New roads to be cut by a third: Review U-turn is victory for campaigners

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The Independent Online
A THIRD of the national road- building programme is to be shelved as the Government gives in to the demands of campaigners.

In what is bound to be seen as a U-turn, the Department of Transport's long-awaited roads review on Wednesday will scrap schemes which have attracted the most vociferous local opposition.

All 400 or so schemes in the national programme are to be put into four categories and the 130 in the bottom two will effectively be put on ice. These two categories will be for schemes that are still considered a priority but for which no money is available, and those which will have 'no priority' nor any prospect of being built for many years.

Category one schemes will be 'accelerated' for immediate or imminent construction while those in number two will be built 'as soon as possible'. The Government is seeking to give priority to trunk route schemes such as the A1, by upgrading to motorway standard.

Some by-passes will be in category one, but new roads that might encourage commuting into towns will be deferred or even dropped.

The categorisation is a clever device for pleasing the anti- roads movement, which has been growing within Tory ranks, and the roads lobby which is backed by many construction companies that contribute to Tory funds.

For the first time, wider criteria, including the effect on the environment, are to be adopted in deciding whether road schemes should be given financial support. At present, schemes are subject to a cost- benefit analysis based on the accumulated time savings of millions of drivers (costed at just under pounds 5 an hour) compared with the cost of a scheme, both over a 30-year time-span. If the savings are greater than the costs, the scheme is considered acceptable for Treasury subsidy.

Now an extra, subjective environmental assessment will be made, partly based - according to a senior Department of Transport source - on whether the scheme will attract bad publicity. A third criterion in assessing schemes will be whether they form part of international trade links, such as roads to the ports; these will be given extra priority.

The Government is to announce that the controversial initial widening of the M25 between junctions 12 and 15 in Surrey will stay in the programme despite the opposition of a group of local Tory MPs. Proposals to widen other sections of the M25 are expected to be dropped.

Few schemes are likely to be dropped from the programme altogether - apart possibly from the environmentally very damaging M12 through Essex which was supposed to be funded from the private sector. No firms have shown any interest.

Ministers will be able to say to the roads lobby that the national programme is almost intact while avoiding the type of damaging publicity that followed battles against protesters at Wanstead, east London, and Twyford Down, Hampshire.

The British Roads Federation, which is supported by many road-building companies, has in fact been preparing its members for a backdown in the face of the pressure from the environmentalists ever since the lengthy campaign by protesters against the M3 extension at Twyford Down.

It was the BRF which pulled the rug under the equally controversial East London River Crossing by suggesting a scheme which did not involve the destruction of the historic Oxleas Wood in south London. Eventually ministers postponed the scheme indefinitely.

The review was announced last August and was presented at first as a means of speeding up the pounds 2bn a year national road-building programme. But John McGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, has been under fierce pressure to rein back some schemes which have been opposed locally.

Geoffrey Lean, page 21