Back on the straight and narrow

The decision to drop plans to widen part of the M25 to 14 lanes has fuelled the debate on the Government's transport priorities, writes Christian Wolmar. But are the Conservatives, or even Labour, up to the task of reformulating policy?

Yesterday's announcement that the Government is dropping plans to widen part of the M25 to 14 lanes marks the end of a transport policy that stretches back to the early days of motoring. It had hitherto been axiomatic that more roads were needed to cater for the growth in traffic. No matter what damage they caused, or what stood in their way, roads had to be built to accommodate the cars and lorries that were flooding on to the roads.

No more. It is ironic that almost as soon as this policy reached its apogee, the seeds of its doom were already being sown. The national roads programme, consisting of 330 schemes for trunk roads and motorways, was first set out in 1989 in a thin little White Paper called Roads to Prosperity. Written in the "boom, boom, Britain" style of the Lawson "economic miracle", it set in train a massive roadbuilding programme, promising that spending would double to reach £2bn per year. And it was predicated on the notion that traffic was forecast to increase by between 83 per cent and 142 per cent between 1988 and 2025.

Yet, almost as soon as this policy was being drawn up, the transport planners began to realise, studying these traffic growth forecasts, that building sufficient roads to cope with the congestion crisis was simply not viable. They calculated that even on the best estimates, with every planned road being built on time, the amount of congestion would still go up. All this money and effort was being put into a policy that might, at best, stop things from getting worse quicker.

Phil Goodwin, head of Oxford University's transport studies unit, says it has now become apparent that "no realistic trunk road programme can keep pace with forecast traffic growth, on current trends". This means that the supply of road space is not going to expand in line with demand and we have to examine other options.

For a while the Department of Transport - often called the ministry for roads by critics - turned a blind eye to the growing academic evidence and sought to plough on regardless. The idea for widening the M25 to 14 lanes was mooted almost as soon as the road was completed in 1986. It was disguised somewhat as the extra lanes were to be called "link roads" for use by local traffic, but the local protests were immediate and vociferous. What made it unpalatable for the residents was that they had been promised the M25 would solve all their traffic problems and now, within a couple of years of its completion, they were facing the prospect of yet more concrete.

By the time the scheme for the link roads had been published in preparation for the public inquiry, attacks on the roadbuilding programme were coming from many different directions. The "respectable" end of the environmentalist movement, such as Friends of the Earth and the Council for the Protection of Rural England, were finding that their lobbying efforts were being backed by a growing guerrilla wing. There were highly publicised protests at Twyford Down, east London (M11), Glasgow (M77) and Bath (A36). They comprised a dangerous cocktail of young activists and local residents, the latter, in many cases, representing a typical cross-section of Middle England. And once Middle England had turned against roads, it was inevitable that the Government's enthusiasm for the programme would wane.

But ranged against Middle England, there is the construction and roads lobby, a powerful paymaster of the Tories and a strong influence on their policy. That is why Dr Brian Mawhinney has tried to avoid making his decision look like a climbdown and has refused to acknowledge publicly the consequences of what he has announced. For not only will the 14-lane M25 never see the light of day, but the whole concept of widening motorways with link roads is sure to be scrapped. Britain will not get US-type multi- lane swathes of concrete covering vast areas of the countryside and similar schemes across the country will now be quietly dumped because they are equally politically unpalatable.

Despite Dr Mawhinney's caution, the importance of yesterday's decision cannot be overstated. In simple demand terms, the argument for the road was virtually irrefutable. The part of the M25 in question, between the M4 and the M3 in Surrey, is the busiest stretch of motorway in Britain, with up to 200,000 cars a day and traffic often at a standstill. If it is impossible to justify such a widening of the busiest motorway in the country because of the resulting environmental damage, how many other road schemes are now equally vulnerable? Dr Mawhinney had, in fact, being trying to announce the scrapping of the link roads for some time, but, according to a senior Conservative source, "He needed to find the right form of words that wouldn't scupper the whole roads programme."

The roads programme has also been steadily undermined by a shifting consensus among transport planners and economists. Increasingly, they have been questioning whether investment in roads helps the country's more remote regions. Last year, the department's own committee on measuring the benefits of roadbuilding, Sactra, reported that building new roads in itself generates further traffic, thereby undermining the case for building them in the first place.

The Treasury, needless to say, has been delighted by this reassessment. Its officials have even resorted to ringing up environmental groups to obtain arguments against the roads programme. It showed its teeth in the last Budget by chopping £200m per year off the programme for each of the next three years, to bring it well below the £2bn figure promised in the 1992 Conservative manifesto.

The pro-roads lobby is dismissive of alternative solutions to the congestion crisis. But evidence from the rest of Europe shows that they can work. Both German and French railways report increases in the amount of freight being carried on rail. In urban areas, comprehensive solutions such as those in Zurich, where there has been major investment in public transport, or in Copenhagen, where roadbuilding schemes were dropped in favour of measures to increase cycling, have been successful.

As Dr Mawhinney has now realised, it is no longer an option just to throw money at the roadbuilders and hope that they can solve the congestion crisis. In fact, roadbuilding in towns was effectively abandoned some years ago. Now, as the M25 decision indicates, it is becoming equally difficult to build roads around towns and yesterday's announcement essentially spells the end for suburban motorways.

Mr Goodwin suggests a number of ways by which to reduce road demand. Road tolling is an obvious example. Another is better engineering and design, perhaps cutting off some junctions on motorways to discourage local traffic. Legal restrictions could be introduced, such as forcing 40-ton lorries to stick to motorways which would be tolled, thereby reducing their effect on other roads.

We are in the midst of a widely welcomed transport debate which was launched by Dr Mawhinney last year. He has made a series of speeches asking a number of basic questions about transport priorities. He has raised issues such as setting targets for traffic levels which have previously been a taboo topic in transport circles. Labour has so far been relatively silent, content to snipe at whatever the Tories do. It has, for example, set its face against road tolling, which most transport experts suggest would be a vital component of any coherent transport strategy for the 21st century.

The partial scrapping of the M25 widening means we are entering the foothills of a new transport policy. Whether either the Tories or Labour have the imagination or courage to take us up the mountain is another matter.

Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
Arts and Entertainment
tvExecutive says content is not 'without any purpose'
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
News
London is the most expensive city in Europe for cultural activities such as ballet
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
tv
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Manager - Central London - £45,000-£55,000 + bonus

£45000 - £55000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: The focus of this is to deve...

Application Support - Enterprise Java, SQL, Oracle, SQL Server

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A well-established financial soft...

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape