Why England urgently needs a roads reset

We gave evidence at the House of Commons’ Transport Committee’s inquiry into strategic road investment on Wednesday 1st March, talking about why England urgently needs a roads reset.

The current situation

National Highways and the Department for Transport (DfT) are preparing another round of funding for motorways and trunk roads from 2025 – 2030. This will be set out in the third Road Investment Strategy (RIS3) and could be as much as £40bn, with a substantial chunk of this allocated to building bigger roads. This is despite motorists preferring a focus on better maintenance and less disruptive roadworks. Against this, active travel and buses, in particular, are being starved of the funding needed.

In contrast, the Welsh Government recently announced that it will curtail harmful road building. New roads will still be built, but only if they pass four tests. The Scottish Government has also published a plan to achieve a 20% reduction in car kilometres by 2030.

Transport made up 24% of all carbon emissions in the UK in 2020. Most of this was from road transport. By law the UK’s emissions must be net zero by 2050, but we have some even more challenging targets to meet before then, set out in 5-yearly carbon budgets and our commitments under the Paris Agreement. While Wales and Scotland are making strides to reduce car use, England has its foot firmly on the accelerator and increasingly looks out of touch.

Lisa Hopkinson from Transport for Quality of Life, also giving evidence to MPs, said the fact that new roads generate traffic has been known for around 100 years. Yet still this gets ignored even though it means that building new roads will make it harder for the Government to reduce emissions quickly enough. This risks contributing to more extreme weather events, impacting on the economy.


As Edmund King, AA President (in the video above), said at the Transport Committee hearing “Most people accept that we largely have the roads we need to get from A to B”. This then begs the question why is the Government still obsessed with building so many new roads, many of which make little or no sense, economically or environmentally?

What we’d like to see change

The Department for Transport is predicting a huge increase in traffic which it then uses to justify building bigger roads. This is despite the fact that this level of traffic would be incompatible with tackling climate change. There is no one simple solution to cutting congestion and reducing carbon emissions from transport, but one thing is clear: new roads are not the answer. They make things worse.

Electric vehicles (EVs) are part of the solution, but they cannot be rolled out quickly enough. And if everyone was able to swap their petrol or diesel car tomorrow for an EV, there might be fewer tailpipe emissions but there would be a massive increase in manufacturing emissions. We would also run out of electricity and suffer power cuts.

This means we have to look at taking other measures to cut carbon emissions quickly enough and that includes stabilising and cutting traffic. However, as Lisa Hopkinson said: “We shouldn’t be viewing traffic reduction as a negative thing, we should be viewing it as a positive thing.” This is because of all the many benefits it brings such as less air and noise pollution, less congestion, healthier and more pleasant communities.

Moving forwards, the key things TAN would like to see in England are:

  • A new multi-modal agency to decide on the best interventions that deliver Government priorities (rather than the siloed and often road based approach taken now)
  • A new national transport policy that delivers carbon reductions, better public transport and active travel, helps with levelling up, reduces inequality and improves economic productivity.
  • New roads should only be built if they do not increase car use and carbon emissions (following Wales example).
  • RIS3 should focus on maintaining existing roads (including local roads), rather than building new roads.
  • Any new infrastructure in RIS3 should focus on small scale improvements to address safety concerns and better supporting bus and coach services and walking and cycling connectivity.

In effect, we are calling for nothing short of a radical overhaul in the way that transport investment decisions in England are taken and prioritised. The current system clearly doesn’t work as transport has failed to deliver any significant reductions in carbon emissions over the past 30 years, while congestion and social exclusion has worsened with the loss of local bus services.

Ralph Smyth representing TAN at the inquiry

Even in terms of tackling congestion, the roads programme is a failure. Congestion is predicted to get worse despite all the promised increases in road capacity. So what is the point of pursuing a road building policy, at huge cost, that can only deliver a worsening situation? Surely it is time to stop repeating failure? We need to move on from unsuccessful 20th century ‘solutions’ and explore more efficient and less damaging ways of giving people access to the goods and services they need to be able to lead fulfilling lives.

The Transport Committee’s report on strategic road investment will be published sometime in the summer. In the meantime you can view the proceedings from 1 March (TAN is on from around 10:44) and you can read the submissions, including TAN’s, made to the inquiry.

While there is still time please add your voice to our campaign asking Rishi Sunak and his ministers to stop making things worse and to switch funding from roadbuilding into public transport and walking and cycling.

Blog updated on 8 March, 2023 with info about TAN’s submission and a new link 


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