Labour could offer local communities around the UK a clear alternative to the tarmac dystopia of the Tories that goes beyond the discredited ideas of the past.
Road building is in vogue. With fiscal policy ineffective at breathing life into a moribund economy, so the government has, for the past year, been grasping wildly at anything it can argue might stimulate growth.
This week, new transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin used his speech to the Conservative Party Conference to profess his desire for a new programme of road building.
The £170 million of projects he announced to tackle so-called ‘pinch-points’ are just a tiny taste of what is to come; “there aren’t enough new schemes,” he said – yet at Campaign for Better Transport, we’ve already mapped 191 road schemes on the books of local authorities and the Highways Agency.
The evening before, his junior minister, Stephen Hammond, used a fringe meeting to name two more massive projects that do not yet feature on our map: a South Coast motorway and major building between Cambridge and Oxford.
The impetus behind many of the schemes comes from the local level. Of the projects on our map, most are being backed by local government and the newer additions are also being pushed by Local Enterprise Partnerships, unaccountable groupings of local councillors and businesses.
Many are even direct revivals of schemes which were included in the legendary 1989 transport White Paper, Roads for Prosperity, which proposed an extra 2,700 miles to be added to the trunk road network. This is the reality of how localism has played out for transport with ancient pet projects dusted down for an austerity-busting orgy of tarmac.
The Roads for Prosperity programme was a catastrophic misjudgement by the Conservative Party, and may prove so again.
Protests sprang up across the country amidst widespread concern over the impacts of road building on the local environment. The most famous of these demonstrations and camps (Twyford Down, Newbury and Fairmile) occupied the headlines for weeks. There were pictures of violent evictions, bulldozers ploughing through open countryside and landscapes permanently disfigured in preparation for the new roads.
The success of the anti-roads protest movement turned public opinion for nearly a generation and brought the 1990s road-building programme to its knees. In the end, of the 600 roads included in Roads for Prosperity, only 150 were ever built. The rest were quietly dropped for being too expensive, too damaging to the environment and far too unpopular.
The roads that were built did exactly what the campaigners said they would. In exchange for a despoiled local environment, the roads delivered more cars. Newbury is perhaps the best example.
The woods were destroyed, but congestion in the centre of the town was soon back to pre-bypass levels, and the Highways Agency’s projections for traffic on the new route were badly wrong, with traffic levels surpassing estimates five years earlier than predicted. Development that grew up along the new route was sprawling and accessible only by car, adding to the traffic and the problems the bypass was claimed to solve.
When they took power in 1997, Labour promised to do away with the discredited and counterproductive roads policies of the Conservatives. At the centre of their programme was John Prescott’s Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR), which aimed to put in place an enlightened vision of a modern, integrated transport system.
In 1997, Prescott declared:
“I will have failed if in five years’ time there are not… far fewer journeys by car.”
Congestion was to be tackled not by ever more road capacity, but by demand management and modern, integrated high quality public transport, and the national road building programme was duly disbanded.
Although Prescott’s aspiration to reduce car travel was not achieved, that it was stated at all now sounds like a dispatch from another age. The new fashion for road building crosses party boundaries, touching politicians of many colours; some of the more damaging of the new road proposals actually come from Labour councils or have the support of Labour MPs.
For example, the cancelled A628 Mottram-Tintwistle bypass – a project now being resurrected and pumped up as a new ‘Peak District motorway’ – would go through part of the UK’s most visited National Park, just a few miles from the scene of the Kinder Scout mass trespass in 1932. Despite this, two local MPs – Conservative Andrew Bingham and Labour’s Jonathan Reynolds – have spoken in support of the plan.
In Durham, the local council is proposing major road building to serve large new housing areas on greenfield sites, a plan which will damage the historic setting of the city and cut off the access to the city centre for existing residents.
Labour needs to develop a vision for transport that has at its centre good land-use planning and reducing car-dependency and the need to travel. This should sit alongside investment in public transport to make access to schools, hospitals, public services and jobs available to all. Policies like this do not require expensive new roads.
Recent experience in the United States suggests such an approach can create more jobs and spread growth more equitably than investment in roads – with a vision like this, Labour could offer local communities around the country a clear alternative to the tarmac dystopia of the Conservatives that goes beyond the discredited ideas of the past.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.