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Between 1992 and 1997 opposition to the government's road building scheme led to massive protests, such as here at the site of the Newbury Bypass. Photo: Antonio Olmos

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Road building programme gets green light by stealth

Jan Goodey

5th October, 2012

With a government seemingly intent on pushing through the latest road-building programme via its localism agenda campaigners are readying themselves for combined resistance using legal experts, alliance groupings and direct action

The ‘first and worst’ of the current tranche of new roads is the £120m Bexhill Bypass set to cut a swath through the pellucid water meadows and reed beds of Combe Haven Valley with construction slated for January 2013.

Speaking at a weekend camp there (Sep 29-30), John Stewart, who led the successful campaign to stop the third runway at Heathrow said: “It’s the eleventh hour. This is our chance to put a line in the sand by stopping this road and the ones to follow.

“We stopped a road right at the death before at Oxleas Wood [1993] and if this campaign goes national it can happen again. It’s a pointless road, George Osborne’s expensive toy. The Department of Transport has given it a low profile [refusing to release parts of a recent report critical of the scheme]. It’s the Treasury and Osborne saying  – ‘Let’s build infrastructure no matter the environmental cost’.”

The Department of Transport (DfT) has 191 road schemes on its books according to the Campaign for Better Transport, with around 68 projects now in advanced planning stages. And with David Cameron saying that, 'there's money for roads from 2015 for those who shout the loudest' – the battle is on. 

Ralph Smyth, transport spokesman for Campaign for Rural England (CPRE) told the Ecologist: “There is the threat of road builders’ bulldozers now hanging over our green fields.

“Road lobbyists are itching to get their hands on the Community Infrastructure Levy [a pot of money made available by Government to draw in extra funding alongside section 106 agreements], which is encouraging local authorities and enterprise partnerships to dust off old road schemes and allocate future CIL payments to them.”

One such scheme is the proposal to widen the stretch of the A303 past Stonehenge into dual carriageway. This was a massively controversial and expensive project that was dropped in 2007. However, local councils and the South West Local Enterprise Partnership have been lobbying central government again for funding. 

Minutes of a meeting of Somerset, Devon Wiltshire, Torbay and Plymouth councillors and the south west’s  Local Enterprise Partnership chairman, obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request, show them in full cry:

“Now is absolutely the right time to be taking this forward as the Government has signalled that money will be found to tackle issues that inhibit growth and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) are being encouraged to make their own arrangements to tackle important economic issues.

“The Department for Transport don’t have many projects ‘on the shelf’ and not all the other sub-regions currently ‘have their act together’. The British Chamber of Commerce view this [improvements to the A303/ A358/A30] as a very high priority scheme which they feel has a £1.1bn benefit.

“Politically there is a big appetite to listen and the door is open. There is lots of work already done which needs to be quickly reviewed and audited to establish what evidence remains to be developed. There is a need to get into the Dep’t for Transport quickly with a coherent story. The project should consider what could be ‘pulled downwards’ rather than work up from bottom.”

Becca Lush, a veteran anti-roads campaigner, described this current rush for roads as depressing: “All the evidence of the last 20 years is being ignored. This clearly shows that road building rarely solves congestion, and usually makes it worse as traffic increases faster – as in Newbury. In fact road building will usually harm local and regional economies. 

“We thought we had comprehensively won all the arguments, and we mostly had with the DfT. It’s hard to see how road building will benefit the economy or ordinary people; it will simply line the pockets of construction companies. Also it’s simply unaffordable and the government proposes to fund new roads through tolling – a major political time-bomb the public haven't yet woken up to.  Come the next election, this will be a major vote loser.”

Jo Makepeace, of radical news-sheet SchNEWS was more interested in the response from the grassroots: “The government has learnt a lot since the Criminal Justice Act and Newbury [bypass campaign in 1996-7] and they’ll do things piecemeal this time.

“There’s unlikely to be 2,000 people careering round the country from protest site to protest site. However there’s as much local opposition to bypasses etc as there ever was and maybe there will be a resurgence in activism as the economic situation is right for that.”

Campaigns are currently underway in Tory heartlands of Cheshire and East Anglia. The controversial proposal to build the Manchester Airport Link Road (M56 to A6) was originally scrapped in 1998. It’s claimed this dual carriageway will cut through Cheshire Green Belt and threaten ponds near Styal that are home to protected great crested newts, as well as generate significantly more traffic, making air pollution even worse in the designated Air Quality Management Areas around the airport.

Lillian Burns, of The North West Transport Activists Roundtable, is a campaigner involved in fighting this as well as the nearby Heysham–M6 Link Road: “The proposal is unsustainable...it will close up the Green Belt gap that currently exists between Manchester and towns  in Cheshire. And all it’ll achieve will be more traffic, more Greenfield developments – which’ll generate calls for more roads and cause more carbon emissions. It’s completely nonsensical.” 

