Transport in the headlights

Hardly a week goes by without there being some momentous story involving transport. As with most things at present, evidence or rationality often plays little part in the debate. This is despite many of these issues having far reaching consequences affecting public health, inequalities and often involving vast sums of public money.

Stonehenge bribe?

Things seem to have hotted up significantly since the Government approved the A303 Stonehenge road scheme for a second time on 14 July. This is a road scheme condemned by UNESCO, recommended for refusal by the Government’s own planning inspectors in 2020, and halted by the High Court in 2021. The Government also ignored calls to re-open the examination to scrutinise National Highways’ claims about alternative solutions to the highly damaging scheme. Surely it’s no coincidence that the road was approved just days before the Somerset and Frome by-election?

There was no other reason to suddenly rush out the decision and every reason not to, given that UNESCO had requested the Government wait until after September when the World Heritage Committee meets. Apparently, the fact that the scheme risks the World Heritage Site being de-listed was not a factor to consider in the Government’s decision! Campaigners subsequently launched a crowdfunder to challenge the decision on the second anniversary of the High Court quashing the previous approval of the scheme.

A week later saw the expected drubbing of Conservative candidates in the Somerset and Frome and Selby by-elections. What’s not been reported though is that being on ‘the side of the motorist’, by offering pre-election bribes such as approving the Stonehenge scheme, seems to have made no difference to the result in Somerset and Frome.

Misinformation swings election result?

However, it was a different story with the narrow Conservative victory in Uxbridge and South Ruislip. Many commentators are now claiming that the public don’t like green and ‘anti-motorist’ policies. However this result was little to do with voters rejecting green policies per se but more people believing the misinformation being spread about London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ). When people with Teslas are saying they are concerned they will be charged for driving in London’s ULEZ you know something is seriously wrong. A glimpse of the murky tactics being used was exposed by an investigation by Valent Projects, showing significant sums were spent undermining ULEZ ahead of the vote. Funding that surely should be counted towards the electoral spend of the Conservative candidate given he stood on an anti-ULEZ platform?

The situation wasn’t helped by Labour failing to defend the ULEZ and its public health benefits and not getting the message out that most drivers wouldn’t pay anyway. It also failed to capitalise on the fact that it was the Government that suggested Sadiq Khan consider expanding the London ULEZ, as it clearly thought at the time that a ULEZ was a good way of tackling air pollution.

ULEZ to proceed

The good news on the London ULEZ though is that it was cleared by the High Court to proceed and it will now come into effect on 29 August.

However, we are now suffering the fallout with a skewed narrative towards green policies and the Government attacking any progressive transport or green policy it can set its eyes on.

Rather ironically, we now have Rishi Sunak placing himself on the side of the motorist, yet his policies (by his Government’s own figures) will make congestion worse, even with all the road building he is promising. Additionally, he is presiding over a record £20bn local road and bridge maintenance backlog, caused by his starving local authorities of funding. Perhaps a more appropriate rebrand for Rishi Sunak’s Government would be Potholes ‘R’ Us.

One step forward…

At the same as this has been happening, in Oxfordshire, the County Council’s planning committee turned down its own application for a big road linked to new housing. This was on the grounds that it went against the council’s own climate and local transport plan policies. However, despite this, Michael Gove is now seeking to call in the application even though it has been decided and the development refused. Local campaigners are resisting this intervention so we await to see what will happen next.

Recommendations for RIS3

Also, the House of Commons Transport Committee published a highly critical report of the Government’s strategic roads investment, which the Government has to respond to. Its recommendations included:

  • there should be traffic reduction and zero traffic growth scenarios developed for the National Road Traffic Projections (which are used to justify new roads)
  • the Government should consider cancelling some of its bigger more complex schemes, to free up funding for maintenance of existing roads, which it said should be prioritised.

All in all, it was an extremely good report, flagging up that there may be better ways of delivering economic growth than road building, and is well worth a read. TAN submitted written evidence and also appeared at one of the oral hearings and it is gratifying to see our work vindicated.

Stronger together

So where does this leave us? While the evidence keeps mounting that we need to change direction if we are to meet our climate and other goals (it’s only a few weeks since the Climate Change Committee called for a review of all roadbuilding), the Government seems to be stuck in reverse. It has seemingly abandoned a reasoned and evidenced based approach to transport provision, as shown by the outcry against ticket office closures which will disproportionately impact people with disabilities.

It’s unlikely that we will get many sensible decisions before a General Election with more culture war narratives likely to emerge. In the meantime, all we can do is keep promoting the many benefits of sustainable transport and challenge the nonsense and lies when we come across them.

Now more than ever it’s important to come together to share successes and plan for the future. Join us at our conference in September to do just that.

Photo by Alexander Jawfox on Unsplash 

Amended 10/8/2023 to remove suggestion Government forced Sadiq Khan to expand the ULEZ


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