Rethinking ‘Smart’ Motorways

After years of relentless campaigning by Smart Motorways Kill and bereaved families, the Government has finally postponed the rollout of some new ‘Smart’ Motorways whilst 5-years of safety data is gathered. This pause gives the Government the opportunity to fix failings in the planning process that have allowed Smart Motorways to bypass the usual environmental assessment and public scrutiny. It also provides the opportunity to refocus the roads programme to reduce carbon emissions.

Despite having enormous impacts, Smart Motorways have been classed as “permitted development” (like adding a conservatory to your house), meaning that National Highways can get away with doing pretty much what they like. It has avoided the normal planning process and environmental assessment required for all other road schemes. Schemes can only be classed as permitted development if they do not have significant environmental impacts.

By converting the hard shoulder into an extra lane, Smart Motorways massively increase capacity and traffic. This leads to increased carbon emissions, noise and air pollution. However, National Highways can only get away with claiming there are no significant environmental impacts by ignoring climate change and other impacts. National Highways have either ‘scoped out’ or dismissed climate change from the early stages of the scheme development to justify their decision to let them progress as permitted development. The irony is that National Highways’ own data shows that some of the Smart Motorway schemes are the biggest emitting schemes in the RIS2 roads programme. This is just another example of National Highways failing to take climate change seriously.

Refusing to do full environmental impact assessment has other damaging consequences for the natural environment. The Smart Motorway scheme on the M27 between junctions 4 and 11 in Hampshire, which is about to open, has progressed as permitted development, so with almost no environmental scrutiny. Prior to the conversion of the hard shoulder into an extra lane, the toxic water runoff from the bridge where it crosses the River Hamble drained directly into the river (known as the outfall) despite this habitat being part of the Solent Maritime Special Area of Conservation (or SAC, one of our highest habitat designations).

If the M27 had been treated like other road schemes, it would have been properly scrutinised with a full assessment through the planning application and an Examination, and scrutiny by Natural England and the other statutory environmental bodies. The increase in traffic and pollution from the Smart Motorway scheme would have been exposed and challenged and it’s likely that National Highways would have been forced to clear up the mess they’ve created. Local councillors have called the situation on the M27 “an ecological disaster waiting to happen”. National Highways estimate the scheme would increase traffic by 13 per cent, but are now claiming they do not have enough money to sort the increased pollution out, yet this is exactly what their designated funds were created for.

We have previously written about the lack of scrutiny of Smart Motorways here, how transport secretary Grant Shapps was failing to stop them here, and about the history of how they’ve been bulldozed through here, in 2020. We’ve also submitted evidence to the Transport Select Committee. Now we have written to Baroness Vere, the roads minister, to ask her to reassess the legal status of Smart Motorway schemes whilst the safety review is carried out. This is the DfT’s chance to show it takes climate change seriously as well as road safety.

Photo: River Hamble estuary in the Solent Maritime SAC, where the M27 crosses and drains road runoff directly into the river without treatment. Shutterstock. 


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