‘Smart’ Motorways need proper scrutiny

Building roads increases traffic. We’ve known this since 1994 when the Government published the seminal SACTRA report, “Trunk Roads and the Generation of Traffic”, that proved the phenomena of “induced traffic”. Yet despite knowing that we cannot build our way out of congestion, the Government seems intent on attempting to do just this, throwing good money after bad. Its £27.4 billion RIS2 roads programme, which includes seven new ‘Smart’ Motorway schemes, is doomed ultimately to fail. 

Converting the hard shoulder into a live lane with nowhere to go if you breakdown has obvious, and often devastating, road safety implications. However, what is less talked about are the huge increases in carbon emissions. Extra lanes mean more traffic which in turn mean more carbon emissions. We recently submitted evidence to the House of Commons Transport Select Committee’s inquiry into ‘Smart’ Motorways showing the extra carbon caused by these schemes. We also highlighted the extraordinary discovery that these controversial schemes had been bulldozed through avoiding the normal planning process or any scrutiny whatsoever. 

Highways England class most ‘Smart’ Motorways as “permitted development” (so the equivalent of erecting a shed in your garden!). This means they do not need to seek planning permission or consult with the public. They are able to do this by dismissing carbon emissions as insignificant, meaning they do not need to do a full Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). If the scheme does not need a full EIA it does not have to go through the planning process. It’s a sneaky way of avoiding proper scrutiny despite climate change being the single most pressing environmental issue of our time. Some of these ‘Smart’ Motorway schemes lead to huge increases in carbon emissions! 

Fortunately a local resident is challenging Highways England’s failure to do a full EIA on the proposed M62 ‘Smart’ Motorway between junctions 20 and 25 (Rochdale in Lancashire to Huddersfield in Yorkshire). Mark Coleman has launched a crowdfunding appeal, to pay lawyers to investigate the legality of Highways England’s failure to take climate change seriously. Please support him if you are able. This legal action is in addition to a separate legal challenge by Smart Motorways Kill who are challenging these roads on safety grounds and are also crowdfunding

We have researched the climate impacts of the road schemes in the £27.4bn RIS2 roads programme and they are big. Using Highways England’s own figures we calculate that just six of the seven ‘Smart’ Motorway schemes in RIS2 will cause an increase of over 8 million tonnes of carbon, from the extra traffic alone. This does not include the carbon emissions from construction (which Highways England often do not even assess!) or other emissions that they ignore. This increase in emissions is not “insignificant” as Highways England claim, and leads us further away from reaching the new legally-binding target for a 78% reduction in carbon by 2035 .  

Recent research has also shown that Highways England have underestimated the traffic growth and carbon increases on other ‘Smart’ Motorways. Professor David Metz (formerly the Chief Scientist at the Department for Transport) recently discovered that traffic had grown more than predicted on the M25 J23-27 ‘Smart’ Motorway scheme.  Whilst carbon emissions from the M3 J2-4A ‘Smart’ Motorway were actually almost twice the amounts predicted

This comes on top of new evidence that Highways England appears to be ignoring the findings of Grant Shapps’ safety review of ‘Smart’ motorways and has no intention of adding in extra refuges as recommended. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps is coming under increasing pressure to rein in Highways England and to cancel all new schemes to prevent any more tragic and avoidable deaths. He also needs to consider his responsibility to cut carbon or is his Transport Decarbonisation Plan going to be fatally undermined before it is even launched? 


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