Twenty years ago we were fighting the last vestiges of the 'greatest road building programme since the Romans'. One benefit of this battle was the level of scrutiny brought to bear on the claims being made about the need and benefits of new roads.
This demonstrated that new roads did not always lead to economic benefits and could just as easily undermine a local economy as support it. It also put the Department for Transport's traffic forecasts under the spotlight. These always seemed to project an ever-increasing amount of traffic and were used to justify the need for bigger and more roads. In the end, they were often self-fulfilling prophecies as the new roads generated new traffic, quickly filling them up.
The Government's plans
Now 20 years on and it seems we are going full circle. In the Autumn Statement, the Government proudly announced it is spending £15billion on roads over the next 5 years to boost the economy. It's also spending about another £15 billion on transport which it is giving away to private businesses to build new roads (mostly) through Local Enterprise Partnerships. These undemocratic and unaccountable bodies have no expertise to spend this public money in a way that best serves the public interest. Their sole aim is economic growth regardless of the wider costs to society. This cannot be right or a sensible use of public money at a time of austerity.
This has come about after criticism that the lack of investment in infrastructure was undermining the economic recovery. It has been the excuse to unveil many 'zombie' roads, so named because they keep coming back even though they were killed off years ago.
It is of great concern that all the knowledge we have accumulated since the last big roads programme is being swept under the carpet and ignored. This leads to suspicions about the motivations behind this move. Is it about patronage, giving away contracts to 'friends' who then fund your political party? Is it perhaps about bolstering marginal constituencies? Or maybe it is about political 'ego' - being seen to do something grandiose with an arrogance that allows you to pursue something despite what best practice says? Pursuing a roads programme might be acceptable in the absence of all knowledge, but when 'evidence' is being spun to push the case for new roads, then it is almost criminal.
Interestingly though, there are cracks appearing in the national statistics. In the 2015 traffic forecasts published recently, the Department for Transport has acknowledged the ongoing uncertainty and academic debate surrounding their accuracy. However, it still cannot admit that the forecasts need a more radical reform. One of the driving factors of this upwards trend is car ownership, which the DfT believes will carry on rising, despite the fact that in London and other cities like Brighton it has flat-lined or even fallen slightly over the past decade.
While it is good news that the Government is seeking to introduce more certainty around the strategic road network with fixed budgets and five-year plans, it is failing to treat local transport in the same way. Local authorities, already reeling under savage cuts, aren't able to plan long-term investment let alone maintain the roads properly. Some aspects might improve with the recently passed Infrastructure Act requiring a national walking and cycling strategy. Greater certainty around funding should allow some real improvement to start taking place, benefiting our health and happiness, reducing costs to the NHS and employers, and helping to alleviate congestion and pollution.
... All of this 'investment' in roads contrasts against rising rail fares and severe cuts to supported bus services. This, of course, impacts on the most vulnerable and makes it hard for people to exist without a car, which many people, particularly the elderly and the young, don't have.
So where does this leave us in Sussex? Well the biggest threats come from the expansion of Gatwick and widening the A27 to create dual carriageways. While we need investment in transport, expanding the A27 goes against Government policy as it will direct traffic into and through the South Downs National Park. Many, if not all, of its economic ambitions could be achieved in less damaging and potentially cheaper ways. ... That has been the main frustration of the so-called feasibility studies which have been rushed through on a political agenda and which have failed to look at the issues in a holistic way.
This article was written by Chris Todd of the Campaign for Better Transport and published in the CPRE Sussex Review magazine summer 2015. It is been slightly abridged for blog publication.