Our ABNC Secretary writes:
The charity ‘Sense about Science’, in a new initiative about the government’s use of evidence, offered an opportunity to update the 90-second speech which I gave as part of an event they held at the Houses of Parliament in 2018, with many citizen speakers. This is my updated version.
Evidence is misused by the government, especially in big infrastructure projects such as road building.
In 2017, Highways England misused evidence to push through a terribly damaging new route for the Arundel Bypass in West Sussex. It would severely impact a National Park, Ancient Woodland, two villages, historic parkland, and the Arun watermeadows. Their ‘public consultation’ was full of major errors, omissions and garbled statements which played down the true damage the route would do. They convinced Local Authorities to support this option, with figures for traffic reduction and economic benefit which made it look like the best one. Once they had chosen it as their new Preferred Route (2018), they revised the figures, and its supposed advantages disappeared.
I challenged their choice of this option through Judicial Review. The judge who gave permission for my Judicial Review said it was arguable that something went ‘clearly and radically wrong’. Faced with my evidence, Highways England chose to rerun the consultation in 2019. This time an even more damaging route was supported by Local Authorities and again it was promoted by Highways England with slanted, error-filled and incomplete evidence. A further mini-consultation came in February 2020, supposedly to correct errors, but major errors remained uncorrected. Vital ecological survey records which would show how damaging the new route is have been ‘lost’.
The government is manipulating evidence in the current coronavirus crisis by not being transparent about the scientific evidence behind its decisions. Its mistakes so far have cost tens of thousands of lives. There is a danger that in trying to come out of lockdown and stimulate the economy, government will give the go-ahead to major infrastructure projects such as the one at Arundel, and Highways England’s misuse of evidence and suppression of the true damage will be overlooked.
Road-building increases carbon emissions and a court case has been started by Transport Action Network, against Road Investment Strategy 2 on climate change grounds. The whole transport planning system should be rethought in the light of the UK’s commitments on the Climate Emergency.
And the Coronavirus? Aside from the mistakes and manipulation mentioned above, the step changes we have seen in home working and meetings by zoom, and away from travel dependent lifestyles, are not just going to end with lockdown. Reductions in travel dependency are going to be here to stay, not only because of climate change, but also because of economic and lifestyle changes, a new generation's choices and the time cost of unnecessarily wasted travelling.
The peak-commuter-time pressure will ease, all the more so when public transport is Covid-safer again, as commuters work on staggered or flexible shifts, cycle or walk to work, or increasingly work from home. This means the traffic evidence for Highways England's RIS1 strategy, which was already based on outdated methods and faulty analysis, is wholly superceded by the changes happening now.
No further investment decisions by Highways England will be supportable without a radical overhaul of their evidence base, with full account taken of the implications of Coronavirus and of Climate Change.