Friday 28 June 2013

Roadbuilding? In the 1970s, it was a disaster

"The valley is gone and now every fool in Buxton can be in Bakewell in half an hour and every fool in Bakewell in Buxton," said John Ruskin when the viaduct across Monsal Dale in Derbyshire was planned.  

Now the viaduct is preserved and I walked over it myself only last month, so Ruskin perhaps misjudged the situation.

But I did think of his words again when I heard details of the infrastructure spending planned by the government yesterday.  The investment in public transport and green energy is tremendously important, partly because it will create local livelihoods for people long after the bulldozers have gone.  

But you have to wonder about HS2, given that just the contingency costs are more than the entire national arts budget.  And most of all, I have been wondering about the boast that the road-building programme is unprecedented since the 1970s.

For those of us who dimly remember the 1970s, the road programme was a disaster.  It increased traffic exponentially (see my blog about transport theorist Martin Mogridge, who worked out that reducing congestion requires reducing roadspace for cars).  It created congestion.  In urban areas, it blighted and destroyed neighbourhoods.  Reports after the nationwide riots in 1981 said that every area where there had been serious rioting had been blighted by plans for urban motorways.

And if they are just bypasses, or pothole filling - as Danny Alexander put it - then why on earth are they being announced from Westminster, and not devolved to local authorities to decide?

But the real question is the one that Ruskin implies: are there actually any economic benefits to roadbuilding?

Yes, they provide work in the building - but there might be more useful ways of spending the money.  Yes, public transport infrastructure certainly helps regeneration because it allows people to live in areas they felt were too remote before.  Yes, high speed railways take people out of planes, which has to be a good thing.  

But is there any evidence at all - beyond the bogus cost benefit analyses that just add things up and never subtract - that more roads increase wealth.

Because, on the face of it, all they do is increase the wealth of big Just-In-Time systems.  On the face of it, they open up new markets for the big supermarkets, at the expense of local business.  Is there really any evidence that this is new money?  Because, as I see it, most road-building simply re-distributes local business to big business.  It is therefore the very opposite of wealth or growth.  It is what Ruskin called illth.

Far from being proud of the road-building programme of the 1970s, nothing went as far as that did to undermining local autonomy and local knowhow.  It played an important part in making some parts of the nation into helpless supplicants to Whitehall.

Pouring our scarce resources into road-building means betting the exchequer on the idea that we are wealthier when we are more frenetically driving everywhere - which encourages the amalgamation of business and therefore reduces employment.  It encourages the big versus the small.

It is precisely the opposite direction to which we should be going, which is gearing up local entrepreneurs to meet local needs - rather than exposing them to takeover by the big delivery machines.

Or am I wrong?  Send me the evidence (no fatuous cost benefit analyses though) and put me out of my misery.

1 comment:

Gareth Aubrey said...

The point about motorway blight and the 1981 is an interesting one, there's lots of good information on the history of those plans at and