Combining road building and fracking is a toxic combination

Ministers have chosen to combine roadbuilding and fracking in a single toxic piece of legislation.

Ministers have chosen to combine roadbuilding and fracking in a single toxic piece of legislation, writes Andrew Allen

What should government do when faced with two highly contentious and unpopular policies that need primary legislation?

In the case of roadbuilding and fracking, ministers have apparently chosen to combine them in a single toxic piece of legislation. It’s a move that will unite green campaigners in opposition and could ferment a much broader frustration with the direction of government policy.

According to rumours in this morning’s papers, a new Infrastructure Bill will be introduced in the Queen’s Speech on 3 June. The mainstay of the innocent sounding Bill will be measures to allow energy companies to ‘frack’ for shale gas under private land without permission and to speed up the massive programme of road building by giving the Highways Agency more freedom over how to spend its increasingly gargantuan budget.

For environmentalists, the Infrastructure Bill could mark a new low in government policy. The greenest government ever rhetoric has long since been cast aside, but combining a dash for fossil fuels with fast-tracking road building is certain to spark real anger. The Bill will contain enabling legislation designed to smooth the way for a 40 per cent increase in traffic.

This was already set out in December 2013 when the Department for Transport published a draft road and rail National Networks Policy Statement (NPS), a government document setting out plans to build new capacity by 2040. In order to deliver this, the Highways Agency will get a huge increase in funding, and will be turned into a publicly owned company, potentially making it much more difficult to find out what it is doing.

Even before the Infrastructure Bill had been announced, plans set out in the NPS had shown themselves to be highly unpopular. By the time the consultation on the draft statement closed, well over 5,000 responses had been received ranking it as more controversial than policy statements on nuclear power and hazardous waste.

The reasons so many people are concerned are simple. The new policy would let massive road-building plans take precedence over damage to nature, the countryside and precious landscapes. It would involve thousands of extra lanes of roads, increase car dependency and choke our towns and cities with traffic we could otherwise avoid.

Most outrageously, pledges to tackle climate change are brushed under the carpet with a clause that prevents campaigners objecting to road projects on the grounds of increasing carbon emissions. The justification given is that other Government policies will ‘offset’ the increase in carbon from new roads.

But this is not supported by either the government’s own Carbon Plan from 2011 or the long term assumptions of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC). In fact, the CCC expects a 5 per cent reduction in traffic compared with forecasts by 2027.

When allied with government efforts to kick start carbon intensive shale gas in the UK, the Infrastructure Bill begins to look like one of the least green of this or any other government of recent times. By bringing together these measures in one bill, the coalition government risks creating opposition not just from local campaigners in its rural heartlands up and down the country, but also others such as its own backbenchers and candidates with an eye on their votes at the upcoming General Election.

Instead of a dirty Infrastructure Bill, we could have a clean one, which really aims to improve the economy for everyone. Instead of enabling more road-building, the government should focus on improving existing infrastructure for the benefit of the quarter of households who don’t have access to a car, and the millions of people who rely on public transport, currently suffering from service withdrawals and reductions due to chronic lack of government funding.

Andrew Allen works for the Campaign for Better Transport

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