Experts say the unsayable: new roads are not always good for the economy

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For years, the notion that new roads bring employment to isolated parts of the country has been virtually unchallenged by the Government.

But, says Randeep Ramesh, Transport Correspondent, a report by influential ministerial advisers has said the unsayable: more roads do not mean more jobs.

An obscure but important committee of academics, the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment (Sactra), warned that the benefits of new road links may often be "misplaced".

The argument, used mainly by local authorities when lobbying for new highways, was also questioned by Gavin Strang, the transport minister, who said that building new roads would not solve traffic problems.

For years, many academics have argued that funding huge road programmes would not have a detrimental effect on local economies.

The Council for the Protection of Rural England produced a report in 1993 which questioned Cornwall County Council's request to "catch up with the rest of the country in terms of more roads".

One Sactra committee member pointed out that improvements to the A38 in Cornwall had certainly increased access but had not noticeably produced jobs in the county.

John Whitelegg, professor of environmental studies at John Moores University in Liverpool, also produced a report a year later that looked at whether employment rates matched road building.

"I found there was no correlation," said Prof Whitelegg.

"In East Anglia I looked at Kings Lynn, which had no new roads but performed very well. Whereas the M65, which linked Burnley, Nelson and Colne to the M6, had not seen new jobs created."

The report - which is an interim statement from Sactra - also states that there is "scope to achieve some reduction in national traffic volumes through traffic restraint measures which will at the same time improve economic efficiency".

This measure is also echoed by a report by Phil Goodwin, a transport expert at University College London, which claims that closing roads can reduce congestion.

Greener authorities - such as York - have promoted car-free city centres as a way of decreasing car use without harming local businesses.

The Liberal Democrats welcomed the report. Matthew Taylor MP, transport spokes- man, said: "Building new roads can suck jobs out of depressed areas rather than helping them, whilst limiting traffic in city urban areas can actually make them more attractive and so encourage economic development."

The Sactra report angered the road-building lobby. "Our research shows clearly the economic benefits of road improvements. The idea that the quality of service on offer from the road network has no impact on national or local economies is a fairly heroic assertion," said a spokesman for the British Road Federation.

According to the RAC, more than 600 communities in Britain want new bypasses.

The Freight Transport Association, which represents 12,000 companies including the major supermarkets, said it had given evidence to the committee that there was a link between jobs and new roads.Geoff Dossetter, a spokesman for the FTA, said: "The one sure way to kill a city centre off is prohibiting the operation of goods vehicles. No goods, no cities."