Minister aims to put a price on tranquillity

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The Independent Online

Transport Correspondent

What is the value of fresh air or the price of peace and quiet? For the first time, research is being undertaken to try to assess the value of the elusive concept of quality of life.

Until now, no attempt has been made to assess the value of the environmental impact of transport but yesterday the Secretary of State for Transport, Sir George Young, launched research to try for the first time to put a precise price on environmental damage as it affects people near road schemes. The study will try to calculate, for example, what an extra decibel of noise or a measurable increase in air pollution is worth. Previously, the department has shied away from such work knowing that it would be a major weapon for opponents of road schemes at public inquiries.

In a review of existing work in this field, the department found that some values had already been suggested for certain aspects of pollution.

For example, researchers suggested that an extra decibel of noise in a year should be costed at between pounds 5.50 and pounds 10 per year. This is worked out from calculations of house prices on noisy streets compared with those on quiet streets nearby, which have suggested that there might be a 0.74 per cent fall in price per decibel increase in noise. Estate agents already use a rule-of-thumb system in subtracting a percentage of their price estimate for homes on busy roads.

The use of such information could have a substantial impact on road schemes, and might make the difference between schemes proceeding or being scrapped.

Another survey suggests that a reduction in particulates, the tiny specks of dust emitted by engines, especially diesels, by one microgram per cubic metre should be costed at between pounds 5.75 and pounds 17.25 per year. Annual average levels in the United Kingdom are of 20-30 micrograms per cubic metre in large urban areas.

Other factors which it might be possible to assess range from global warming and use of land for roadbuilding to potential risks of oil spillage, aesthetic damage to landscape and even the killing of wild animals.

Sir George endorsed the approach of the work but said he could not, as yet, agree with the precise amounts ascribed to particular aspects of damage. Little assessment of the environmental damage of road schemes is currently taken account of in the cost-benefit analysis, which environmentalists have argued skews the equation in favour of building schemes.

Stephen Joseph, of Transport 2000, the group supporting public transport, said the timing of the research was interesting: "The Government is just about to make massive cuts in the roads programme and these sort of calculations will make roadbuilding look even less attractive from an economic point of view."