Environmentalists claim ‘green’ road makeover is camouflage for new roads programme

Environmentalists have claimed that technological measures announced by the Highways Agency to lessen the environmental impact of roads and motorways disguise the fact that the UK Government is speeding up its road building programme.

As part of its new environment strategy (see related story), The Highways Agency recently announced that the UK’s motorways are to be kitted out with environmentally-friendly tunnels, plastic-coated bridges, reduced glare lighting and quieter road surfaces.

But Roger Higman, senior atmosphere and transport campaigner at Friends of the Earth (FoE) claims that such measures divert attention from the fact that the Government has given the go-ahead for 13 trunk road improvement schemes to start in England in 2000/01. Six of these had previously been scheduled for 2001/02 and at least one, Higman says, could cause serious environmental damage. “The Government has been trying for some years to make roads less environmentally offensive,” Higman told edie. “What is significant is that the Government is now gearing up for an increase in investment in road building. Proposals for six new roads were announced on January 31 and one of these will ruin one of the UK’s finest SSSIs – the Bingley South Bog in Yorkshire. The Government obviously expects some controversy, but the new ‘green’ measures are not going to make a blind bit of difference. Local communities affected by road building tend to be very dismissive of attempts to beautify roads. What the locals want is a policy that doesn’t involve bulldozing large parts of the countryside.”

The Highways Agency, the government agency responsible for managing the UK’s road network, has said it will tackle the problem of phosphorescent glow from motorways by introducing new lamps, which can only be seen by motorists. Other ‘green’ measures include the use of ‘whisper concrete’ to reduce the noise made by traffic; and the use of a glass-reinforced polymer to prevent the corrosion of metal beams used to build motorway bridges.

The new lamps are 30 per cent brighter than traditional road lamps but produce a more natural colour than the orange sodium lighting currently used on motorways, the Agency says. They work by directing a narrow beam straight down on to the road rather than onto the surrounding countryside and into the sky.

Motorway traffic noise could also be reduced with the use of ‘whisper concrete’. This new road-surfacing material is likely to replace hot-rolled asphalt. It cuts down the noise pollution from the thud of rubber on tarmac by at least four decibels and works by reducing the impact between the tyre tread and the road surface.

Meanwhile, the Agency boasts that The Royal Fine Arts Commission has “given its approval to the aesthetic appeal” of some new highways materials, including a new plastic bridge coating.

The Agency adds that in the future, roads are likely to be more concealed to minimise their visual and polluting effect on the environment. The A27 Brighton bypass at Southwick, for example, was built in tunnels through the Sussex Downs, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, thus protecting the landscape, the Agency says.

Highways Agency’s view is that some road building projects are necessary, but must be carried out while implementing the standards set out in their environmental strategy. “The environmental strategy must be taken on board for all future and existing work, including the new schemes,” a Highways Agency spokesperson told edie. In fact, the environmental strategy is independent of the new road building programme, and must be applied to small schemes as well as multi-million pound schemes. Environmental considerations are integral to what we do.”

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