The headline in today’s Daily Telegraph (17th March) reads: ‘Osborne: I will build for Britain’. It follows the Chancellor’s announcement of the proposal to build a new 15,000-home faux ‘garden’ city at Ebbsfleet.
Now, I’m not even going to get started on what I think about this miserable, ill-informed, poorly-conceived and greenly-spun travesty of an idea I don’t think highly of, even in its original UK, Letchworth-style, manifestation. Instead, prompted by the headline, I want simply to reflect on the fact that politicians just can’t resist the lure of building stuff.
Last July, the Government published its ‘Action for Roads’ command paper, which you can still download and read for yourself here. My reading of it was, I confess, hampered by the struggle I faced to get beyond the disjointed foreword by the Rt Hon Patrick McLoughlin, this country’s Secretary of State for Transport, who seems to have a passion for non sequiturs.
Beginning the collection of essentially unconnected statements, the Rt Hon’s first utterance is that: “We need to maximise every one of our economic advantages, and deal with every factor that holds us back if we are to succeed in the global race.” He doesn’t, of course, elucidate these ‘economic advantages’, he just ploughs on to talk about his Government’s commitment (set out in the previous month’s ‘Investing in Britain’s Future’) to indulge in “the biggest-ever upgrade of our existing roads, worth up to £50 billion over the next generation” (comprising some 52 national road projects) that will, apparently, “address some of the most serious problems on our network”. Neither does he expand upon these ‘serious problems’, he just implies, clearly and simply, that spending a shed-load of cash on major roads projects is critical to the UK’s success in the global race.
You may have noticed that the title of this piece is a parody of the final line from 1984’s first Back to the Future film. Doc Brown, referring to how travel has changed in the future (in this case, next year – 2015), says, “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t needs roads”, before his adapted DeLorean car flies away. Not only has this road-less vision not come to pass, the present UK Government seems to think the future of transport is more about roads than it ever was. Quite why this should be is a question I have yet to see convincingly answered by credible or robust evidence. The ‘case’ made by ‘Action for Roads’ is essentially comprised of: fright occasioned by discredited traffic growth predictions; a comparison of spending on roads with other countries; and this Government’s instincts.
These instincts are expressed as kind of a stream-of-consciousness series of statements that attempt to portray road-building as the obvious, common-sense, “It stands to reason” solution to the nation’s transport and growth challenges. To the fore in this simplistic, narrow-focused and frankly patronising assessment of how to go forward are the views of ‘Business’ on the matter; with the emphasis again being on opinion, rather than evidence.
One prominent ‘business leader’, who also happens to be a personal friend of George Osborne, is the bloke who runs the Next chain of clothes shops: Lord Wolfson of Apsley Guise. He’s also someone with a penchant for both road-building and ‘garden’ cities. I touched on some of his previous utterances in the piece I wrote in January 2013, and you can read more about his points of view in this February 2014 article in the London Evening Standard.
In summary, Lord Wolfson believes that “building faster roads creates wealth”. And so, it would seem, does our Government.
I consider that such a take on the relationship between highway construction and the economy is intellectually bankrupt, as well as factually so. This is NOT because I think there should be no more road-building; but because the challenges the country faces require a response that is much more sophisticated than the one that our leaders seem willing to embrace.
Surely, we should be working back from an agreed vision of the country (or city, or society) that we’re trying to achieve, not stumbling towards an unclear future through a series of simplistic grand gestures aimed at solving specific issues. Without the former, we can never be sure that the latter will not create yet more problems. But it seems the latter is rendered more attractive by dint of it being simpler and easier, both to communicate and to do. Wisdom goes out the window when such expediency enters the room.
There is, of course, a body of actual evidence indicating that creating more road capacity is often just as pointless an exercise as digging holes in order to fill them in: a lot of effort and expense for which no-one’s appreciably better off in the long term. But when it comes to major transport infrastructure, the Government’s build, build, build policy seems immune to such rationality. To be clear: I’m happy to be shown convincing evidence of the magic powers of road-building to heal the nation’s economy; it’s just that I haven’t found any yet.
Faith in road-building is a local, as well as national, phenomenon. Earlier this month, the London Evening Standard ran the story of Mayor Johnson’s support for the Hammersmith ‘flyunder’ idea being promoted by Hammersmith and Fulham Council. The story ran alongside images of what a wonderland Hammersmith would become if the nasty A4 and its traffic were magicked away underground (see first picture); and of course the basic idea is hugely attractive. If only it worked. However, despite the fact that Boris calls it “brilliant”, he is short of evidence to back up his assertion that “it adds up”. I fear that, in calling it “the most fantastic scheme”, he’s much nearer the mark; but in the literal, not rhetorical, sense of the phrase.
Again, I’m happy to be shown persuasive evidence of that the scheme’s benefits outweigh the disbenefits, but not even the latest feasibility study commissioned by Hammersmith and Fulham Council sounds very convinced.
Amazingly, the little cartoon (see second picture) is what Hammersmith and Fulham refers to as an ‘infographic’ for the scheme. A less blasé assessment of the proposal can be found in the following blog posts: here, and here.
Sadly, this subterranean version of Wolfson’s flyovers (‘tunnels’ to you and me), is just another expression of the failure to conceive of any future other than that based, more or less, on predicting traffic growth and providing for it. In the same week last July in which ‘Action for Roads’ was published, so too was the report of London’s Roads Task Force; an independent body comprising a wide range of different interests and expertise, that was set up by the Mayor of London to consider how to tackle the challenges facing London’s streets and roads. Visit this for more details.
That the RTF had one of its hands tied behind its back from the outset, is implicit in the first of the report’s ten recommendations: that “The Mayor endorses the vision set out in this report”. In other words, “What we’ve written is conditional on what we think the Mayor will accept”. Thus the report merely repeats, but does not challenge, the statement that “It is estimated that London’s road congestion costs the economy £4bn per year”. It also swallows whole predictions of increased congestion based on traffic growth projections (see third picture). Accordingly, one of the five ’compartments’ in the RTF report’s ‘toolbox’ is ‘Substitute/Relocated/Enhanced Capacity’, with key proposals being the roofing-over or burying of roads.
At one point, the report says that “A core message from the international review undertaken as part of this work is that successful cities… do big, bold things with their roads, for example cover over ring roads and build tunnels…” This isn’t really a ‘core message’, but I fear that the prominence given to it relates to the fact that the Task Force didn’t feel it could recommend more of the one truly “big, bold thing” that London already leads the world in: demand management through road pricing. Simply noting that, by contrast, Boston, Paris and Oslo (at colossal expense and with huge disruption) have accommodated traffic by roofing over big roads or tunnelling, is not persuasive evidence that this is what London should do.
When grown-ups are considering how best to spend massive sums of public money, is it really too much to ask that we should be much, much clearer about what the actual benefits will be?