Road construction ploughs on despite change in climate


The first time I voted in an election was at the GLC elections of 1973 when Labour promised to scrap the ring road schemes that would have turned the centre of London into a bigger version of Birmingham’s bull ring. Labour won and we were left with the Westway over Ladbroke Grove to show what we so narrowly escaped from. There cannot be many people, even the motoring lobby, who today would suggest that I voted the wrong way.

 Then fifteen years later, there was another attempt to build roads in London, this time four radial routes to get cars further into London before they hit traffic jams were put forward by the Tories but after much protest withdrawn by Cecil Parkinson in 1990.

 I live near Archway where there is the stub of the kind of scheme that would have resulted from these studies. For a brief section, Archway Road is a dual carriageway, turning a small part of London into an urban concrete desert, foreboding and soulless with the two sides of the road linked only by that invention designed to put pedestrians in their place, the underpass. The rest of the scheme was, of course, killed off by the brilliant tactics of the protesters at the Archway Road led by the incomparable John Tyme who died last year and so this ridiculous stub of a scheme simply moves the traffic jam up or down the hill, depending on the time of day. .

 These campaigns effectively killed off any attempt to increase the size of London’s road system. No politician today would dare start suggesting these kinds of schemes because the zeitgeist has changed completely. It has become recognised that destroying large parts of towns to put in major roads is environmentally as well as politically unacceptable.

 I relate all this because it seems it is still acceptable to put forward huge mega road schemes in the countryside even though in terms of the environmental aspects, let along other considerations such as economic or, indeed, transport, they no longer make sense. Yet, the Department for Transport has just issued draft orders for the A 14 road scheme in Huntingdonshire which involves a combination of new road, widening sections to four or six lanes and creating a massive interchange with the A1. The scheme started out as a £192m project but thanks to what Stephen Joseph the head of the Campaign for Better Transport has called ‘road mission creep’ and the usual increase in costs that dogs all road schemes, it now comes out at £1,200m – and of course that is just an estimate, though it does include the Treasury’s optimum bias – for a mere 22 miles of road, a staggering £60m per mile.

 So far the protests of a well-organised campaign group from the village of Brampton, which would be most affected by the proposals, have fallen on deaf ears. Yet, according to Eileen Collier, the leader of the campaign, it will clearly wreck the quality of life of its 6,000 residents. She is quick to highlight the contradiction implicit in government policy: ‘The Highways Agency’s total disregard for the adverse environmental effects – on air quality in particular – of imposing 12 lanes of traffic on our village (114,000 vehicles a day within 300 metres of housing) while Government ministers warn of climate change and urge our children to take environmentally responsible decisions, is breathtaking to say the least.’ She points out that the widened road would lead to other new road linking with it, severely damaging the quality of life of the local residents.

 The only coherent explanation for Department’s continued pursuit of a scheme that seems to sit fly in the face of its wider aspirations of carbon reduction and environmental improvement is inertia. At a recent conference I chaired, the speaker from the Highways Agency, Nirmal Kotecha, a member of its executive board, said that the days of the big road scheme were numbered and that the focus was now on better management of the network. The A14 therefore is one of the last dinosaurs, a project that no longer has a coherent rationale in terms of today’s political agenda. Certainly, dropping it will infuriate a few local politicians who see it as a solution to the area’s traffic problems but they must surely realise that they are waging a lost battle. However,  the A 14 is unlikely to survive the cull of big projects that is inevitable after the election. It should not, though, be the lack of money that consigns such projects to the dustbin of history, but a recognition that they have no place in the 21st century, just as happened with their counterparts in London two decades ago.

  • I don’t understand this “No new roads! Ever!” attitude. I prefer rail transport myself, but even I can see that some parts of our road network are in dire need of major surgery.

    We have motorways which stop dead in the middle of urban areas, dumping all their traffic into the surrounding roads. (The M4 is a good example, as is the M40.) This traffic needs to go *somewhere*, but where? And how? We can’t *all* go by rail in London as most of it is *already* at saturation point, and doesn’t always go where we want to go.