In Norwich, Denise Carlo, a spokesperson for the Norwich and Norfolk Transport Action Group, is fighting the proposed distributor road: "The Norwich Northern Distributor Road (NNDR) is a development road which even the major developers say they don't need. Spending £141 million on a partial third orbital road, £53 million of which’ll have to be raised locally, is a waste of resources and won’t solve the problems identified.

“Even Norfolk County Council's own figures show that a NNDR would increase traffic on radials leading to the new road.  The way in which the county council has promoted this as ‘a £19 million access road for a business park’ to avoid a local planning inquiry into what is in reality a county road scheme, makes a mockery of local democracy and accountability.”  

Accountability is something that the CPRE says is wanting. Their recent report on transport implications of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), states: ‘It's very hard to refuse planning permission on transport grounds, which could make bad road schemes even easier to obtain planning permission.

‘The blunt assertion that development should only be able to be refused on transport grounds where the impacts are ‘severe’ means they [transport grounds for refusal] are often likely to be worthless. Developers will know that if they appeal the odds would be totally stacked in their favour.

‘The reality is that the NPPF is more suspect than sustainable on transport. On the one hand the core principles call for the fullest possible use of ‘public transport, walking and cycling’; on the other, the transport section calls for the facilitation only ‘where reasonable to do so’ of ‘sustainable transport modes’, which are defined as including low emission cars.

‘In the meantime the proposals to relax funding rules, will remove the other restriction on road schemes. New unaccountable Local Transport Boards are being set up this autumn and will be able to chose what they want to do with government transport funding and money they can borrow from future tax returns etc.’

Sian Berry of the Campaign for Better Transport (CBT) points to the results of this relaxation: “We’re looking at 191 roads at the moment, some are at detailed planning stages, funded, or with strong local council support and are being talked about publicly already. That number is likely to rise with some bigger schemes with the Chancellor's Autumn Statement (Dec 5), where he might directly give funding to more roads, as he did last year.

“However the real danger will come after the current Spending Review period in 2015, when the next round of spending plans is decided and these major schemes are devolved. Major roads or ones that touch motorways will also get to enjoy the reduced Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project planning process.”

With CILs and Regional Growth Funds (RGF) making it easier to pay for new roads on the local level, councils take the lead. So what formerly used to be the DfT's centralised 'local major schemes' process (the 'development pool') is now devolved under the localism agenda. 

 “This has been announced now,” says CBT’s Sian Berry, “and means local councils, probably in groups, being given the money the DfT used to distribute and being able to spend it on what they want, including their favourite bypasses.”

The DfT’s own National Transport Model predicts a 44 per cent increase in motor traffic miles between 2010 and 2035. Bus and coach mileage is forecast to drop by 11 per cent while distance cycled is predicted to drop too. This is despite the DfT claiming to want to see growth in cycling and bus use. 

All this is understandable in the context of surface transport emissions which will need to be 90 per cent lower in 2050 than 1990, in order to meet the targets in the Climate Change Act 2008. Emissions have so far got nowhere near that - 90 per cent figure and have remained broadly unchanged from 1990 levels.

The CPRE claims that while the government policies to promote shared space and home zones may be effective for quieter streets, they will not be enough to make a wider range of people feel safe to walk and cycle for more everyday journeys, which may well involve crossing busy roads. Furthermore they add that public health policies fail to highlight the importance of ‘active’ travel to securing better health.

According to the government, however, communities across England will benefit from its roads programme with £854m worth of investment in 21 local transport schemes in addition to the 20 schemes, worth £574m, which were announced last autumn. Roads minister, Norman Baker MP for Lewes, has talked about the ‘the three dimensional reality of transport’: social; economic; and environmental.

He’s been quoted as saying that the environmental prong is the most important: “I regard a low carbon future as the only future for Britain. What I reject though is the argument put by some that modernising transport, generating growth and safeguarding the environment are incompatible. They are not.

“With the right policies and the proper balance these ambitions are mutually reinforcing, not mutually exclusive. In my view, if we want to make real and lasting progress towards environmental sustainability then we need to recognise that a cleaner, greener future can never be built through coercion, or by government dictating which particular mode of transport people should use.

“Our goal must be to persuade, encourage and incentivise. And, to do that, we should use all of the policy levers at our disposal to make low carbon travel a genuine, viable and attractive choice for businesses and ordinary citizens.”

Citizens in his Sussex neighbourhood are far from attracted or impressed come to that, now that one of the most environmentally damaging schemes of all has been pushed through by government following a bitter 15-year battle.  Last word to Derrick Coffee of the Hastings Alliance which is opposing the Bexhill road: “We’re still reeling from all this. For 4,000 years, since the Bronze Age, nature and the landscape have been respected, now we face 30,000 vehicles coming through here per day. Traffic in the area will rise by 14 per cent at a time when it’s crucial to reduce car dependence.”

Useful info:

Better Transport’s national conference for road protestors in Birmingham is on Nov 3. http://www.bettertransport.org.uk/campaigns/roads-to-nowhere/conference2012

Better Transport’s map of the new tranche of roads planned for the UK:http://www.bettertransport.org.uk/campaigns/roads-to-nowhere/map

 

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