Please, Mr Chancellor, why don't you . . .: 'Independent' contributors make their pleas and suggestions to Kenneth Clarke for tomorrow's Budget: Transport: Speeding down a road to nowhere

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the key Tory manifesto pledges at the last election was the pounds 2bn a year roads programme which, despite mounting pressure on public spending and growing opposition to many schemes, has survived. Spending on roads is at record levels.

But even a conjuror like John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, will find it impossible both to satisfy the wide public support for increased spending on public transport and to continue with the enormous roads programme at its current level.

The Tory love affair with cars and roads is deeply felt and Mr MacGregor repeatedly argues that road-building is immensely popular. He often talks about how, when returning to his Norfolk constituency on a Friday night, 'the roads are full and the trains are empty'.

He will therefore fight cuts in road spending as strongly as Davy Crockett held out at the Alamo. Even the record level of spending, he can argue, still means the present roads programme will not be completed until after 2010 and he is looking for new sources of funding, principally from road tolls and private sector investment.

A combination of public opinion and, more particularly, opposition to road schemes from within Tory ranks, however, may force the Government to change tack. There are many good political reasons to begin slowing the pace of the national roads programme. First, hardly anyone - apart from the powerful roads lobby - would notice. All that would happen is that a few of the 480 schemes in the programme would be postponed. Those already under construction would continue, and any major decisions could be postponed to the major road programme review due to be completed in March.

Second, it would show that the Government had recognised what most people have already noticed - it is impossible to build sufficient roads to cope with the ever-increasing demand. Third, it would appease the many opposition groups that have sprung up to battle against particular bypasses or new roads around the country. More and more Tory MPs are involved in these campaigns - particularly against the widening of the M25 - but there is no immediate parliamentary forum where they use the Government's small majority to push their case.

Already concessions have had to be made on some schemes; sometimes this increases the cost dramatically, so that less cash is available for other projects. Tunnels have been promised at Hindhead Common in Surrey and in the Aire Valley in West Yorkshire to alleviate the environmental impact of new road programmes, the Hereford bypass has been shelved while a more acceptable route is found and the East London River Crossing has been dropped.

Finally, slowing the roads programme would enable the minister to increase spending on public transport. Rail privatisation, which, according to the Labour Party, is already running up at least pounds 200m in administrative costs, will need extra resources to attract the private sector, prevent huge fare rises and fund the massive investment programmes that the rail system needs.

There is another, more fundamental, objection to the money being spent on roads. While the White Paper that underpins the roads programme is called Roads to Prosperity, there is no conclusive proof that roads bring prosperity. John Whitelegg, author of Transport for a Sustainable Future (Belhaven), says: 'If roads brought prosperity, some parts of the country well served by motorways - like Warrington, the area near Bristol around the M4/M5 intersection and Birmingham - would be the most affluent in the country. In fact, surveys show that for firms seeking to relocate, transport links are a relatively low priority . . .' Mr Whitelegg adds: 'It may be that roads do stimulate the local economy and reduce unemployment, it may be that they don't, but no one knows.'

Although a cost-benefit analysis is undertaken on each scheme, the 'benefits' are calculated in terms of time gained by motorists using the new road, which is then translated into money, an arbitrary process open to uncertainty and guesswork. Moreover, as last week's National Audit Office report on motorway widening showed, the final price of new roads is often twice the estimate, so the cost-benefit analysis can be wildly wrong. By then, though, the road is built.

Not only is there no sound economic basis for the massive roads programme, but Britain cannot cope with any more roads without becoming an island of asphalt. None the less, people want to move about more and more. The average person, according to recent transport statistics, travels 6,475 miles per year, a 20 per cent increase over five years. Most of that mileage is by car and traffic is forecast to increase further by between 20 and 40 per cent by the end of the century.

According to opinion polls, people want both a more pleasant environment and better public transport, but many admit, paradoxically, that they would not use it. The Government needs to examine why people need or want to move about so much and consider how to restrain the growth or divert people on to public transport.

The Department of the Environment is making some progress here. Planning guidance is being issued that discourages out-of-town shopping developments on green-field sites, a real catalyst for the growth of car use. As William Sheate, transport campaigner with the Council for the Protection of Rural England, put it: 'The irony of the DoT trying to push through its pounds 23bn overall roads programme while the Department of the Environment attempts to catch a train in the opposite direction has not been lost to the rest of the country'.

The public's desire to have its cake and eat it is understandable. There are essentially three options: build more roads, impose widespread road pricing or do nothing. It will take some courage for a Tory government to try to restrict the use of the private car. Unfortunately, if the roads programme is cut this week, it will be for lack of money, not because it has been realised that concreting over the whole of Britain is unacceptable.

Christian Wolmar, Transport Correspondent.

(Photograph omitted)

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