    We also have the legacy of London’s rapid expansion, which resulted in wide roads suddenly shrinking down to the size of a country lane for a few hundred yards—usually through the historic part of what was once a quiet village—before suddenly widening again. (Lots of this in south London—the A202 is a good example.) This doesn’t sound too damning until you realise it means bus lanes tend to vanish and reappear accordingly. What’s the point of investing in fancy new buses when they’re still going to be stuck in the same old traffic jams wherever the roads get too narrow for dedicated bus lanes?

    People demand we use rail, but that network has seen so little investment and expansion over the past century, it’s like demanding an entire gallon squeeze itself into a pint-pot.

    Commuters don’t all head into London in a huge wave during the rush hour just to annoy town planners. We do it because we’ll get *sacked* if we don’t.

    Remember too that one of the the key reasons cars get a bad press is because of the pollution they cause; wait until Low- and Zero-Emissions Vehicles become mainstream and we’ll soon see that view change. Our renewed love affair with rail will vanish if we don’t capitalise on it *right now* and ensure it stays competitive. (Electrification needs to be rolled out as quickly as possible. Once cars no longer drink fossil fuels and spit out smoke and fumes, all our continued use of diesel for trains is going to look very bad indeed.)

    Before denying any particular mode of transport, the alternatives must *already* be in place.

    It’s this bizarre attitude that resulted in the continued retention of the tolls at Dartford.

    “It’s to manage congestion!” apparently. Interesting definition of “congestion management” this: Where the hell else are drivers in *Kent* supposed to cross the Thames then? Care to point out all the other crossings they get to choose from east of Tower Hill? No? Thought not. So I suppose they’ll just have to drive all the way up the A2 *into London* and use the already massively congested Blackwall Tunnel instead! Gosh! Such foresight! Such planning!

    Take a look at the Dartford Bridge sometime. Watch all those trucks *crawling* across it, day in, day out, no matter the time of day, pumping all that lovely pollution into the local environment. And tell me to my face how this kind of congestion does the environment any damned good either.

    Either we need to bite the bullet and simply ban all private vehicles from urban areas, or we’d better face the fact that we’re going to have to do *some* building, *somewhere*, to alleviate the congestion problems our primarily medieval road network faces. (Incidentally, it’s a lot cheaper to build road tunnels when you don’t have to worry about vehicle emissions and combustible fuels. Electric cars will make road-building a lot cheaper.)

    HS1 also proved that rail is not treated any differently by NIMBYs and BANANAs. Don’t think banning the odd bypass is a victory for rail. It’s just a victory for the kind of people who are quite happy to contemplate the existence of lovely new infrastructure, as long as they don’t have to pay for it, see it, hear it, or smell it.

  • RapidAssistant

    I agree with Sean as well on this. The notion that all public transport is good, and anything to do with the private motor car is bad is a draconian stance to take. Two examples I can think of in my home town (Glasgow) are proof of this:

    – Deregulation of bus services has been a disaster. Not only are the city streets clogged with badly maintained buses operated by a myriad of private operators – often duplicating the routes of the official franchised operator – the end result has been convoys of empty buses carrying nothing but fresh air delaying everyone else. The city council has exacerbated the problem by making key streets (the Argyle Street/Queen Street/Glassford Street/Trongate/Gallowgate corridor) into a bus route, relegating cars onto one lane, or banning them altogether, leaving the lesser roads to be used as rat runs. Cars aren’t the problem – it is dismal transport policy at a local government level.

    – The M8 Inner Ring Road. Left in a half finished state since 1970 meaning that the centre of the city has the third busiest motorway in Britain (after the M25 and M6) running straight through it. The M8 was never designed to handle the amount of traffic that uses it. It has taken 36 years, several costly widening schemes and the near-rebuilding of the Kingston Bridge over the Clyde for politicians to finally get together the money,and the political will to complete the southern flank of the ring road (which is an extension of the M74) to take all the long distance traffic away from the centre of Glasgow. And it still won’t be finished until 2011. The environmental campaining that has also stalled this project for so long was equally nonsensical – the tree huggers were not trying to save a national park but a 6 mile strip of contaminated brownfield land along which there has been nothing but dereliction caused by the decline of heavy industry.

