Retreat on roads will incite fresh battles: Christian Wolmar and Nicholas Schoon look at the shift in government thinking in the face of a fierce 'green' campaign

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The announcement expected on Wednesday that a third of the 400 schemes in the national road building programme are to be postponed indefinitely is likely to inspire even further campaigns against environmentally damaging new roads.

Transport ministers will try to portray the announcement as evidence that they have responded to the 'green' lobby. Schemes will be divided into four categories. The 90 in number three (no money available) and the 40 in number four (no priority) are unlikely to be started this decade.

Although the new criteria for determining whether schemes go ahead include an environmental assessment, John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, will refuse to drop important schemes such as the M25 and M62 widening.

Mr MacGregor also has to keep the roads lobby, which includes construction firms that give money to the Tory party, happy. He will argue that few schemes have gone entirely and that the spending level of pounds 2bn a year remains.

John Stewart, spokesman for Alarm UK, the federation of anti- roads groups, said: 'The Department of Transport is still in considerable difficulties. It is schemes like the M25 which are generating the most vociferous opposition, especially from Conservative activists and MPs. Yet, unless the review suggests these new roads may be dropped or the schemes reassessed, the campaigns will continue.'

Mr Stewart said that the pressure groups will be enormously heartened by the shelving of a number of schemes: 'When we have won other victories such as Oxleas Wood, John MacGregor hoped that we would then quietly go away, but the opposite is the case. Every victory makes other groups campaign more strongly.' However, he says the battle will not be won until spending is shifted on to public transport.

The M12 from the M25 to Chelmsford, Essex, which was to have been built with private sector funding, is certain to be shelved. Some of the later M25 widening schemes may also go.

There is a fundamental change taking place in the Government's attitude to road schemes. Both the departments of Transport and Environment now agree, in writing, that it is impossible to meet the rising demand for ever-more road journeys without doing unacceptable damage to the countryside, wildlife, air quality and health. The growth should be discouraged by taxes, tolls and planning that favours public transport. But the review itself was conceived as a way of speeding up the pounds 2bn per year roads programme rather than as a way of creating a more environmentally friendly transport policy.

William Sheate, of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, said: 'Every scheme should be reassessed with the environmental elements weighed properly'.

Under the present system of evaluating costs and benefits of a new road it is 'cheaper' for it to go through wildlife sites or outstanding scenery because these are counted as having no value. Built- up areas or valuable agricultural land makes the scheme notionally more expensive on paper.

The cost benefit analysis system used to justify road expenditure, sets the costs of a scheme against the benefits over a 30-year period. Most of the latter come from time savings for road users, which are deemed to be pounds 4.69 per hour saved.

Letters, page 13

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