Regardless of the political comings and goings in Downing Street, there is an urgent need to stabilise the economy and to fill the £40bn fiscal black hole created by Liz Truss’s disastrous mini-budget.
As the new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak has renewed his commitment to Levelling Up and to economic growth and has kept Jeremy Hunt as Chancellor. The concern is that his Government will stick with Liz Truss’s outdated commitment to road building as the default way of delivering growth, despite the evidence that new roads are not a very effective or efficient way of doing this. He was, after all, the Chancellor who announced England’s “largest ever” roads programme back in 2020.
While there is a need to invest in infrastructure to help the economy grow, spending money on new roads would swallow billions of public funds for very little return. Also, building new roads in the long term makes things worse, with any congestion relief often short-lived and offset by increases in congestion on the wider road network.
Given the restrictions on public spending TAN has written to Jeremy Hunt to suggest scrapping five white elephant road building projects, which would do little to boost the economy. Examining their business cases, TAN discovered that most of them are classed as either “poor” or “low” value for money, with a combined cost of around £16 billion.
Cutting them could help balance the books and avoid huge cuts in public services. Equally, the funding could be switched to more sustainable and effective infrastructure such as high-speed broadband, and active travel and public transport schemes. These would realise higher rates of return and could be delivered more quickly, having a far greater impact on Levelling Up and the cost-of-living crisis.
Many new roads would also cause great harm. Indeed, building a £2.5bn new road at Stonehenge, as currently proposed, would further tarnish the UK’s international reputation with the potential de-designation of Stonehenge as a World Heritage Site. The A5036 Port of Liverpool Access Road would destroy a country park, while the Lower Thames Crossing would have a toxic impact on public health. Roads around Norwich and Arundel (West Sussex) would have a devastating impact on nature. Most of these impacts are never counted on the balance sheet, yet it’s the balance sheet that is used to justify a scheme regardless of its shortcomings.
While scrapping the five biggest road schemes saves nearly half the budget deficit, cutting other new roads would save even more. All roads increase traffic, noise, air pollution and carbon emissions and make no sense in the current climate and ecological emergencies. Rishi Sunak has firmly committed to net-zero, and this is his chance to put that commitment into action.
Furthermore, if the Chancellor re-opened the roads programme, RIS2, to focus investment on maintenance and renewal it may release enough funds to start tackling the £18 billion (and rising) backlog in local roads and bridge maintenance.
This reset with a new Government is a chance to get things back on track and we are urging the Chancellor and the new Prime Minister to grasp this opportunity.
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