    The moral is that I think every mode of transport has to be exploited to its full advantage and used appropriately. For example, people who live in rural areas should not be penalised for using cars in the form of high fuel taxes (designed to curb car usage in urban areas). I live in a rural area and there is no local train service to speak of, and the bus service is a joke. Taking the view that “well you chose to live in a rural area in the first place” is a cop out. What do you want to do? – move everyone to the cities and worsen the road congestion and expose the deficiencies of the public transport system even more? No – transport policy in this country is too much about trying to put a sticking plaster over existing problems and short term fixes that end up causing more harm than good – the Glasgow examples I quoted can probably be repeated in every major conurbation in Britain.

  • John Lyons

    Just a small point, RapidAssistant, but isn’t the “official franchised operator” an animal unique to London?

    Outside the capital there are operators who run tendered services to the requirements of the local public transport body (SPT in Glasgow’s case) for non-commercial routes. But essentially, bus companies can run whatever service they want. I understand that, in some areas there are partnerships, in which certain operators may agree commercial service specificiations with public bodies, but that doesn’t stop other bus companies pitching in as well if they’re not party to the partnership.

    I can’t disagree with your main point about the shortcomings of deregulation, though.

  • RapidAssistant

    Yes John – that’s what I was trying to say. SPT (itself now really a toothless quango now that its rail powers have been taken away, but don’t get me started on that….) has First as the tendered operator. Fair enough.

    My point is that there is no control over the other operators who are clearly surplus to requirements given they run the same routes, often using clapped out wrecks spewing carcinogenic soot into the atmosphere, delaying other buses, motorists and causing gridlock in the city centre.

    Whilst we hear transport experts harping on about that Holy Grail of “an integrated transport” system we in Glasgow at least have gone the other way. SPT’s only reason for existence now seems to be to run the Underground and the Dial-A-Bus service. Transport Scotland (another Holyrood quango….) now dictates the heavy rail service, whilst we have a free-for-all as far as the buses are concerned. Progress or what??

  • Michael Weinberg

    “We have motorways which stop dead in the middle of urban areas, dumping all their traffic into the surrounding roads. (The M4 is a good example, as is the M40.) This traffic needs to go *somewhere*, but where? And how? We can’t *all* go by rail in London as most of it is *already* at saturation point, and doesn’t always go where we want to go.”

    What are you suggesting the answer is to this, Sean; Knock down the cities?

    “We also have the legacy of London’s rapid expansion, which resulted in wide roads suddenly shrinking down to the size of a country lane for a few hundred yards—usually through the historic part of what was once a quiet village—before suddenly widening again. (Lots of this in south London—the A202 is a good example.” Ditto

    “People demand we use rail, but that network has seen so little investment and expansion over the past century, it’s like demanding an entire gallon squeeze itself into a pint-pot.”

    I think “demand” is a bit strong:

    One of the reasons for this has been the virulent, strident and powerful roads lobby in Britain which has seen a disproportionate amount of money spent on the road network.
    to the detriment of rail compared with other Countries.

    “Remember too that one of the the key reasons cars get a bad press is because of the pollution they cause; wait until Low- and Zero-Emissions Vehicles become mainstream
    and we’ll soon see that view change.”

    You’ve put forward this opinion before and it begs so many questions that refuting it is hardly worthwhile.
    But a/ How far ahead do you think it will be before enough people buy ‘low and zero emissions vehicles’ (even if there was the possibility of such things: which there isn’t!) to make any dent in our carbon emissions?
    b/ The problem with cars is not necessarily only their suicidal pollutions, its the sheer space they take up and the hideous amount of infrastructure required to satisfy an insatiable demand fostered by people like you and Jeremy Clarkson.

    The ‘problem’ will be alleviated if not entirely solved when universal road pricing is introduced as is shortly to be done in Holland. it will be amazing how many people find their car journeys not as indispensible as they thought.


