HomeLow carbon futureWhy does the UK government persist in its 20th century vision for roads in England?

Why does the UK government persist in its 20th century vision for roads in England?

This post is by Rebecca Lush, roads and climate campaigner at Transport Action Network.

Wales is suspending and reviewing its roadbuilding programme and Scotland has committed to 20 per cent traffic reduction by 2030, so why is the government still pursuing a 20th century roads programme in England? It’s costing billions of pounds and driving us backwards on climate change and traffic reduction?

This was the subject of a recent event organised by Green Alliance, Campaign for Better Transport, and Transport Action Network (TAN). I outlined the impacts of England’s roadbuilding plans, and the growing resistance to them and we also heard from the Welsh Deputy Minister for Climate Change Lee Waters.

Wales has changed its approach to roads
Three years ago, as Wales’ new first minister, Mark Drakeford decided to not go ahead with the £1.3 billion M4 relief road project in South Wales which threatened the Gwent Levels. Affordability was one reason, but the other was biodiversity. This, according to Lee Waters, was when the Welsh approach started to change.

After the election in 2021, Mark Drakeford created a new climate change ministry which incorporates important areas such as transport, planning, housing, energy and digital. This creates synergy and puts the Welsh Government’s commitment to net zero front and centre in its decisions across all areas.

Several important laws have also been passed, including the Well-being of Future Generations Act 2015 and the Net Zero Wales plan. The Welsh Government also published its Wales Transport Strategy which has climate change at the forefront. It has also revised its appraisal guidance (WelTAG) to assess how schemes meet policy objectives like reducing carbon emissions. This set the stage for its roads programme review.

In September 2021, the Welsh Government appointed an independent panel of experts, chaired by Dr Lynn Sloman MBE, to review whether planned road schemes meet the Wales Transport Strategy and climate change objectives. This is expected to submit its conclusions this summer. In the meantime, Wales is being proactive and promoting bus priority and active travel measures to enable the shift to other transport modes. It’s also seeing maintenance of existing roads as an opportunity to reallocate road space.

The Welsh Government knows it has a big job to do. It has set targets that will challenge it to think differently, and it’s aware other nations are watching closely to learn from its endeavours. As well as reviewing new roads, it is also exploring bus franchising, introducing 20mph speed limits and looking at a metro system and road user charging.

England still has a massive road building programme
In contrast, in England (where Westminster is in charge of road investment) politicians still seem wedded to a 20th century vision of roads. The government not only has a bloated £24 billion programme for the strategic road network (called RIS2), but also provides the majority of funding for local council road schemes. And, on top of that, the Housing Infrastructure Fund (HIF) channels billions of pounds into new roads attached to developments, creating car dependent housing.

The RIS2 roads programme runs between 2020 and 2025, with more schemes planned for the RIS3 period from 2025 to 2030. Many schemes will be highly damaging and controversial. These include: the £8.2 billion Lower Thames Crossing between Kent and Essex, which is the largest road scheme ever proposed and is opposed by the very active Thames Crossing Action Group; the A303 Stonehenge scheme, which would plough a huge trench through the World Heritage Site, opposed by the tireless and well organised Stonehenge Alliance; and the A66 Northern Trans Pennine route, which is effectively eight massive schemes rolled into one project, spanning 50 miles from east to west, crossing through the North Pennines and rare wildlife habitats. And there are many others.

As well as  impacts on landscape, air quality, biodiversity and ancient woodland, one of the main reasons to oppose new roadbuilding is because new roads induce more traffic, driving up carbon emissions.

It’s an outdated predict and provide model
Surface transport is now the largest emitting sector in the UK, accounting for 24 per cent of emissions in 2019. It is also a sector where emissions have barely fallen since 1990. If we are serious about reducing UK emissions, we need to start reducing traffic, not following an outdated predict and provide model.

The government claims its roadbuilding plans won’t significantly increase emissions. TAN decided to check this. Using Freedom of Information laws to ask National Highways for the carbon impact of its 50 RIS2 schemes, we found  new roads would increase emissions by almost 33 million tonnes over the 60 year appraisal period, whilst the emissions caused by construction will add another six million tonnes. So the increase in emissions is not insignificant. Equally, the timing could not be worse, driving up emissions when we need to be drastically cutting them, or we have no chance of keeping global warming within 1.5oC. To do this we must meet our target set under the Paris climate agreement of a steep 68 per cent cut in carbon by 2030 (on 1990 figures).

There are two important consultations coming
TAN works with communities protecting their local environment from roadbuilding, and the momentum is growing. We have to work together to show there are progressive alternatives. There are two important opportunities to get involved in the second half of 2022, as two major consultations take place.

The first is the consultation on the National Policy Statement for national networks (or NNNPS) which all road schemes are judged against. Currently, it instructs decision makers to ignore climate change. This has no place in a climate emergency.

The other is the public consultation on the third RIS3 programme for the strategic roads network, for 2025-2030. Planning and decision making for this starts in the autumn.

By the time the bulldozers roll in, it’s too late. We need to act early to stop these schemes before they go through planning, and before direct action becomes the only option left. As Lee Waters said at our event, “To meet our net zero target, we need to make greater cuts in this decade than we managed in the whole of the last 30 years.”

While it is not easy or quick to make change, Welsh progress gives us hope that it is possible.  We have created a car dependent society which excludes too many people and give them poor travel choices. It’s a social and economic injustice as well as a huge environmental issue.

Many of us have campaigned in isolation during the past two years, but hopefully that will change. TAN’s national conference in September will bring people together to discuss plans for fighting new roads and tackling climate change. A big focus will be traffic reduction.

You can register for TAN’s conference and keep in touch with developments via their monthly newsletter

Written by

Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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