Text Size

Current Size: 100%

Balancing the road budget

Former campaigner's picture

Despite its multi-billion pound budget, Highways England’s roads programme is under pressure, with several schemes set to be dropped or delayed. But there are ways to save money and help balance the roads budget.

Around eleven schemes from the Road Investment Strategy have had their value for money called into question after a combination of existing overruns previously highlighted by the National Audit Office and the new ban on PFI financing.

This is hardly a surprise. A 2017 analysis of over 80 road schemes from the past 20 years, using official data from the Post Opening Evaluation (POPE) reports, confirmed that major new roads increase traffic above the general traffic increases for their areas, cause more environmental damage than predicted, and fail to deliver the promised economic benefits.

Relatively small time savings are used to justify major new roads, yet the latest evaluation reports confirm that such schemes have failed to cut overall journey times.

The good news is that there are several schemes that could and should be abandoned, not only for financial reasons:

  • The A303 Stonehenge tunnel is going through the planning process despite having attracted a record number of objections, including from international heritage experts, because it will damage the World Heritage Site
  • The Port of Liverpool access road will destroy a well-loved country park
  • The proposed A27 Arundel bypass threatens the South Downs National Park
  • The A417 ‘missing link’ could have safety benefits, but its current design will damage the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty
  • The Oxford-Cambridge expressway has prompted a major alliance in opposition. We’d like to see East-West rail completed first before considering a new road
  • Revived calls for a west of Birmingham motorway should be laid to rest permanently
  • Plans for a new motorway at the Lower Thames Crossing linking Kent to Essex should be shelved
  • Transport for the North has sensibly scaled down the overblown plans for a Trans-Pennine road tunnel, but the Peak District is still at risk from smaller schemes at Mottram Moor.   

It’s not just Highways England that should think again. In London, costly plans for the Silvertown tunnel risk undermining the green goals of the Mayor’s Transport Strategy. In Wales, campaigners are hoping the new First Minister will reject the hugely controversial plans for a new section of M4 across the Gwent Levels. In both cases, there are strong sustainable transport alternatives available.

Local road schemes are also facing fresh challenges. Suffolk campaigners saw off plans for a Sudbury relief road that would have spoiled historic water meadows, and in Harrogate, the local MP has joined the calls to drop damaging relief road plans.

In fact, it’s a good time to rethink the roads programme in general, before the Government publishes the next Road Investment Strategy (RIS2) at the end of this year.

Major road building is a 20th century solution that fails to meet the needs of our age, let alone the challenges of the future. New roads generate more traffic, damage the natural environment, and bring noise, pollution and danger to communities. Demand for travel is falling, calling into question the ‘predict and provide’ model of the past.

Instead we should be focusing on connecting people to jobs and services with affordable and reliable public transport; locating new homes near existing transport hubs; and making our towns and cities greener and cleaner. And we should be embracing the potential of new technology to help us plan our travel better, with truly multi-modal journeys and fewer, cleaner vehicles on the road.

Local transport is too often the poor relation when it comes to public spending, yet for value for money, it is local sustainable transport that has demonstrated the best returns. Transport for the North’s Strategic Transport Plan and the National Infrastructure Commission’s National Infrastructure Assessment both call for more funding to go into local, everyday public transport, and the UK Committee on Climate Change has said that the Government must encourage walking, cycling and the use of public transport in preference to car usage wherever possible.

The Road Investment Strategy should be playing its part in protecting the natural environment and cutting transport’s carbon emissions. These are critical priorities for any transport plan and should not be set aside as someone else’s problem to fix.

Saving money is only part of the challenge. Balancing the carbon budget is even more vital. We need a transport investment strategy that is sustainable in every sense.