    “I live in a rural area and there is no local train service to speak of, and the bus service is a joke. Taking the view that “well you chose to live in a rural area in the first place” is a cop out. What do you want to do? – move everyone to the cities and worsen the road congestion and expose the deficiencies of the public transport system even more?”

    It actually would help congestion ift his were to happen since much of the congestion is caused by ‘rural dwellers’ driving into town to work, shop , be entertained etc.

    The very reason that our rural areas are dying on their feet is that they’ve been taken over by people like RapidAssistant who dwell in the Country but actually live in the town!
    Of course there’s no employment or shops or post offices or bus services. Property is more expensive in rural areas now because of the rise in townies with cars living there.

    You also dont say how much this 6 mile strip of motorway in Glasgow is going to cost.
    Of course if you drive along it every day its money well spent (other peoples) till it too gets clogged up, naturally, with all the rural dwellers driving in to work!

    And just in case you think I’m an environmental tree hugger, an insult to you I suppose, I drive a new Audi TT, and I enjoy driving, but I also appreciate that we cant go on tarmacing over more and more of the country, and I do use public transport whenever possible: though because I chose to live in a town I have to put up with all the congestion caused by people driving in from the villages and hogging all the car parking!

  • Dan

    Michael – I think your tone is a bit strong here but I tend towards much of your analysis. It’s clear to me that much of the inner city regeneration that is required would happen PDQ if it became a more difficult choice (by which I suppose I mean expensive) for people to fulfill their ‘suburban or rural dreams’ just because they can afford to do so. If you look at an OS map of any UK city from say 1950 and compare it with now the urban areas are much bigger – OK we have a longer life span and hence a higher population, and many people will have more space than they did prior to 1950 – but this is down to the mobility provided by the car.

    However, I don’t think govt will tackle this as it results in percieved restrictions on so called ‘freedom’ to do this – they will simply let the market force it to happen as fuel and movement costs rise.

    I certainly support a clearer approach to road charging – there is no logic to providing unlimited access for free (well not quite free but not charged exactly by use) to a restricted resource (road space).

  • RapidAssistant

    Michael. Agree with Dan that you are maybe being a bit strong.

    I live in the country and work in a rural town. I still feel close to my home city and I do care for what happens there hence my points and it frustrates me deeply to see the same old mistakes being made by local government. Filling the streets up with empty buses so they can be seen to be promoting competition and encouraging public transport use is hardly a recipe for getting people off that congested stretch of motorway that I just mentioned.

    My point is that envrionmental opposition for its own sake is often just as damaging as what they are purportedly trying to oppose. In the Glasgow example I am merely trying to point out that yes indeed it would be great if I could get in my TARDIS and go back to the 1950s and assassinate the city planners of the time to stop the Inner Ring Road project, so that the M8 didn’t carve through the centre of the city. But then Glasgow sits inside a big valley, so how you could actually build an outer motorway ring road (a la London and Manchester) without damaging the lovely Campsie Fells for example was maybe why they did it the way they did. I’m a realist, not an idealist at the end of the day.

    But the biggest folly of the lot was stopping building the Glasgow IRR half way through (contrasting therefore with Christian’s example of the London ring road plan being abandoned). For the last 36 years we have been stuck with cars being brought into the centre and then being left with nowhere to go. The IRR as designed was supposed to direct the majority of the traffic down the very section that cancelled by the politicians. Today, the general attitude in Scotland is, like the second Forth Road Bridge, is that the M74 extension it is a necessary evil caused by a legacy created by politicians of a previous generation.

    That brings me neatly to the costs which you highlighted. That six miles of motorway is costing £500m (it would have been £300m if it hadn’t been delayed by 2 years by the “tree-huggers” who mounted a legal challenge they didn’t have a hope in hell of funding, never mind winning). BUT – here’s the rub – compare that to the £300m that’s being spent on the reopening of the Airdrie to Bathgate line (thus opening up a third Glasgow-Edinburgh rail corridor). £1bn is now being put aside to electrify the main Glasgow-Edinburgh via Falkirk Line. Edinburgh is – despite all the fllak it has received – getting a tram “network”. There are numerous investments in rolling stock going on, and talk of other schemes on the drawing board such as Glasgow Crossrail. Compare that to the situation in England where there is next to no major local rail projects of a similar scale. I’m not holding my breath for the GWML electrification or HS2 developments to go ahead. I expect them to be binned as soon as the Tories are elected next May. Scotland has a far, far more balanced plan for developing different transport modes where and how it is most appropriate.

