Written by Lillian Burns, life member of Friends of the Lake District. A journalist by training, she has done spatial planning and transport policy work (on a voluntary basis) for the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), to which Friends of the Lake District is affiliated, for over 20 yearsShe is non-political.

Which of us has not complained when road journeys have been taking longer than we had hoped or we are trapped in a traffic jam? Why can’t this particular road that we happen to be travelling on be ‘improved’ – or that regular bottleneck be bypassed? 

But when we step back and look at the problems from a wider perspective, do we seriously want to re-create a Los Angeles freeway situation everywhere rather than having a high quality landscape (yes, with quirky, winding roads) and a first class public transport system as exists in Switzerland? 

What matters most – conserving the things that make a place special and wonderful or getting from ‘A’ to ‘B’ 10 minutes faster than would otherwise be the case – and probably enduring poor air quality while doing it?   The travelling public have actually pronounced on this time and again.  In survey after survey, they opt for reliability of journeys as their top priority – not time saving.  They simply want to know how long a journey will take so that they can plan their day around it.

Here in Britain, our political terms of four years nearly always cause politicians to focus in on road building as the solution to transport problems because new or expanded roads can usually be delivered faster than major public transport improvements.  But this simply draws us into an increasingly unsustainable spiral of building ever more road capacity to accommodate ever more road trips which we are generating because we are not offering reliable alternatives.  Add to this the scenario where so many local facilities have closed down and an expanded choice of education options over wider areas and there is a perfect storm for generating as many road trips as possible.  (Whatever happened to the concept of sustainable communities?)

However we have got to where we are, we now have a scenario where money and political emphasis is being poured into more roads (again!) while promised rail improvements such as a number of electrification schemes were cut back in the recent Autumn statement.   Meanwhile rural bus services in particular - always the poor relation - have been totally decimated in so many places.

A plethora of road schemes   

Friends of the Lake District is dismayed by the raft of road schemes now being contemplated.

The Northern TransPennine Study that the Department for Transport and Highways England have been running has proved to be little more than a rubber-stamp exercise for progressing moves towards the dualling of the entire A66 and a ‘mini study’ that sprung from it looking at roads to the west of the M6 and led by Cumbria County Council and the Cumbrian LEP has recommended the upgrading of numerous routes.  Friends of the Lake District attempted, on both studies, to introduce the voice of environmental reason but alternative arguments to building more road space were not welcomed.  Added to which the Northern TransPennine Study consultants consistently circulated images to study members that failed to show the National Park extensions despite prompting from Friends of the Lake District. 

The Chancellor gave approval on November 23rd for funding to take forward to the next stage plans to provide a dual carriageway across the whole of the A66 corridor (which won’t necessarily be the same thing as adding a lane to the existing single carriageways and will almost certainly involve some off-line sections) and also to re-build two major junctions on the A69 between Hexham and Newcastle.  Transport consultants and economists are now working up economic/business cases for these proposed road improvements, which we look forward to scrutinising.   How the ‘West of M6’ recommendations will be taken forward remains to be seen.

A common feature of all three strategic road studies in the North of England to date has been the dearth of detailed new evidence to support the opinions of professional transport people who have so far focussed on accumulating past evidence through desktop exercises and making assertions. 

Serving on this and the other two Northern studies - the TransPennine Tunnel Study and the M60 North West Quadrant one - has felt very much like taking a step back to the ‘Roads for Prosperity’ White Paper of 1989.  In announcing a massive road building programme, that White Paper made bold assertions about new roads leading to guaranteed economic prosperity.  The starting point of the strategic road studies was very similar – we are heading in this direction because transport links need to be improved and, if we do this, it will benefit the economy.  (Whatever happened to the much-heralded concept of ‘reducing the need to travel?’)

In the event, after the furore created by ‘Roads for Prosperity’, thinking started to change and the government subsequently accepted two seminal reports from SACTRA - the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment.   One demonstrated that new roads generate extra traffic movements and another showed that, in a developed country such as the UK, there was no automatic connection between new transport infrastructure and economic growth and also that new roads could actually suck a workforce away from an area rather than bring new businesses to it.  It has felt over the last year and a bit, since this latest range of studies commenced, as though everything has come full circle and there has been a determination to forget SACTRA’s findings.   This in addition to environmental NGOs being excluded altogether from the formation of a freight strategy for the north – which was simply launched recently without any consultation.

Friends of the Lake District will be continuing to follow closely what is happening and will report back to members.  In the meantime, anyone interested in catching up with the progress of the Northern TransPennine Route Strategic Study Stage 3 report (or the other strategic studies) can do so at:  https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/road-investment-strategy-post-2020

and the West of M6 mini study report is available at:  http://www.cumbrialep.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/West-of-M6-Strategic-Connectivity-Study-Report-FINAL.pdf