Is it time to rethink unsustainable road expenditure?

View of the A27 in Sussex at night with a queue of traffic.
View from Devils Dyke of A27 by Darren Perrin licensed under CC BY 2.0

Twenty odd years ago, when the Labour Party was in power, the Tories were accusing them of a war on motorists. Yet once the Tories were relieved of the shackles of the Coalition in 2015 it didn’t take long for George Osborne, the then Chancellor, to create the first Road Infrastructure Strategy allowing billions of pounds to be put into motorway and major road building. 

This was followed in 2020 by Rishi Sunak approving an eye-watering £27 bn on the next phase of road expenditure despite the rising costs of dealing with COVID. This is despite the irrevocable change in lifestyle brought about by the pandemic. Many more of us are working remotely and are never likely to return to a full five-day working week of commuting. 

So isn’t it time to rethink the unsustainable road expenditure as it is now no longer necessary, if it ever was, because of recent events?

Here in Sussex, we have a continuation of this Conservative preoccupation with building ‘motorways’ across our beautiful countryside. Seven years ago, in the closing stages of the Coalition Government, the Lewes MP Norman Baker secured £5m for ‘in-line’ improvements to the existing A27 between Polegate and Lewes. This was welcomed by all parties but sadly it took years before the works started. Those works are now just coming to a close.

The delays in getting on with the job of improving the existing road may be due to all the shenanigans that went on after the May 2015 election. In April 2015, ahead of the election, the Conservative candidate (now Lewes MP, Ms Maria Caulfield) published a letter on her website from Chris Grayling, the new Transport Secretary, referring to the A27 where he said: “In the light of your [Maria Caulfield] suggestion I will ask Highways England to provide £3m from the £75m for development of a larger scheme.”  

Transport Network magazine explains the controversy in its May 2017 publication. In 2017, The Eastbourne Herald quoted Ms Caulfield MP saying “The A27 Reference Group has been working hard on a business case to the Government showing the excellent benefits that the county and our economy would see from a dual carriageway A27 from Southerham to Polegate”.

The resulting effect has been that a possible dual carriageway may be included in the government’s ‘phase 3’ road building programme. 

Rishi Sunak’s £27bn 

Following the approval of £27bn for road building for ‘RIS2’ in 2020 National Highways is now preparing the route strategies for ‘RIS 3’ for the period 2025 to 2030 and beyond, which will cover the building and adaptation of motorways (if they get their way!) and trunk roads in England. We don’t know how much money will be allocated by the government to National Highways but the potential list is quite long so it may even exceed the already allocated £27bn!   

It is very likely a major dual carriageway ‘motorway style’ road will be included in RIS3 for a road from Lewes to Polegate across the countryside and through rural villages. The RIS3 ‘strategy’ is likely to get approval in 2023 if the government continues with their major investment programme in road infrastructure. The next general election in the UK is in May 2024 and it’s likely that National Highway will have the RIS3 funds before then. 

More research is needed to find out what the total bill is for road construction and maintenance in the UK as the above figures are for England only and don’t include roads in cities and metropolitan areas or in the county council areas for A and B roads along with all side roads. 

What about investment in bus and rail? 

The Prime Minister announced last year that £3bn would be spent on “new funding to ‘level up’ buses across England towards London standards” as part of the government’s “bus back better” strategy. But now less than a year later we find that this fund has been cut to £1.4bn. Research published by the Daily Mirror last year showed that bus fares outside London soared by 66% since 1995.  

Unlike roads where Road Fuel Duty has been frozen for ten years, rail users have suffered regular retail price index RPI increases year on year. According to research carried out by the Independents travel expert Simon Calder, rail fares have gone up by 37% in that same 10-year period. 

One can only conclude that this government’s policy is to encourage travel by road at the expense of travel by bus and rail. 

The roads lobby often quotes the importance of roadbuilding for the ‘economy.’ Certainly, in the South East of England this contention is unfounded as employment levels are still very good compared with the pre-pandemic period despite the effects of Brexit:

Rother District 3.7%
Wealden District  4.2%
Eastbourne District  4.8%

(United Kingdom      4.8%)

The problem with the government’s approach is that it flies in the face of the stark facts about the ever-increasing levels of global warming gases going into the atmosphere from the transport sector. 

So where does all that leave us when we come to the proposals for a motorway style road between Lewes and Polegate? Sadly, we don’t have a ‘silver bullet’ which could halt the Government’s road programme. The possibility of a single action which would prevent further roadbuilding of any significance was lost when Transport Action Network failed to convince the High Court last year that the government’s road  building programme was counter to the Government’s own commitment ‘net zero’ emission by 2050. 

Eight arguments against A27 widening

In the absence of a silver bullet, I can only offer campaigners more hard work over the next five years to save our beautiful countryside and natural habitats. Here are some key points upon which we should base our arguments: 

  • A multimodal network which prioritises rail, bus and active travel is the most effective way to reduce carbon emissions, by making significant reductions in private car usage
  • National Highways should provide evidence in RIS3 how they propose to achieve the Government’s commitment to Net Zero Carbon emissions by 2050
  • The UK’s natural landscape is unique, inimitable, and irreplaceable
  • Habitat destruction should be avoided altogether until all viable alternatives are exhausted
  • Sustainable economic recovery from the pandemic should be a priority in future infrastructure projects
  • National Highways must display more budget responsibility in favour of road improvement over road construction
  • National Highways should avoid the construction of major roads in or near National Parks and their ‘setting’
  • National Highways should demonstrate in detail how in RIS3 they intend to integrate their road plans with bus, rail, and active travel plans

Get involved! Tell them what you think! 

The government document Preparing the third road investment strategy says “we welcome your questions and suggestions on points raised in this document” via email to: RIS3Engagement@dft.gov.uk 

If you would like to contact the regional transport body for the South East (Transport for the South East ) email: tfse@eastsussex.gov.uk 

For environmental groups I recommend you support/join or volunteer with SCATE East Sussex email: info@scateeastsussex.com 

If you want to identify issues about the Strategic Road Network (SRN) National Highways has published information on how to do that. The Office of Rail and Road is also looking for public feedback later this year. Also useful is Transport Focus – the independent watchdog for transport users.

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