Monday 8 July 2013

Roads to nowhere

We've been here before.  Governments at various times in the past have pushed the myth of aggressive road building as the answer to all our economic woes.  Many of us can remember the bitter arguments in the 1990s with the loss of valuable countryside, such as that at Twyford Down.  But here we are again.  The chancellor now proposes to throw over £28 billion of public money at the largest road building programme for half a century.

At a superficial level it seems to make sense.  If we had a bigger road then surely “this” traffic jam wouldn't be here and I could get to work – get products to market – get to the shops or whatever.  But, given a moments thought, it is clear that we can’t just build our way out of the problem.

Bigger roads generate more traffic, the congestion just moves to the next blockage and in practice hold-ups can get worse.  The predicted economic growth rarely materialises. In the process the environment gets severely damaged, greenhouse gas emissions increase and a treadmill develops building an expectation of never-ending growth in transport and so still more roads must be built.  In practice road building becomes a divergence in what should be a far more sophisticated discussion about how we deliver prosperity and well-being in ways that reduce our environmental footprint.

In fact government has less excuse for this approach today than it did in the past.  There is now a huge body of evidence on how the natural environment underpins the health of both society and the economy, and that investment in the natural environment is a cost effective way of addressing many of the UK’s future needs.  Investing in nature offers huge returns, even though those returns are often invisible.  The public value of Forestry Commission woods for example is 20 times the cost of managing the estate.  Other international estimates show that the benefits we get from protected wildlife areas can be 10 to 100 times greater than the cost of protection.  Cost – benefit ratios for roads, on the other hand, seem to have trouble to get much better than 1:1.

The Treasury appears to have conveniently misplaced its own Green Book guidance on assessing economic and environmental benefits.  Road schemes such as the proposed £1 billion extension of the M4 through the Gwent Levels in Wales have little or no economic justification and will cause irreversible damage to wildlife and valuable landscapes.  Instead of supporting the UK’s long-term recovery through investment in rebuilding our natural capital, the Chancellor is concreting over the countryside.  This is not just bad for the environment, its bad economics – bad sums!

Poor planning decisions, for development in general as much as for roads, are inevitable with today’s skew in our value calculations.  Simply by talking about the cost of environmental protection balanced against the benefit of economic regeneration the dice is already loaded against the environment.  The reality is that the environment delivers benefits far greater than the costs and so-called economic regeneration often results in costs that are greater than the benefits.  Get the sums right and then we are more likely to see some sensible decisions.

Earlier this year, an influential business-led Ecosystem Markets Task-force  established by Government, highlighted the “emergence of a new economy: one that fully integrates the real value of nature”.  Government is yet to respond to this but the Chancellor’s position suggests the Government is living in the concrete-led past and not the nature-led future.

In response to this the Wildlife Trusts are joining the Campaign for Better Transport in a rally against road building near Hastings on Saturday 13th July.  See details here.  It is being held on Sussex’s own road building site – the Bexhill to Hastings link road.  The Sussex Wildlife Trust has opposed this for nearly two decades.  It makes no more sense now than it did in the early 1990s.