    (PS – I drive an Audi as well……a two year old A4 turbodiesel. )

  • Peter

    Crazy projects like the A14, Heathrow’s third runway and the M25 widening (anyone got 6.25bn handy?) confirmtend to confirm my view that the government has never taken its own propaganda about climate change seriously.

    Which all begs the question: why do they keep banging on about it?

    All I can think of is that they see it as a way of extending their control of the economy – and our daily lives.

    One thing is certain, though, railways have had a pretty thin time of it under Nulabor’s regime. When you subtract the CTRL, despite all Prescott’s bluster they have done next to nothing to extend England’s national rail network – and are even busily making some of it into guided busways. Tragic if it weren’t so sad.

  • The big problem I think is trying to power 13 million cars on zero-emission sources. Presumably they will require hydrogen fuel cells or batteries – I don’t think we can seriously produce enough biofuels without there being food shortages.

    To produce so many batteries would be very energy-intensive. And it would also be difficult to store reasonable amounts of hydrogen in everyone’s cars. A collision between cars tgat are both travelling at 60mph would be very difficult to protect against – the strength of the hydrogen container would have to be phenominal.

    I still think that rail wins hands down due to its ability to use virtually any static power source, to recover energy by regenerative braking, to coast when at a constant speed, reduced friction between wheel and rail compared to tyre and road. And trains can be really quite long if required. Most of our principal stations could easily take 12-car trains. And many lesser stations besides this.

    The trick to reducing such intensified commuting pressure would be for work places to be encouraged to adopt different sets of working hours so that not everyone is travelling to a major city or back within a 3-hour period.

  • Richard Hare

    Doesn’t everything just boil down to over-population? Housing spreading further and further from the centres, no local jobs, shops, schools or anything else to alleviate the need to travel for even basic services. Such a shame that the ‘tree-huggers’ who most object to any transport (or for that matter, housing) development are generally the same group most opposed to any restriction on population growth. You can’t have it both ways.

  • Dan

    I doubt that it does Richard – there are plenty more densly populated places on the planet than the UK – more of a problem is to have a relatively high dense population in limited areas (eg London and South East) yet still allow people to think the rural / sub rural / suburban idyll promoted since the lat 19th C (and the early days of the commuter railway of course) is really that viable. Make cities liveable – require things that permit that – decent parks and green spaces, v good sound insulation in building regs, then link cities up with high speed rail. It starts to look good. Not really much to do with population size IMHO.

  • @MW: I had a nice, long point-by-point rebuttal, but your argument boils down to the following…

    1. I don’t actually like cars. I don’t even own one and only bothered to take my driving test in 2005—at the tender age of 35.

    Comparisons with Jeremy Clarkson are interesting though: why is it so “wrong” for a fat, middle-aged writer like Jeremy to love cars? He’s not seriously suggesting *everyone* buys a Bugatti Veyron, any more than Pete Waterman is about every home having an APT sitting in its driveway.

    It’s a *hobby*, not a political movement, for crying out loud.

    2. Where’s the electricity coming from? Nuclear. Nuclear, nuclear, nuclear. And yes, I did live within plain sight of a nuclear power plant (Bradwell) for a couple of years. Amazingly, not only am I still alive, but I don’t even have cancer.

    (Yes, the waste is nasty stuff. Guess what? There are solutions to that too: subduction zones. The Earth can recycle it for us wholesale. It needs some investment, but it’s technically more than feasible. Look it up.)

    3. Widening *some* roads is necessary. Alternatively, sending the traffic via another, more suitable, route could be viable. (E.g. the South Circular might be better off using an alignment via Sydenham, rather than the present route via Forest Hill and Dulwich. There’s more scope for improving junctions.)

