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Roads to Nowhere

The roads programme is a deplorable refusal to face the facts

Photo: Dr Adrian Davis

"The willingness of Government to make road building the central solution to transport problems is deplorable – that is, if you care to be guided by the best available evidence, efficient use of public funds, and ecological damage." So says Dr Adrian Davis, Visiting Professor of Transport & Health at the University of the West of England, in this guest blog.

"Whether or not the current Roads Programme is the largest since the Romans is open to question. The Road Investment Strategy (RIS 1) of 2014/15 listed £15.2 billion up to 2020. RIS2 promises billions more. 

The willingness of Government to make road building the central solution to transport problems is deplorable – that is, if you care to be guided by the best available evidence, efficient use of public funds, and ecological damage. 

Those of us aged 50 and over may well find the current situation particularly irksome because we have been here before when the 'largest programme since the Romans' was announced in 1989 by the then Secretary of State for Transport, Paul Channon MP. This was the zenith point for the British Roads Federation when its Director, Richard Diment, speaking on the BBC Today Programme, said 'we've got everything we asked for'. Campaign for Better Transport's Stephen Joseph was standing beside him on a bridge over the M25 that May morning in 1989, at what was a nadir point for the environmental transport movement. 

But the roads lobby victory was short lived. Local authorities started to assess what it would mean to try to absorb motorised road traffic growth in their areas and found it would not work. The Association of County Councils, representing Tory Shires, agreed that it would be impossible to meet predicted demand even with such a large programme. This added to the robust research evidence, led by Professor Phil Goodwin and his mantra which stuck, that it is 'a matter of arithmetic, not politics, that you can't build your way out of congestion'. But there was much more by way of opposing forces. This included a growing Treasury budget deficit, the rise of an active and media attention grabbing anti-roads movement, and back-bench Tory rebellion because of road schemes in their constituencies which resulted in hostile mail bags. The writing was on the wall for the 1989 Transport White Paper, Roads for Prosperity, which had promised to deliver a £12 billion roads programme.

In 2018 the lie of the land is different. Between 1989 and 2018 the rise and rise of the sustainability agenda has transpired. It was in its early years at the start of the 1990s with the 1992 Rio Earth Summit as a first global environment summit. By 2017/18 climate change is a standing item across governments, nationally and locally. And yet, UK transport's CO2 emissions, a significant contributor to climate change, continue to grow, unlike other sectors such as energy supply and waste management. 

And, of course, there are other reasons why in the UK, with the public sector operating in conditions of financial austerity, committing to spending very large sums of public money on increasing the strategic road network capacity can be described as a waste of public funds. Just consider what an extra £10bn could do for the NHS. 

What has not changed is Government ambition to push through a major road building programme. It is important to note that while Tories push for the biggest roads programmes, Labour's record also includes significant road spending, albeit with small sums available for demand management and behavioural change.

The evidence for economic benefits of road building is largely wishful thinking. In our recent paper, we cite reports from government services in the 1970s and 1980s which questioned supposed benefits like employment generation and cost reductions for industry. Transport costs are a fraction of total production costs and so are marginal. Even a study of something as iconic as the original Severn Bridge crossing linking England and Wales could find no impact on economic growth and regional development. More recently the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth reviewed around 2,300 evaluations of the local economic impact of transport projects from the UK and other OECD countries. It found only 17 robust studies of the effect of road schemes on the local economy. The main finding was that a majority of evaluations showed no (or mixed) effects on employment. 

In March 2017 the case for road building got even weaker. A review which included over 80 road schemes with post-opening project evaluations gathered by Highways England found that evidence for economic benefits from road schemes was weak, absent, or even negative. Twenty-five road schemes were promoted on the basis they would benefit the local economy, but only six had evidence of any economic effects. For those six schemes, there was no evidence that economic effects were directly attributable to the road scheme, and were not displacement of economic activity from elsewhere. Where a road scheme was justified on the basis that it would support regeneration of an area with a struggling economy, it was common for economic development following completion of the road scheme to be slower than expected, or not to materialise at all, or to be of a type which offered little benefit to the area concerned.

Our latest paper was ostensibly seeking to address whether voluntary travel behaviour change could take place at scale given a background of increasing road network capacity. Kicking habitual car use is not easy, especially when the strategic road network is expanding which encourages more car-based journeys, most of which start and end in urban areas given that is where most of the population lives. Actively trying to travel sustainably is hard enough without government programmes undermining our own attempts at sustainable travel and likely that of future generations."

Dr Adrian Davis is Visiting Professor of Transport & Health at the University of the West of England. Together with Professor Alan Tapp he recently published a paper entitled The UK transport policy menu: Roads, roads, and a dash of multimodalism (Journal of Social Business, 7(3-4), pp313-332).

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