Is it time to end road building?

Oh what a lovely urban motorway. Image: Getty.

The new Office of National Statistics report on carbon emissions and road transport should be a wake-up call. Despite the pressing need to cut emissions, greenhouse gases from road transport have increased by 6 per cent since 1990.

For decades the main solution to the UK’s congested roads has been to build more. The UK government spends over £10bn on our roads every year, or about 1.2 per cent of all government spending. By any standard that’s a lot of money. And while it has long been obvious that the environmental impact is unsustainable, recent research has weakened the case for road building.

So why are we still building new roads and is it time to stop?

What’s the benefit of more road building?

Building roads is supposed to cut congestion and speed up journeys.

But a review by Highways England published earlier this year found that, overall, dozens of roads were more congested as a result of road building. A 2017 analysis by Campaign for Rural England (CPRE) of 25 road building projects found only five had evidence of any impact.

In the long-term, new road space encourages more journeys by car until the extra capacity is clogged up once again. In fact, the same CPRE review found that road building commonly created congestion on nearby roads, leading to calls for even more road building. 

UK roads have a massive carbon impact

Around 30 per cent of the UK’s carbon emissions come from vehicles on our roads, including 18 per cent just from cars. Road transport emissions have increased in the last 20-years despite improvements in technology – largely because people are driving more.

The mooted cut to fuel duty would only encourage even more car use at a time when we need as many journeys as possible to be made on foot, bike or by public transport.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we have until 2030 to halt climate change. Electric vehicles will help, but not soon enough. The UK government knows this, which is why it has only committed to end the sale of fossil-fuel vehicles a decade later in 2040. The UK Committee on Climate Change has said this will not contribute to keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees.


Invest in cycling and walking infrastructure and a zero-carbon future

There will be billions of pounds available if we stop building new roads. Over 10 years, we could fix the £11.6bn backlog of road maintenance and still have about 90 per cent of the bloated road building budget left each year.

The government could use this money to focus on building safe walking and cycling infrastructure for children to travel to school. In our busy towns and cities, tackling the school run and taking those car trips off the road could have a much bigger impact on congestion.

We should be building protected cycle routes on arterial routes to make cycling a safe and convenient transport mode for millions of people to get to work, the shops and most everyday journeys.

Infrastructure for walking and cycling is a fraction of the cost of roads, but it’s what you get back that matters. A Department for Transport report boasts of a £4 return on investment for every £1 spent on certain major road schemes, but the average return on investment for cycling is £13 for every £1 spent.

We should also put more money into clean, affordable public transport. We need greater investment in low-carbon bus fleets and bus priority infrastructure to make bus travel fast, convenient and green. Continuing the electrification of the railways would also permit faster journeys with lower carbon emissions.

What next?

The severity of the climate emergency means we need system change.

Things might be starting to change in Scotland, where a new National Transport Strategy does away with promoting faster journey times in favour of journey reliability, and declares that transport must contribute to delivering net-zero carbon emissions. The logical conclusion is that building more roads is incompatible.

Separately, an independent review of air quality policy commissioned by the Scottish Government has concluded that national road investment should end in five years and spending on walking and cycling should double to around £30 per head.

The mantra of road building is being challenged by the evidence. It’s time politicians recognised that new roads come at a cost we can no longer afford.

Alex Quayle is senior policy officer at Sustrans.

 
 
 
 

Older people need better homes – but then, so does everybody else

Colne, Lancashire. Image: Getty.

Towards the end of last year, I started as an associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, working particularly on our goal around safe and accessible homes. Before I arrived, Ageing Better had established some ambitious goals for this work: by 2030, we want the number of homes classed as decent to increase by a million, and by the same date to ensure that at least half of all new homes are built to be fully accessible.

We’ve all heard the statistics about the huge growth in the number of households headed by someone over 65, and the exponential growth in the number of households of people over 85. Frustratingly, this is often presented as a problem to be solved rather than a major success story of post war social and health policy. Older people, like everyone else, have ambitions for the future, opportunities to make a full contribution to their communities and to continue to work in fulfilling jobs.

It is also essential that older people, again like everyone else, should live in decent and accessible homes. In the last 50 years we have made real progress in improving the quality of our homes, but we still have a lot to do. Our new research shows that over 4 million homes across England fail to meet the government’s basic standards of decency. And a higher proportion of older people live in these homes than the population more generally, with over a million people over the age of 55 living in conditions that pose a risk to their health or safety.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to ensure all our homes meet a decent standard. A small number of homes require major and expensive remedial work, but the overwhelming majority need less than £3,000 to hit the mark. We know how to do it. We now need the political will to make it a priority. Apart from the benefits to the people living in the homes, investment of this kind is great for the economy, especially when so many of our skilled tradespeople are older. Imagine if they were part of training young people to learn these skills.


At a recent staff away day, we explored where we would ideally want to live in our later lives. This was not a stretch for me, although for some of our younger colleagues it is a long way into the future.

The point at which the conversation really took off for me was when we moved away from government definitions of decency and accessibility and began to explore the principles of what great homes for older people would be like. We agreed they needed light and space (by which we meant real space – our national obsession with number of bedrooms as opposed to space has led to us building the smallest new homes in Europe).

We agreed, too, that they needed to be as flexible as possible so that the space could be used differently as our needs change. We thought access to safe outdoor space was essential and that the homes should be digitally connected and in places that maximise the potential for social connection.

Of course, it took us just a few seconds to realise that this is true for virtually everyone. As a nation we have been dismal at moving away from three-bed boxes to thinking differently about what our homes should look like. In a world of technology and factory building, and as we build the new generation of homes we desperately need, we have a real chance to be bold.

Great, flexible homes with light and space, in the places where people want to live. Surely it’s not too much to ask?

David Orr is associate director – homes at the Centre for Ageing Better.