Leading Article: Top speed, but without a map

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AT FIRST sight, the announcement of a new executive agency to manage the Government's huge roads programme and of steps to reduce planning delays looks like another tribute to the power of the roads lobby: everything possible, it suggests, is being done to push through a programme seemingly invulnerable to the Government's search for expenditure cuts. On closer inspection, the setting up of the new agency should help to free the department's ministers to concentrate on what really matters: devising and implementing a coherent strategic transport policy.

Such a policy would seek to allocate resources between road, rail and other modes of transport in a manner consistent with overall public needs, not solely those of the motorist, and give high priority to environmental factors. Unlike present policy, it would not assume that an increase in the volume of road traffic should automatically trigger an increase in road building. To the contrary: it would establish the principle that roads are, for powerful environmental reasons, a finite rather than a limitless resource, for which demand must be controlled.

Of such thinking there was not a trace in yesterday's announcement by John MacGregor, aside from a mention of the possibility of eventually charging for motorway use. In the customary missionary terms it hymned the speeding up of delivery of the ' pounds 23bn road-building programme' that the package of measures is intended to produce. Yet there is little point in improving the quality of management and speeding up planning procedures if the resulting roads will, on balance, do more harm than good. The days are gone when new roads were considered to be overwhelmingly in the public interest. The back yard from which the Nimbyists want them kept grows ever larger. The potential destruction of sites of outstanding beauty or environmental importance, such as Twyford Down and Oxleas Wood, has become a national rather than a merely local issue. The potentially self-defeating nature of road building, or widening, is accepted by anyone who has travelled on the M25 in a busy period.

It is increasingly recognised, too, that by-passes and new motorways can help to drain the commercial lifeblood from city centres by attracting out-of-town supermarkets and shopping malls: even official planning guidance shows a shift towards strengthening city centres, reducing sprawl and questioning the desirability of out-of-town malls and supermarkets.

Across Europe there is a sea-change in attitudes as the incompatibility of society's insatiable demands with a tolerable environment and use of natural resources becomes apparent. Even John Gummer, in his newish guise as Environment Secretary, has dedicated his department to the cause of sustainable development and environmentally sensitive growth.

A Department of Transport from which a high proportion of managerial functions (including regulation and inspection) has been hived off will be able to concentrate on two main activities: international negotiations on transport matters, including aviation and maritime transport; and strategic planning. In Britain and across Europe, transport policy is the focus of an often passionate public debate. It is one of which Mr MacGregor appears unaware.