Monday, 9 July 2012

Which way forward for Britain's roads?

An edited version of this article is in this week's Big Issue in the North magazine 

When Home Secretary and Blackburn MP Jack Straw opened Junctions 1a to 6 of the M65 on 18 December 1997 he required a heavy police presence as protesters threatened to bring a halt to the proceedings.

The new tarmac, which shortly after had to be relaid because the amount of noise it generated prevented local owls from foraging effectively, meant East Lancashire residents had quicker access to the M6 and M61.  Local eco-warriors were though not convinced that its construction was worth the environmental damage or the increase in car fumes. They built tree-houses in the nearby woods and there were regular stand offs between construction security and protestors.

Similar scenes occurred in many other parts of the UK during the 1990s and early part of the twenty first century leading The Economist to declare “That protesting against new roads has become a truly populist movement drawing supporters from all walks of life."

Today, the squeeze in public finances, which saw £3bn cut from the budget for new road schemes, means there is no chance of the protest movement recapturing the headlines, as there are not going to be anything like the number of new roads being planned or built. 

None of which has led to a meeting of minds between those who see them as the driver for economic regeneration and sceptics who fear they lead to greater road use, pollution and environmental damage, which they believe can be only be prevented through the development of alternative forms of transport.

The idea of a bypass round Lancaster has existed for decades. A western route was rejected in the 1990s by the Government but Lancashire County Council are now proposing a northern route that would link the M6 to the port of Heysham and improve access to Morecambe. The 4.8km of dual carriageway will cost £123 million of which the County Council has committed £12 million and guaranteed to underwrite any cost overruns. The scheme is just one of twelve major infrastructure projects that has been accepted for examination by the Government’s National Infrastructure Planning programme.

According to a spokesperson for the council this and “the benefit of existing planning permission granted by the Secretary of State means the prospects of the road now being delivered are very high.” The council predicts it will bring significant economic benefits with a minimum increase of 900 new jobs, and a reduction in travel times worth £6 a week to residents with fewer accidents as well. Serious traffic problems in Lancaster would be overcome and businesses in Morecambe would be boosted by increased tourism.

Lillian Burns is director of TravelWatch North West and also convenes the voluntary organisation North West Transport Activists roundtable that is linked with the Campaign for Better Transport. She disputes the council’s claims and points to a 1998 report produced by the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment’s, which said ‘the available evidence does not support arguments that new transport investment, in general, has a major impact on economic growth in a country with an already well-developed infrastructure.’

Burns feels most new roads help “people to spread their lives and that far from bringing jobs make it easier for people to travel longer distances to find them. New roads mean we have less land to grow food on and usually involve removing vegetation. At Heysham miles of hedgerows will be torn down and biological heritage sites will be destroyed. The additional car journeys also increase greenhouse gases, thus threatening greater environmental damage in the future.”

She believes not enough is being done to encourage alternative forms of transport. She would like to see more children encouraged to walk or bicycle to school, 20mph speed restrictions, increased car sharing and car clubs, more cycle lanes and better parking facilities at train stations in order to encourage greater rail use, arguing that “put together they can make a major impact.”

According to Burns it’s “very often easier to build a road as very big public transport projects are really hard to deliver. I’d like to see the equivalent of the Highways Agency being established that can pull together different pots of money to deliver such projects.”

 Shadow Transport Secretary Maria Eagle agrees that “transport authorities should be thinking how best to support and integrate different modes of transport, not just roads.” The Labour MP for South Liverpool and Heywood would like to see them being given greater powers and wants  “decision making over local services devolved to partnerships of local authorities which would enable them to be planned alongside bus services with stations developed as proper transport hubs including better provision for cyclists.”  Projects such as the M6 –Heysham link would be forced to seek their funds from such a body.

Labour, whilst supporting road budget cuts, has meanwhile criticised the Government for cutting investment in rail and has not backed David Cameron’s ideas for private companies to run motorways and A-roads. This will see a new feasibility study, which may well see a system of tolls on many roads. The country it seems has still yet to decide the direction of travel when it comes to new road building.

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