1986 was the year of car dependence. Thirty years on, have politicians learned nothing?

Another happy day on the M25. Image: Getty.

Anniversaries are big news: the media like them because they offer pegs for rehashing previous news stories and, sometimes, reflecting on the past. But recent weeks have seen a couple of 30th anniversaries that the media have more or less ignored, but which had profound consequences for the way we travel.

First, there was 29 October 1986, the day the M25 opened in its entirety. The then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher performed the opening: there are pictures of her on an otherwise deserted motorway, a practical illustration of the “Great Car Economy” that she praised in later speeches.

The new motorway had taken over a decade of planning and construction, and the M25’s origins went back much further still, to post war planning for London and the surrounding South East. Latterly, it had been one of three Ringways, orbital motorways around or in London, and the only one that was finished. These were supposed to solve London congestion and respond to rising car ownership and use. The same thinking led, in 1989, to a government road building programme, described by the then Transport Secretary as “the biggest road programme since the Romans”.

But in fact, the M25 became a by-word for traffic jams. Rather than acting as the “bypass for London”, it generated lots of local traffic, spurred in part by developments around it, like the Lakeside Shopping Centre in Essex. Extra lanes were added in the 1990s, but traffic, and therefore congestion, increased alongside those extra lanes.

The M25 became an illustration of a truth, increasingly accepted during the 1990s and 2000: that it’s not possible to build your way out of congestion, because road building simply generates traffic. When the Labour Government came to power in 1997, it scaled back the road programme and commissioned a series of “multi-modal studies”, including one for the M25. The main consultant on that study described widening the M25 as being like “digging a ditch in a bog”, and recommended forms of road charging or traffic restraint instead.


All of these lessons appear to have been forgotten. We are back to an era of road building, with a widespread belief that it’s possible to meet demand for road use by building and widening roads. The “predict and provide” forecasts and models that justify road building, based on extrapolating past trends, are still in place, despite noises about moving to a range of scenarios instead. There is serious talk of double-decking the M25 to cope with future traffic growth, especially around Heathrow with its proposed third runway. Issues of air quality and climate change are ignored, because of a belief - one not founded in any serious research - that by 2040 all cars will be electric, and possibly driverless too.

The second anniversary came just a day later: on 30 October 1986, bus services outside London were deregulated. This was supposed to reverse previous declines in bus use; but if anything, it accelerated it. “Bus wars” broke out on various city streets, as rival companies raced to pick up passengers. Integrated ticketing and low fares policies, like that adopted by South Yorkshire Council, disappeared. 

Gradually the industry consolidated, and indeed has invested in new buses and on upgrading the offer on key routes. However, the industry's focus on “commercial” profitable routes has effectively prohibited the cross-subsidisation of council-subsidised, unprofitable ones as well as evening and weekend services. This, alongside local council cuts, has meant a near-total disappearance of socially necessary services in some areas. 

These two days in 1986 saw two major events that together massively increased people’s dependence on cars as the only way to get around. Buses became less useful and attractive as an alternative to cars for many journeys; government investment became focused on roads, especially for local transport outside the big cities.

These plans were combined with a deregulation of the planning system. Nicholas Ridley, the architect of bus deregulation as Transport Secretary, moved on to the Department of the Environment and on appeal allowed through a large number of car-based out of town shopping centres and housing developments. The abolition of the metropolitan county councils and the Greater London Council, also in 1986, furthered weakened attempts to link land use and transport planning.

Some of these decisions are now being reversed. The creation of an elected mayor for London, with Transport for London as a co-ordinating and planning authority, is seen generally as a success, and next year there will be elections for mayors for some other city regions, like Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and Merseyside. A new Bus Services Bill will give these mayors powers to franchise bus services in their area, reversing bus deregulation and creating new and stronger partnerships between councils and bus operators.  New sub-national transport bodies like Transport for the North are being created, too.

But we still require a framework for providing and investing in alternatives to car travel rather than simply adding lanes to roads and tackling “pinch points”, which usually just moves traffic jams elsewhere. Until the lessons from the M25 have been fully learned, we will continue to suffer from the 1986 transport and planning deregulation, and the congestion, pollution and car dependence that it has brought.

Stephen Joseph is executive director of the Campaign for Better Transport.

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The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.