Editorial: Chancellor takes a wrong turn

The 'greenest government ever' ought to be doing its best to get the most out of existing roads
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The Independent Online

"Fix It First" is the name of a $50bn (£32bn) programme of road and bridge repairs announced by President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address at the start of this year. It was based on the simple idea that repairs would stimulate the economy more quickly than building new roads, railways or airports. Work on repairs can start straight away, without going through planning and consultation stages, and will employ mainly low-skilled workers, while the benefits of free-flowing traffic are immediate.

So why is George Osborne so wedded to announcing new road-building in this country? He has done it in his last two Budgets, and, as we report today, he is intending to unveil yet more major road schemes in his Spending Review next month. He wants new lanes on the A1 and a new toll motorway to take traffic off the M4. Those are, we suggest, the wrong priority.

This is not simply because clearing the £10.5bn backlog of pothole repairs would be faster and more effective in increasing economic activity. There are three other reasons why The Independent on Sunday thinks patching up our pockmarked roads makes more sense than building new ones.

Overall, road use has been falling for the past five years. This is a consequence of the recession, probably with an element of the growth of shopping on the internet. So even those people who struggle with the apparent paradox that building new roads creates more traffic should be able to grasp that additional capacity is not where new resources should used first.

Second, a model of economic growth built on permanently rising road traffic is an environmentally flawed one. The "greenest government ever" ought to be doing its best to get the most out of the existing road network, rather than adding to it. Road traffic may not be the greatest source of carbon emissions, but there is no need to build over more green countryside to add to them.

Third, it is worth noting that there is one group of people that suffers more from potholes than car users and that is cyclists. It is cyclists who swerve into the road to avoid the ones they see and who go head-first into the ones they don't. If we want to encourage cycling, filling in the potholes is a priority. And if we want to encourage walking, a form of exercise on the wane, as we also report today, we do not need to build new roads.

The "Fix It First" programme in America is not just about roads and bridges, though. Surprisingly, for the original car-based civilisation across the Atlantic, the programme there includes spending on public transport. Again, this is sensible, and spending on buses, light railways and rail improvements puts people to work and produces economic benefits of connecting people and businesses more quickly than huge infrastructure projects such as High Speed 2, which isn't even planned to be finished until 2033.

The road schemes that Mr Osborne either has announced or intends to announce may not take until 2033 to complete, but they will take years. It is in the Chancellor's electoral interest, therefore, to put resources that are available into unglamorous repairs rather than prestige projects.

Mr Osborne once complained that Labour failed to "fix the roof while the sun was shining". As the sun is shining today, perhaps he should think of the transport system as a roof. Our message to him is: fix it first.