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Government makes a start on a 'green retrofit' fund for roads

Sian Berry's picture
Ecoduct in the Netherlands - photo by Chriszwolle on flickr

A small victory: up to £500 million of the £15 billion going on major road building will help reduce the impact of existing roads on the environment and local communities.

In September, alongside 12 environment and transport groups, we put forward the idea of a 'green retrofit' of the existing road network and asked that 20 to 30 per cent of the new Highways Agency budget should be set aside for reducing the impact of our roads without expanding capacity and increasing traffic. Up to 2021, this would have involved around £3 billion of investment.

Cover of Better Not Bigger green retrofit reportWe argued that our current roads have very poor environmental standards and that visibility and landscape impacts, noise, air and water pollution, community severance, and safety standards for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians could be significantly improved by retrofitting roads to a much higher standard than in the past.

We also proposed ways that the new Strategic Roads Company could be tasked with reducing the number and impact of vehicles on their roads and reduce the huge damage main roads do to the viability of living landscapes, wildlife and ecology. Our report pointed to the 600 'green bridges' that already span main roads in the Netherlands that link up previously cut off habitats and make a real difference to wildlife, as well as reducing the visible impact of the road and looking, frankly, amazing.

Campaigner with 'rural buses' signNew roads create new traffic

Last week, the results of our lobbying were revealed as the first Road Investment Strategy was published. At Campaign for Better Transport, our main reaction has so far been to the massive increase in road capacity, including more than 1,300 new lane miles, and how this is an incredibly counterproductive use of public money as these new lanes will quickly fill up with newly generated traffic.

As Baroness and voice of experience and wisdom Joan Bakewell put it on the BBC's Have I Got News for You later in the week: "The trouble is the more you build roads the more people use them, so whenever you build a road you build a traffic jam. That's what happens."

A small success to celebrate

But, we have a small success to celebrate too, as the principles and many of the budget lines proposed by our 'green retrofit' programme are also included in the Road Investment Strategy Investment Plan that has been put together by the Department for Transport (DfT).

"More than £300 million is being made available across the Roads Period to improve hundreds of sites nationwide, and start the process of retrofitting modern environment standards to the rest of the network."
DfT Road Investment Strategy Investment Plan

A total of more than £500 million in funding has been set aside for existing roads in several new ring-fenced funds: a £300 million Environment Fund, a £150 million Innovation Fund containing at least some aspects of our smarter travel proposals, and an Air Quality Fund worth £100 million that will focus on working with local authorities to reduce pollution away from the Strategic Road Network.

Hovenring bike bridge by EnvironmentBlog on flickrAt least £100 million is also being promised for cycling retrofit projects within a Cycling, Safety and Integration Fund.

The DfT's proposals also promise the new company will work closely with environmental groups to develop these proposals further, saying on page 57 of the RIS):
"The Company will also continue to draw on the expertise of different environmental organisations, deepening and widening these partnerships."

The table below summarises what we proposed and what the Government have written into the RIS. There are obvious gaps – particularly in the travel planning and behaviour change programmes we proposed and in public transport priority, but it's a significant programme of new activity, which we welcome.

Our Green Retrofit proposals Road Investment Strategy
Smart technology to make better use of existing roads Supported by the £150 million Innovation Fund (but this has many other aspects, including £40 million for driverless vehicle research)
Support for an electric vehicle charging network Investment in rapid chargers as part of the £300 million Environment Fund
Travel planning and traffic reduction Not included
Noise reduction, targeting high and deprived populations and sensitive areas where tranquillity is needed Target to reduce population severely affected by noise by 250,000 with resurfacing and noise barriers provided within £300 million Environment Fund
Reducing landscape and visual impacts, removing lighting, signage clutter, adding new planting and re-landscaping areas around the roads Aim to tackle 'parts of the road network where previous road design has led to particular environmental problems' as part of £300 million Environment Fund
Wildlife and biodiversity, reducing severance, better managing verged and adding 'ecoduct' green bridges to link up habitats. A rewrite of 2002 Biodiversity Action Plan and new impetus for taking action. £100 million of £300 million Environment Fund to go to 'enhance the network's landscape, address areas where there are negative impacts on sites of historic or cultural heritage and improve the impacts in local biodiversity.' No specific mention of green bridges.
Air and water pollution, strategic roads to contribute to reductions to meet EU targets, not just minimise increases. Call for lower speeds, traffic reduction and work to support low emission zones. £100 million of funding in addition to the Environment Fund, to be spent on and off the network, working with local authorities.
Better crossings for walking and cycling, and improved cycling facilities, tackling 2,000 locations identified by the Ramblers and hundreds of sites where cycling facilities and crossings need to be improved. A ring-fenced Cycling, Safety and Integration fund, totalling £250 million, will carry out some of this work, including £100 million dedicated to cycling improvements at 200 locations. Around £45 for 'Integration' will provide new links to public transport hubs, including HS2 stations, as well as help with some pedestrian access and crossing improvements. The final £105 million will go on safety measures aimed at vehicles on the road.
Public transport priority No specific proposals, although some of the integration funds above could be used for links to bus/coach hubs.
Design panel to provide expert review and oversight of planned work and new standards. No firm details given but page 13 of the RIS says "The company will have a design panel that can be involved in the most sensitive schemes and locations, to help ensure that the negative effects of the network are limited and the positive opportunities to make improvements are seized."

Holes in the budget

The aims above are ambitious and it's clear that the £300 million Environment Fund will be very thinly spread. Though this is a start, there is still gaping hole in the overall funding compared with what could be done: the total of around £500 million is just 17% of the £3 billion we proposed.

We will continue to push for more funding for green retrofit measures. As the road-building plans face the inevitable opposition and delays that come from trying to push through damaging projects in inappropriate places, there is a lot of scope to add more of our far more 'shovel-ready' projects to the Strategic Road Company's programme of work.

Strategic Roads Company business plan coverHoles in the business plan

And while we were happy to see some of our proposals in the DfT's RIS, this week's publication of the first business plan for the Strategic Roads Company, brought us down to earth a bit.

This was written by the Highways Agency, based on the DfT's performance specification for the new company and - despite the inclusion in the RIS of a wide range of green retrofit measures - it's hard to find any mention of a green retrofit programme in the business plan document at all.

Page 35 of this document contains almost all they have to say on the topic. Three of the paragraphs are almost completely meaningless ("We will work with [Govt], industry and other stakeholders to develop better ways to establish a meaningful way to measure the better outcomes that need to be achieved.") and the only clear measures described are low noise resurfacing and 'better managed' areas of land around roads. Descriptions of stakeholders they will work with do not include environmental groups or representatives of local communities affected by the presence of major roads.

The promised Biodiversity Action Plan, due to be published by June 2015, and far more detailed plans for how a green retrofit will be planned and managed will need to see a lot more work than this if we're going to see any decent results from the DfT's proposals come to fruition.

In the coming months, therefore, we'll continue to push for more funding, more projects (and more effort and expertise within the Highways Agency) to make the Green Retrofit a reality, not just a set of good intentions!