Issue 168 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1993 Copyright © Socialist Review
|Source: Department of Transport|
The Tories are doggedly pressing ahead with a £24 billion road building programme. They are also starving public transport of funds and breaking it up through privatisation. Both policies are hugely unpopular, even among many Tories. What are the facts and why are they doing it?
The road building programme will upgrade motorways to ten lanes or more, with 14 lanes planned for parts of the M25. A-roads will be expanded to quasi-motorways. Many of the 30 major schemes are presented as a series of local by-passes, disguising the fact that they are linked as massive new road constructions.
All past evidence shows that new roads generate new traffic (and congestion) and stimulate the need for even more roads. Despite road improvements in and around London, including the M25, average speeds are as low as they were 100 years ago--about ten mph. Worsening public transport also results in increased road traffic. The Confederation of British Industry estimates that traffic jams cost industry £15 billion a year.
Road construction is expensive: 250,000 tonnes of materials and 25 acres of land are needed per mile of motorway. Railways are cheaper and require less than a third of the land needed to build a three lane motorway.
The environmental damage is appalling. Road traffic produces 85 percent of carbon monoxide pollution, 45 percent of nitrogen oxides and 18 percent of carbon dioxide. Increased pollution from car exhaust has already caused a 60 percent rise in the number of children's deaths caused by asthma in London in the past decade.
The pollution will get much worse. Government statistics show that road traffic rose by 57 percent between 1979 and 1989 and project it will rise by around 140 percent in the next 30 years.
Road transport is madness in terms of fuel consumption. A large car travelling in town with an average load (one and a half passengers) consumes nearly seven times as much energy per passenger as a bus that is half full. The same car travelling on highways eats up over four times as much energy as a commuter train that is two thirds full.
The road building programme threatens 160 areas of special scientific interest, 372 important wildlife areas in the south east alone, 50 National Trust sites and 800 archaeological sites. For the bulldozers, nothing is sacred--not even the white cliffs of Dover.
Despite Tory public spending cuts, not a penny has been taken from the programme. In fact, it has been accelerated and expanded twice in the past nine months. Meanwhile, investment in public transport has been drastically cut. London Underground and some British Rail lines are facing total breakdown because there is no money for basic maintenance work and replacement of stock.
Deregulation of bus routes has been disastrous. In Sheffield it has led to fare rises of up to 40 percent, a collapse in the number of passengers and the loss of routes in less populated districts. Similar results are threatened by rail privatisation.
The people worst hit by these policies are the poor. A third of households do not have cars. Over half of all women do not have a driving licence. The combination of running down public transport and further isolating rural areas has appalling consequences for poorer families, particularly single mothers struggling to get their children to school or their shopping back from increasingly distant hyperstores.
Some Tories are unashamed by their preference for roads over public transport. In August roads minister Robert Key confessed he 'loved cars and roads'. The real reason for the bias is their class hatred for nationalised industries which prevent individuals and 'private enterprise' from making a fortune out of transport. Road transport allows a myriad of companies to reap huge profits--oil companies, car manufacturers and construction firms.
Just 1.2 percent of the Transport Department's 15,500 staff devote their time to public transport; 80 percent are exclusively concerned with building roads or looking after cars.
Less than 4 percent of total investment in transport goes to rail (excluding the Channel Tunnel); 93 percent goes on roads.
Britain invests less in public transport than most of its major European competitors. A report based on OECD figures shows that Britain invested $9.9 per head on rail infrastructure in 1991, compared with $55.4 in Sweden, $54.4 in France and $31.9 in Germany.
The Tories are happy to comply with the powerful lobbying of the British Road Federation (annual turnover of £500,000). In 1991 construction companies donated £714,000 to the Tory Party, including £55,000 from Tarmac and £10,000 from McAlpine. Several Tory MPs and former MPs are on the boards of such companies.
The government has not, however, been getting it all its own way. Across the country more than 200 local protest groups are fiercely resisting road building schemes. Some have won outright. The plan to wreck Oxleas Wood, an 8,000 year old woodland, was stopped by thousands of protesters. There have been other successes in Hereford, Preston and south Birmingham, and the M25 plans have been scaled down from £2.8 billion to £1 billion.
It is obvious that if the billions of pounds earmarked for roads were spent on improving public transport, then we could have a transport system that served the needs of everyone, was cheaper to use and run, saved energy, reduced traffic jams and did far less harm to the environment.
Information on local campaigns is available from: Alarm UK, 13 Stockwell Road, London SW9 9A U. Tel- 071 737 664 1.