There have been many gibes made about David Cameron’s desire back in 2010 to lead the ‘greenest government ever.’ However, if his detractors needed additional evidence of the failure of this grand plan to bring about concerted change, they need look no further than roads policy emanating from the Department for Transport.
Spurred on by Chancellor George Osborne – who reportedly told officials that “this is a pro-road Government” – and pushed strongly by Treasury insiders, the 2013 Spending Review announced plans for the biggest ever upgrade of our strategic road network.
This is no small undertaking. The Government’s new roads strategy – a £28 billion investment in roads for 2015-2021 – sees, in their own words, a “tripling of investment from today’s level to over £3 billion by 2020/21”.
For many, this drive to upgrade Britain’s road network sounds a perfectly timed solution. With an existing system many drivers would describe as frustrating – legitimately citing pinch points or potholed and damaged roads – this investment could indeed solve a catalogue of problems.
Unfortunately the signs so far are not great, particularly for the natural environment. Despite evidence showing the total volume of traffic has remained steady since 2002 and distance travelled by car drivers in England is 7% lower than in 1997, much of the investment is likely to go towards supporting significant road building and expansion. Indeed 52 ‘big road’ projects are waiting to be announced.
Our ancient woods and ancient trees, regularly on the frontline of these types of major infrastructure development are almost certainly set to suffer. Of the six feasibility studies (fast tracked schemes to be unveiled this autumn) we are concerned that five will cause loss or damage to ancient woods and ancient trees.
If recent cases are anything to go by, there are potentially further serious problems ahead via a soon to be created Highways Agency Company. Currently being established by the Infrastructure Bill, the Company will be charged not only with delivering the Road Investment Strategy (RIS), but with handling the environmental implications that it brings with it. So far not a single word of the current Bill addresses these environmental responsibilities or how the Company will be held to account if and when it errs. Significant questions such as how the Company will achieve Government’s ambition of no net loss of biodiversity also remain.
This move to hold decision-making on roads at arms length may well allow the Government to reduce costs while guaranteeing spending on its road building program, but we all should be aware that it will come at a cost. A clear method of environmental oversight specified within the legislation over coming months is a must and we will be working to persuade parliamentarians that this serious omission is addressed as the Bill passes through both Houses of Parliament.
Oliver Newham, Senior Campaigner – Ancient Woodland