The Royal Commission on Pollution: Road-building policies dealt devastating blow

The Government's road-building policies were dealt a devastating blow by the Royal Commission yesterday, at a time when ministers already have growing doubts about the trunk road and motorway expansion programme.

The report called for a halving of the annual spend on the programme and for drastic cutbacks in plans to strengthen bridges to carry 40-ton lorries.

This follows a cutback earlier this year after a review of the trunk roads programme.

The commission's much more radical cuts would, it says, save pounds 1.5bn a year, to be spent on less environmentally destructive forms of transport - rail, bus and trams as well as improved cycling facilities. Investment in public transport should almost double to pounds 2.5bn a year over the next 10 years.

The whole concept of centralised control of the nation's most important routes - the trunk roads and motorways - is questioned. The commission wants local councils to have far more say in deciding if new major roads should be built or existing ones widened.

The Department of Transport should always have to demonstrate that building any major new road was 'the best practicable environmental option', superior to alternatives or measures which reduce the demand for road travel. It recommends much stricter planning policies which should prevent any future 'Twyford Downs', where prized landscapes and wildlife sites are damaged by road building.

The commission recommends that where a long-distance route is severely congested because of local traffic, some exits and entrances should be closed off permanently or at peak times as an alternative to widening or building an alternative route.

And if motorway tolling is introduced, any surplus remaining after the costs of motorway maintenance have been met should be invested in public transport rather than in further road-building.

Professor Richard Macrory, a commission member and an expert on environmental law, said the Department of Transport was 'drinking in the last chance saloon'.

Members had considered whether it should be merged with the Department of the Environment. But it had decided that now the department has set up a separate Highways Agency to deal with road building, it should be given the chance to demonstrate that it could broaden its outlook. Noise from major roads can be heard up to six miles away, said the commission chairman, Sir John Houghton, a former Met Office director. The report calls for more extensive use of quieter road surfaces such as 'whisper concrete' and sound- absorbing barriers, and for the proportion of recycled material (rubble, road scrapings and mineral waste) used in road construction and maintenance to be doubled by 2005.

The commission wants the Government to investigate the potential for more vehicles to be squeezed on to motorways using automated guidance systems which keep all cars and lorries a safe distance from each other at high speeds.

Members said they want Government to publish an expert report which argues that building new roads increases the amount of car and lorry mileage rather than relieving congestion and meeting unsatisfied demand. The report by the Standing Committee on Trunk Road Assessment has been with Department of Transport ministers for months, and even the commission was not allowed to see it.

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