Planning wrongly attacked for road delays

Once again, the Secretary of State has delayed his decision on granting planning permission for a major road scheme, this time the £1.5 billion A66 Northern Trans Pennine. He has said he will decide by 7 March 2024, pushing it closer to the general election next year.

Transport Action Network (TAN) has calculated that this is the eighteenth time in just four years that the Secretary of State has delayed a decision on large road schemes. Those with an agenda to trash the planning system often blame local objectors or environmental protection laws for delays in building new infrastructure. However TAN’s analysis shows that it is the Secretary of State himself who holds up decision making. The 6-month examinations run to schedule under the expert and professional care of the Planning Inspectorate, the Inspectors always write up their reports within 3 months, but the brakes come on when it is time for the Secretary of State to make a decision.

Delays are also caused earlier in the process because of the incompetence of National Highways. They progress expensive, destructive and poorly thought out schemes, with little or no consideration of cheaper alternative non-road options. Often these new roads can contradict other planning policies and Government objectives to protect national parks and other important countryside, endangered habitats and species, and our climate targets. In addition, National Highways has to redo consultations which haven’t been done properly, as they contain incorrect or missing information, or because they haven’t listened to local people from the outset.

Legal challenges and local opposition are inevitable if the Government and National Highways insist on bulldozing through road schemes that wreck our environment. Basing decisions on national roads policy (National Policy Statement) that is nine years old and predates the Paris Agreement, net-zero target and recent environmental legislation is a recipe for disaster. It is worth noting that the National Audit Office recently gave the Department for Transport (DfT) the lowest possible rating for delivering on its legal climate, air quality and biodiversity targets. It said that these were at high risk of not being delivered. Unless the DfT reconsiders outdated road schemes such as the A66, the £10 billion Lower Thames Crossing and the A303 Stonehenge damaging the World Heritage Site, it is going to continue to fail.

However, rather than address the real issues for the delays some groups are using them to paint a false narrative about the planning system. This is a cynical attempt to further weaken public rights of engagement and long-fought for environmental protections, in the planning process. These calls to undermine planning democracy are being made by right wing Conservatives and their supporters such as Britain Remade (a rightwing think tank, founded by ex-Number 10 and Adam Smith Institute lobbyists) who falsely label environmental protection laws as ‘bureaucracy’ and ‘red tape’. It is unfortunate that Keir Starmer, in his enthusiasm to address the housing shortage, seems to have latched onto their false narrative, recently threatening to “bulldoze over” local objections and restrict judicial review.

On the A66, it is unsurprising the Secretary of State is in no rush to approve this controversial and costly mega-road scheme (effectively eight road schemes in one). It would harm Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, damage internationally important habitats (including that of the Red Squirrel), destroy a seven-centuries old gypsy horse fair site at Brough Hill, and increase carbon emissions by over 2.7 million tonnes. The gypsy community are vigorously opposing the alternative fair site offered by National Highways, and say they have not been properly consulted, nor the cultural heritage of the site properly assessed. The Brough Hill horse fair was granted by Royal Charter by Edward III in 1329, and has been held every year for almost seven centuries.

The A66 is one of the largest and costliest projects in the RIS2 roads programme, but with the worst business case (alongside A303 Stonehenge). It would cost at least £1.49 billion, but its ‘adjusted’ benefit-cost-ratio (BCR), which takes into account “wider economic impacts”, is only 0.9, which means that for every £1 spent on it, only 90p of economic benefits will materialise! This puts the scheme into the Treasury’s “poor” value-for-money category, and should mean the scheme is cancelled as a waste of taxpayer’s money. Yet National Highways is still blundering on with it.

To address safety issues on the A66, National Highways should have considered low cost, low impact and quicker solutions, such as lowering and enforcing speed limits, or improving junctions. In the longer term, more freight should be transferred from road to rail, increasing rail freight capacity where needed, rather than encouraging more freight to use our roads. Local public transport should be improved, especially to help those without a car who face significant transport related social exclusion. This is a beautiful, rugged and famous landscape, which will not be improved by driving a 70mph dual carriageway through it, dumping even more traffic into the Lake District.

Decisions on road schemes being continually pushed back by the Government leave communities in limbo. It’s time road building was paused in England and an independent review conducted to consider the circumstances, which are consistent with legal climate, air quality and biodiversity targets, new road schemes can be given the green light.


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