Labour plans £6bn road-building scheme

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The Independent Online

The biggest road-building programme since Labour came to power will be unveiled by the Transport Secretary, Alistair Darling, this week, provoking fury from green pressure groups.

Mr Darling will announce a multi-billion-pound strategy to widen many of Britain's largest and busiest motorways, including the M25, M11, M1 and M42, to as many as 12 lanes wide.

But he has rejected demands from the Government's own expert reports, environment campaigners and business groups for tolls or road-pricing to be imposed on widening schemes - particularly on the expected expansion of the M25 to eight lanes.

Several schemes will see dual carriageways driven through key conservation areas and ancient woods such as the new South Downs national park, where the A27 will be widened, and around the High Weald area of outstanding natural beauty for the Hastings bypass - a project Labour originally rejected.

As part of a nationwide programme that could cost up to £6bn, the M42 is expected to be widened to 12 lanes between junctions 3a and 7. Long stretches of the M1 and also of the M60 could be widened to eight lanes.

The schemes are widely expected to provoke a resurgence in road protests similar to the Newbury bypass battle. Stephen Joseph, director of Transport 2000, said: "I predict there will be serious direct action."

Mr Darling's announcement, due on Tuesday or Wednesday this week, will be applauded by drivers' organisations. The RAC Foundation said yesterday that, after years of under-investment, widening the M25 would be "exceptionally positive".

But Mr Darling's advisers, including Prof David Begg, chairman of the Commission for Integrated Transport, have warned that building extra lanes without also charging drivers for using them will fail to cure congestion.

Mr Darling, however, claims that road-pricing technology is not ready and that introducing tollbooths on the M25 is far too expensive. This week he is expected to say that road-pricing is only a long-term goal. He believes that road-pricing, which could involve monitoring 26 million cars, could take up to 20 years to be introduced.

Mr Joseph, a member of Prof Begg's commission, said Mr Darling's decision to widen the M25 without using charges or using traffic lights had ignored his own experts' evidence that building extra lanes did not work.

He said "a central message" of the study on widening the M25 was that in stretches where an extra lane was built, traffic grew by 33 per cent within a year - filling up the extra lane. "This is a recipe for gridlocking the South-east," he said.

A Friends of the Earth spokesman accused Mr Darling of also ignoring his earlier admission that widening would ultimately fail. "This is a triumph of hope over experience. It has always failed in the past and there is no reason to believe that it will work now," he said.

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