    4. You’re not going to kill the car entirely, because a family of six isn’t going to Tesco’s for its weekly shop on foot: you *need* a car for that kind of journey. (People don’t trust home delivery services, and most supermarkets charge extra for it too.)

    One way to improve the road network is to eliminate the need for car parks, by banning *private* vehicles and building PRT infrastructure instead. (This could also fill in the missing light rail gap.)

    Unfortunately, no matter what solution you come up with, there’s going to be a transition period. And even PRT needs to be powered by *something*.

    5. You can actually kill multiple birds with one stone if you bite the bullet and bury some of London’s rail infrastructure below ground. Take Lewisham, for example…

    Lewisham’s town centre is effectively surrounded by railway viaducts. Improvements to the road network—sorely needed given that the A20 runs through here, while the A21 *starts* here—are constrained by the mere presence of these structures. Bury the station, the junctions, and their approaches, and you can solve a number of problems:

    Assuming the Bakerloo takes over the Hayes branch (as has been suggested elsewhere), this makes it possible to free up capacity, build the station on an improved alignment (eliminating the sharp curves, speed restrictions and the need for a separate, equally slow, “bypass” viaduct), with ample opportunity to provide more platforms and better, grade-separated junctions. Express tunnels would take non-stop services around the station. The original trackbeds would be reached beyond Blackheath and Hither Green (close to Grove Park on the main line; close to Lee on the Sidcup line).

    Routing the tracks northwards to London Bridge via New Cross Gate would also dramatically improve orbital connections, permit the closure of New Cross and St. Johns and frees up a vast swathe of trackbed for other uses…

    …such as a decent bypass linking the Old Kent Road (which is already nice and wide) with the A2, A20 and A21 while avoiding the bottlenecks at New Cross Gate, Lewisham, Catford, Hither Green and Blackheath. This releases the original roads to local users, so 20mph restrictions can be put in place. (90% of the route of this bypass is through industrial areas or in cuttings, so few people are going to complain. If you build it with LEVs and ZEVs in mind, the pollution issue is also reduced, as is noise.)

    There are solutions to every problem London faces (aside from politicians; Guido Fawkes’ approach has some merit). You just need to take a big picture approach to it. Rail can only ever be *part* of a holistic solution.

  • (Before you ask: yes, my original post was *much* longer!)

  • RapidAssistant

    A bit of an off beat point perhaps, but I was at Dylan Moran’s (of Black Books fame) show in the West End (side splitting…..I have to say!) on Saturday night and he did make the point (I’ll not repeat the expletives…) about the human race being the only species that’s conditioned from an early age to start work at 8 and finish at 5 and how unnatural it is, and the whole “battery hen” rat race that humankind (in the Western world at least…) is locked into.

    Kind of ties in with Ben’s point above – if only we could get out of that way of working en masse then you’d solve a lot of transport problems. Lets do away with the weekend as well and just take days off when we feel like it….the end of the Friday rip off prices on the trains.

    Ah – I’m being not so much an idealist but in cloud cukoo land, but hey – just my pearl of wisdom for today. I’ll confess to being a bad boy and used the plane for my visit to London last weekend.

  • Dan


    “about the human race being the only species that’s conditioned from an early age to start work at 8 and finish at 5”

    He’s not spent much time in southern Europe then….!

  • Ian Raymond

    Good point by Rapid Assistant, but carry it through a bit more… What if (say) 50% of those who could work from home did so for 2-3 days of their week? OK, not suitable for many jobs but equally there’s a huge number it could be useful for, if HR etc issues could be resolved.
    This could dramatically diminish the extra resources ‘rush hours’ require (as well as the office space businesses would need). But would it be more or less environmentally beneficial with the additional energy they’d be consuming at home? (Or is this just too much of an old chestnut?)

  • Ben Oldfield

    I assume this stretch of the A14 runs parallel to the guided busway which is still not finished. Does this mean the busway is being abandoned as it was supposed to reduce congestion on A14. Some one in this area must have a lot of influence to get two controversial projects off the ground.