As the UK economy continues to flat line, at the centre of the chancellor’s Budget plans to stimulate growth is a £3 billion annual infrastructure budget much of which is earmarked for damaging and regressive road building projects. But experience shows that new roads seldom solve people’s transport problems.
As the UK economy continues to flat line, at the centre of the chancellor’s Budget plans to stimulate growth is a £3 billion annual infrastructure budget much of which is earmarked for damaging and regressive road building projects.
It’s very clear from the rhetoric surrounding this speech (“we are spending more on new roads than in a generation”) where the chancellor expects much of the money to be spent.
Environment and conservation groups have been united in opposing plans to accelerate road-building. Experience shows that new roads seldom solve people’s transport problems. Instead, road-building generates even more traffic, damages the countryside, adds to climate change and makes cities, towns and villages less pleasant places to live for everyone.
Not everyone in government agrees the spending on roads is the best way forward, either. Specifics of Osborne’s roads plan have been repeatedly delayed and now won’t be made public until June. Proposals for private road-building (mooted for publication as long ago as last September) have hit so many complications, delays and opposition that they may not be published until the summer, if at all.
But that does not mean that the chancellor’s road-building spending spree has hit the rocks. Campaign for Better Transport’s Roads to Nowhere campaign has been monitoring road proposals around the country and it’s clear that between the Highways Agency, Local Authorities and business-led Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) there’s a big appetite for new roads, including reviving old roads from the 1990s.
The Highways Agency has a long list of road projects that were shelved at the 2010 Spending Review but would be simple to put back into its programme. This July, the new Local Transport Boards, controlled by the LEPs and local authorities, will be publishing their prioritised lists of schemes, and these may well be the intended targets of Osborne’s new £3 billion pot of gold.
What is true is that these road-building plans, however dangerous in the long term, are nowhere near the ‘shovel-ready’ state the chancellor would prefer. Most don’t have planning permission or even detailed designs prepared. With recent and proposed changes to planning they could definitely be pushed through much more quickly than in the past but, even with local planning committees and the Planning Inspectorate working flat out, most could not be started until at least 2016.
There are things the chancellor could do to help the economy and improve transport right now. Rather than throwing money at big new roads that are three years off, the chancellor should be tackling the £10.5bn backlog in road maintenance.
He should reverse the 20 per cent cut in the support central government gives to bus services (the Bus Service Operator Grant) which would particularly help young people and those looking for work. He should also end the year-on-year inflation busting rail fare rises, boosting the economy and making sure that trains are affordable to all.
Putting massive new money in road construction is simply the wrong answer – a waste of time and money.