allocating more than £500 million for the implantation of this scheme cannot be justified and would not represent best use of taxpayers money."
We welcomed the scheme being scrapped, and were part of the Stonehenge Alliance of campaigners arguing that any road scheme would only be possible at Stonehenge if it included a much longer tunnel and genuinely benefited the World Heritage Site by removing rather than encouraging traffic.
In 2007, with politicians holding the purse strings and a strong public campaign against the plans, the need to preserve both our heritage and our public funds for better transport schemes thankfully prevailed. But in 2015 - after the Infrastructure Bill is rushed through and the Highways Agency is operating as a private company - would a decision to revive the same scheme (or, worse, a cheaper option with no tunnelling at all?) be subject to the same pressures?
Here's what I told the Times on Thursday: "The decision to look again at putting a dual carriageway past Stonehenge shows once more that the Government is becoming obsessed with road-building whatever the damage it causes.
"A full review of options for Stonehenge less than ten years ago showed the only acceptable project would include a tunnel several kilometres long. This was ruled out in 2007 for being far too expensive. Since then, traffic on the A303 has fallen, making the case for expanding the A303 even weaker. Rather than spending a fortune trying to resurrect this zombie road, government should be looking to support more sustainable ways to help people travel to the South West."