New government investment in local transport works for and against the environment

The Government has given the green light to nearly 40 new local road schemes, including 14 bypasses, but has also announced new light rail systems and bus-priority lanes, and a massive increase in cycle lanes.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott made the announcement of a doubling of the local transport budget for 2001-2 to £1.3 billion on 14 December. The new plans are part of a five-year £8.4 billion governmental investment in local transport and include several major bypasses, including at Rearsby in Leicestershire, the Chilton bypass in Durham, and another at Rugeley in Staffordshire, as well as 36 other local road schemes. The plans form part of an overall 10 year massive injection into transport spending, announced in July (see related story), but only include proposals for England.

Environmentalists are particularly angered by the announcement of new road schemes in environmentally-sensitive areas, which include:

  • Weymouth Relief Road in Dorset, passing through the Dorset Downs,

    Heath and Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty;

  • Barnstaple Western Bypass in Devon, beside the Taw and Torridge Estuary Site of Special Scientific Interest;
  • Camelford Bypass in Cornwall, crossing the River Camel Special Area

    of Conservation – a European-designated wildlife site;

  • Carlisle Northern Development Route in Cumbria, beside the River Eden and Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site;
  • Nar Ouse Regeneration Route in Norfolk, involving a crossing of the River Nar SSSI

Campaigners, such as Friends of the Earth, point to a government statement in the Trunk Roads Review in 1998, which read that “there will be a strong presumption against new or expanded transport infrastructure which would adversely affect environmentally sensitive sites such as Site of Special Scientific Interest, National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty or National Nature Reserves”. They also say that in its 1998-99 Annual Report, the Government stated that “building more roads will not solve our problems”. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats criticised Prescott’s plans as hypocrisy after his 1997 pledge to reduce the number of car journeys.

Of the overall £8.4 billion to be invested over the next five years, £3 billion is earmarked for road maintenance, £1 billion for road schemes and £4.4 billion going to public transport and integrated transport projects. The new local transport money is split between the road schemes and other transport measures such as improved public transport, bus priority routes, safe routes to school, and traffic calming. The measures includes faster, more reliable bus routes; up to 2,700 schemes to ease traffic congestion; up to 8,200 local road safety measures including 20mph zones outside schools, 120 new and improved park-and-ride schemes and more than 2,500 miles of new cycle routes. In addition, Birmingham is to get two new light rail lines, Tyne and Wear’s Metro network will see a doubling of track capacity on one section, while consideration is being given to five further light rail lines in Leeds.

“Every region is a winner in today’s £8.4bn investment boost,” Prescott said. “This money will make a real difference to everyone, however they travel and wherever they live. This excellent package for local transport reverses years of under-investment.” Prescott said the proposals gave a proper financial balance between roads and public transport, and that all approved road schemes had met tough criteria to assess their environmental impact.

The proposals were supported by the Confederation of British Industry and FirstGroup, the UK’s largest bus operator, which said they gave “the go-ahead for some of the largest bus priority measures we have ever seen”.

Environmental groups are not quite so enthusiastic, however. The Council for the Protection of Rural England says that more than 20 of the new road schemes submitted have not been assessed against the government’s own integrated transport policies, while 10 were “rushed through without adequate public participation”. The organisation described the proposals as “a jackpot for local transport, but also a tinderbox of controversy over possible new roads.”

“The shadow of the bulldozer is looming over some of the UK’s finest

wildlife sites and most attractive countryside,” said Tony Bosworth, Transport Campaigner for Friends of the Earth. “The extra money for public transport and small-scale schemes such as bus lanes and traffic calming is very welcome. But the go-ahead for some very damaging road schemes signals a return to the bad old days. The Tories found that building roads through middle England is a surefire way of losing support. Labour hasn’t taken note of this and seems determined to learn the hard way.”

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