Rishi’s Road to Ruin

This Conservative Government seems determined to leave the country far worse than it found it and to tie the hands of the next Government as much as it can.

This year we will, more than likely, have a general election and have our say at the ballot box. In the meantime, the Department for Transport has been churning out announcements and policy documents like there’s no tomorrow. It really feels like they are rushing to get as much damage done before this Government gets kicked out of office.

What recent damage has been done?

In January, the year got off to a bad start when the £1.3 billion A12 Chelmsford – A120 Widening scheme was approved. This is another billion pound road scheme which will enable more sprawling, car-based, housing developments that will destroy our countryside and drive up carbon emissions (but, thankfully, is being challenged by Dr Andrew Boswell). However, it wasn’t until March when things really kicked off…

Under cover of the budget, the new National Policy Statement for roads and rail was published. We had to threaten to take the Government to court before they finally agreed to review the previous, ten year old, version.

It should be good news then that the Government has updated it. Sadly it’s not. It has taken nearly three years for them to do so and hardly anything has altered, especially on climate change (one of the principle reasons for its review). The new version will allow the Government to continue to approve road schemes regardless of their carbon emissions, even when they are way off target reaching net-zero.

On the same day the Government also announced more major changes to the planning system for major infrastructure projects, which will make it even harder for local people to object to major infrastructure in their communities.

The very next day we learnt of the Government’s approval of yet another road that doesn’t offer value for money, the A66 Northern Trans-Pennine. This is a mega road project, actually eight schemes in one, which impacts on the North Pennines National Landscape (the new name for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty) and international wildlife sites. Costing £1.5 billion, it will result in emissions of 2.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide over the next 60 years.

Just over a week later, updates on the Plan for Drivers were published at the weekend. We’re not sure if this was because they were embarrassed about the content or running out of days to do things. It included new guidance on Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, 20mph speed limits and bus lanes. There were consultations and calls for evidence on restricting local authorities’ raising money through enforcing traffic violations and allowing motorcyclists in bus lanes by default, amongst a number of other issues. In contrast there will be no Local Transport Plan guidance published before the election.

It’s clear with the approval last year (for the second time) of National Highways’ highly damaging A303 Stonehenge dualling project that the Government doesn’t care. Five planning inspectors, UNESCO, many archaeologists and nearly a quarter of a million people are opposed to the destruction of significant parts of the World Heritage Site. Yet the Government failed to properly consider less damaging alternatives. It simply couldn’t be bothered.

No doubt we’ll have a similar situation with the £10 billion Lower Thames Crossing. A decision on its planning consent is due in June, but even if delayed it will be rushed out ahead of the General Election. The same is likely to be true for a damaging scheme on the M3 in the South Downs National Park. ‘Only’ £200 million, but think of the good you could do with that!

The current Government plan seems to be to stitch up the next Government as much as possible. This is not about what is good for the country, but frustrating the next Government’s ambitions. In total, it’s likely that the current Government will aim to tie up around £16bn by approving just four uneconomic and highly damaging road projects. That’s over £3bn per year over the next five years spanning the next roads period – RIS3. In all likelihood that will represent a significant chunk of RIS3 funding. It exposes the lie that RIS3 will focus on small scale improvements and adaptation as there will be very little funding left after all this capital expenditure alongside PFI payments, maintenance and operational costs.

Similarly, on the railways the Government is signing contracts with operators with significant issues, such as Avanti West Coast, to hamper the next Government from bringing the railways back into public control. This is despite acknowledging a few years ago that the current system wasn’t working.

The challenge for the next Government, especially if it is Labour, is how will it pay for the public transport improvements that it is promising or for which many people, including its supporters are desperate for? This is especially true on buses. Unless the next Government is prepared to take a more strategic and holistic approach to tackling societal issues then it will be bound to repeat the mistakes of the past. But one thing is certain without billions of pounds tied up in these road schemes, it will struggle to deliver any meaningful change.

Act Now – Don’t wait for the election

We can’t sit back and wait for the general election and hope things will eventually get better.

Here are some ways you can take action now:


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