“Investing in Britain’s future”: The zombie arguments rise again.

Yes, the Chancellor’s much awaited Comprehensive Spending Review has indeed been disastrous for sustainable transport. The possibilities for alternatives to increased dependency on cars and road freight recede. It has indeed been as dreadful as commentators like Campaign Better Transport   say it is, with an excellent summary by Carlton Reid here . Let’s see why:

As you should know by now, the key phrase in the document is the commitment “to the biggest programme of investment in roads since the 1970s”. It’s all there: 

treble annual investment in major road schemes by 2020-21, compared to today’s levels, by:

* adding extra lanes to the busiest motorways.

*building all available Highways Agency road projects to tackle the most congested parts of the network.  

* identifying and funding solutions to tackle some of the most notorious and longstanding road hot spots in the country,

*upgrading (sic) the national non-motorway network.

We are back to Mad Car Disease and the need to go over all the arguments against the supposed need for increasing capacity for more motor vehicular traffic.

 Is it really that bad?…

Now, some commentators have argued that this is just about the strategic network and won’t affect sustainable transport projects supported by local funding tranches. But it will.

Firstly, there is no way that we can proceed down the old route of building more and more road capacity for motor vehicular traffic without increasing car (and road freight) dependency. Apart from the adverse global and local environmental impacts associated with this, we would restrict sustainable and healthy modes of active travel to isolated pockets. Car culture becomes more entrenched. The possibilities for effectively challenging “road safety” ideology and other features of this culture recede.

Secondly, Local budgets for sustainable transport, including some of the Integrated Transport Block and funds previously given via the Local Sustainable Transport Fund, are now going to be folded into a single pot controlled by the 39 Local Enterprise Partnerships. My understanding is that this can be spent on housing and education. Outside London, this means no guaranteed funding for greener transport – and the record for specific local sustainable transport funding is hardly that impressive. (There is one bit of welcome local ringfenced funding – for highway maintenance – but that’s all)

Thirdly, the mooted £1 billion Office for Active Travel is now nowhere to be seen.

 I mean, really that bad?…

It’s interesting to look at how the mainstream press have reported this. The main criticism – echoing that of Labour – is that there is very little extra money to be spent. This is summed by the Guardian: But don’t pretend that this is much more than a welcome catch-up necessitated by the fact that ministers fell for their own propaganda that the consolidation would be working by 2013. Mr. Alexander’s announcements are better than what came immediately before, but his pretence that this was some sort of Roosevelt-style New Deal for Britain was a spin too far and an insult to the intelligence.”

But that’s not the point. Proceeding further down the car dependency path and refusing to support active travel with ringfenced funding is disastrous. For the Guardian to say “Bring it on” is quite wrong.

In a similar vein, the usually critical Paul Mason on BBC Newsnight claimed that without this money going into the motorway system “by 2040 the whole network will grind to a halt”.

Of course, all this involves the thrust for attracting private investors (see page 8). Perhaps if cycling and walking schemes cost far more money for the country – like motorways and high speed rail  – rather than saving it, the Government might be a bit more interested in active travel…

Naturally, as Campaign for Better Transport point out, not all of the major road schemes that could have been funded have been highlighted – but it is still a major financial commitment being made in an age of austerity, with that headline phrase the biggest programme of investment in roads since the 1970s. And, with pressure, the Office for Active Travel may reappear.

And that pressure will be required. Since nothing seems to have been learned from the protests of the past, we will have to go and slay the undead road building projects and the ideas on which they are based again.  Until they start, no doubt, shambling about one more time.

Kick off on Saturday 12th July when a number of organisations, including the Campaign for Better Transport, will be staging Roads to Nowhere   – a national rally against road-building to be held at Crowhurst in East Sussex.

Update 29th June: Also see this and this

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