Leading Article: Road-building review needs a broad vision

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The Independent Online
THE end of the Government's love affair with roads was long overdue, and John Gummer deserves praise for hastening it. Last week he and the Transport Secretary sent new guidelines to local authorities telling them to stop building out-of-town shopping centres and concentrate instead on developing town centres. Shortly they will publish a review of the road- building programme, which is expected to contain significant cuts and postponements.

If these decisions are built into a coherent strategy, they could have enormous influence over the way we live. One does not have to be a dedicated environmentalist to see how town and country have suffered from incoherent planning and thoughtless surrender to the road lobby.

Unfortunately, the Government's conversion to common sense is not as convincing as it should be. There is no reason to doubt Mr Gummer's personal sincerity. He has come to see that 'the car must become our servant rather than our master'. Putting this belief into language appropriate to his party, he argues that people should have the freedom to choose a lifestyle that does not involve having a car - a freedom that is fast disappearing.

But his apparent victory will look fragile until the Government brings real conviction to its new approach. So far, it has been driven not by a vision of how this country should develop but by Treasury cuts and increasingly powerful demonstrations against large motorway projects, finding itself up against cohorts of solid Tory voters as well as the dedicated 'greens' it thought it could ignore. In one case - the City of London - it has even had to be forced into proper traffic management by the IRA.

It is better to do the right thing for the wrong reason than not to do it at all, but wrong reasons can vitiate results. If the Government is merely trying to save money and propitiate protestors, it will continue to stumble around among conflicting policies. If it truly wants to reduce reliance on the car, it must think more vigorously and coherently about all the related elements, such as public transport, the decline of the small shopkeeper, support for rural community centres and how to create 'urban villages' within the big cities. If it did so, it might find that it could save money on crime and health as well as on roads.